17. August 2016

Every day for more than 40 years cartoonist Frank King told the stories of Walt Wallet and his foundling Skeezix. Through his comic, King became one of the 20th century’s most important documentarists of the American middle class.

By Alexander Jürgs

What an overwhelming oeuvre, what an opus magnum, what a piece of contemporary history. Even the great, complex tales of our day, TV series like “The Wire”, “The Sopranos”, “Breaking Bad” or “Homeland” fall short in comparison. The piece in question is “Gasoline Alley”, a comic that tells the story of a run-of-the-mill family, focuses on the life of the average American and, in doing so, is not even particularly avant-garde. A comic that is basically very classically, very objectively drawn – and yet stands out clearly as a valid work in itself, since it illustrates the course of time, submitting to it like virtually no other.

Frank King, Gasoline Alley, Daily Strip, May 18, 1920, Detail, Private Collection, © Estate of Frank King

Walt Wallet is a car mechanic who is deeply fascinated by the new vehicles rolling off the belts at Ford et al., who talks shop with his buddies, discussing replacement parts and the efficiency of engines. He is the main character of this story, which is called “Gasoline Alley”. The cartoon appeared in 1918 in the “Chicago Tribune”. It was initially tailored precisely to the target group of male car-lovers, but it then developed from the relatively one-dimensional story about the American middle class’s enthusiasm for cars into a family drama of epic proportions.

40 years of life – told in one comic

One day a foundling appears at Wallet’s front door. The child completely transforms the life of this overweight bachelor, who soon adopts him and names him Skeezix. This is the beginning of what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive graphic novel of all times, long before the term was even used. For more than 40 years the inventor of “Gasoline Alley”, illustrator Frank King, recounted the life stories of Walt Wallet, his foster-son Skeezix and a few others. The comic was to earn him fame – and unbelievable fortunes. Through “Gasoline Alley”, Frank King earned so much money that he would soon make it into the league of millionaires and was able to build himself a grandiose residence in Florida.

Frank King, Gasoline Alley, Sunday Page, Boston Herald, November 2, 1930, Private Collection, © Estate of Frank King

The special thing about King’s work was that the illustrator, who was already 35 years old when he began “Gasoline Alley”, told the story of his cartoon in real time. His characters aged just as they would do in real life. Each year Skeezix celebrated his birthday on February 14 (the day on which Walt Wallet discovered him at his front door). Every day – without exception – King delivered an episode of “Gasoline Alley” to the newspapers. During the week and on Saturdays these were short comic strips in black and white, but on Sunday the lavish, colorful “full pages” were published.

The comic reflects the life of King’s own family

Over the years, the foundling Skeezix became a boy, a youth and then a man. He fought in World War II, got a job, got married. King’s real life and that of his family is reflected in these stories. When, for example, the Kings decamped to one of America’s national parks for the summer, Walt Wallet and his adoptive son also spent time in their corresponding natural paradise. The countless photographs and films that technology-enthusiast Frank King produced testify to the way his family life ran in parallel with the stories in the cartoon. Producing a form of unity between art and life, Frank King, a bourgeois illustrator through and through, perhaps practiced the dream of the modern avant-gardists better than any other. He thus created a kind of monument to the everyday life of the American middle class which, as he demonstrated, was not always easy

Frank King, Gasoline Alley, Sunday Page, February 14, 1942, Private Collection, © Estate of Frank King
Frank King, Gasoline Alley, Sunday Page, August 30, 1925, Private Collection, © Estate of Frank King

In the “Pioneers of the Comic Strip” exhibition, Frank King plays a special role. Unlike Lyonel Feininger, for example, or Charles Forbell he never aimed to be a particularly innovative illustrator. Frank King was not an artist seeking to explore the limits of the young genre that was the comic strip. In spite of this, it would be wrong to suggest that his style was free of surprises or entirely average. During the 1930s in particular, King produced certain Sunday cartoons that can be counted among the most outstanding works of comic art.

A master of comic art

One of them, for example, from November 1930 shows Wallet and Skeezix visiting a modern art museum. While the two talk about what they have seen, you see them strolling through Expressionist and Cubist pictorial worlds. King also produced another Sunday comic in the style of the woodcut. The most spectacular element though are the stories that completely blow the classic pictorial structure of the comic apart. Here King remains true to the characteristic panel, i.e. the individual image contained by lines which is part of a series of images, while e also creating something new, namely image backgrounds that spread across the whole page. One example is the Sunday cartoon that appeared on August 24, 1930: It includes a sole image of a beach landscape filling the whole page. However, the page is still broken up into individual panels, each of which contains a scene with Walt and Skeezix. The pair thus appear no less than 13 times, each time against a unique background. With precisely these kinds of drawings, King created a pictorial language that continues to influence countless illustrators to this very day.

Frank King, Gasoline Alley, Sunday Page, The Denver Post, August 24, 1930, Private Collection, © Estate of Frank King