Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gaining Agency: Walt & Skeexix Volume 5

The latest volume from Drawn & Quarterly's Walt & Skeezix series shows that Frank King was truly in a groove ten years into doing his class Gasoline Alley strip, and the editors of this series are on a similar hot streak. Let me throw a few bullet points at this book, because my reactions to it are a bit all over the place.

* In terms of design, packaging, breadth and depth of research and thoroughness of its editorial staff, Walt & Skeezix is the greatest of all the many fine archival projects in comics today. Chris Ware is a peerless book designer who has an uncanny sense of just how to emphasize the essential aspects of an artist on the book's cover to reflect the contents of that particular volume. This is a strip that generally speaking is amiable, gentle and relaxed. The cover image features some of King's more clever and beautiful imagery in the book (the shot of Walt shaving in a mirror and seeing his word balloon reversed is a hoot), but it emphasizes still moments as well as an increasingly active Skeezix, who slowly moves into the starring role in this book. Jeet Heer is an excellent historian who manages to contextualize the events of these comics with what was happening in King's life. The pair is quite fortunate that King was such a careful and accurate record-keeper, and that his granddaughter Drewanna has been so generous in providing archival material. The astounding triumph in this volume is a DVD of King's own home movies. That such a thing exists is remarkable, and gives the reader insight into the world around King and what he found interesting. Considering how directly he drew from his environment, this is a relevant and perhaps even key find in aiding the reader's understanding of the strip.

* Tim Samuelson is the book's secret weapon, as a historian whose appendix helps explain certain punchlines. King meant for his strip, which was meant to parallel real time, to reflect modern trends, even if he was gently mocking them.

* On Skeezix: King makes him a rough-and-tumble nine-year-old and slowly give shim more to do. He forms a club with his best friend Spud (the Alley Rangers), whose exploits carry many a gag. There's an extended segment where he and his club try to pull a fast one on notorious skinflint Avery, who charged them rent to keep their mobile clubhouse on his lot and had a gate too big for them to wheel it through. Their solution (dismantling and reassembling the gate before Avery could notice) felt like something out of Mark Twain. Skeezix in this volume also becomes a quip machine, giving subtle lip and comebacks to Walt and Phyllis. The budding love triangle between Skeezix, his tomboy friend Jean and the lisping beauty Sally is played both for laughs and for sentiment.

* King excels when he concentrates on character comedy. The chemistry his Alley gang (Walt, Bill, Avery and Doc) shares is palpable, and the strips where that foursome stands around and good-naturedly insults each other are the highlights of the book. There are unfortunately fewer of them in this volume, but King clearly still relished doing them. As always, his side characters like Rachel feel fully formed, even if she is still troubling as a stereotyped African-American "mammy" character. Despite that limitation, there's a closeness to the Wallet family (and especially Skeezix) that is palpable, and she's a formidable presence in her own right. Avery is the secret star of this volume, with his ridiculous scheme to build a house around an old car and drive it around on vacation.

* Portraying women in a positive light is not exactly one of King's strong points. Walt's wife Phyllis becomes something of a materialistic drip after her introduction into the series as an independent woman who could hold her own with the rest of the Alley gang. It was disappointing for her to be obsessed with the money that Skeezix might inherit and even worse when she forces Walt to go to a boring resort and dress up. Gold-digging Hotsy Totsy and barely-there cousin Lora (who mainly serves to make jokes about guys hitting on her) aren't especially great characters either.

* King's insistence on adventure/schemes tends to bring the strip to a thudding halt. In this volume, it turns out to be the machinations of scheming shyster Abie S. Corpus (ugh), who first wants to take Skeezix away to Europe for his education (scheming on behalf of Skeezix's mother, the opera singer Mme. Octave), and then to get control of the will of Skeezix's father, Col. Coda. What follows is a long, dull series of schemes that proceeds at a snail's pace and generally interrupts whatever fun the Alley gang is having. It's hard to blame King for doing this, as he probably felt he had to do something to liven the strip up to keep his daily audience interested, but some of the strips felt entirely perfunctory and served simply to remind his reader that the lawyer stuff was still happening somewhere off-panel.

* It needs to be noted once again that King was a superb and clever draftsman who embued his characters with soul. His understanding of gesture and body language allowed the most cartoony of characters to achieve real life on the page. His drawings of trees, cities, cars are all excellent and provide lively backgrounds for his characters--a true lived-in world for these characters who became like real family for many readers. A modern-day touchstone for this sort of thing is Jaime Hernandez. I wish the reproductions of some of the strips could be better, as there were a lot of faded-looking strips, but it's notoriously difficult to get great-looking copies of what was literally a disposable art form.

* I enjoyed the Uncle Jerry character, Walt's farmer cousin. When he changed into a suit, he reminded me of R. Crumb's Mr. Natural, with that white beard, bald head and dots for eyes.  I'm guessing that Crumb probably didn't see that character growing up, but it is a funny coincidence.

* All told, Gasoline Alley is an eminently readable strip for a modern audience. Seeing Skeezix slowly grow up and gain agency as a fully-fleshed out character is the biggest revelation of this volume and of the strip in general. It happens so gradually, much like watching one's own children grow, that seeing Skeezix develop a crush on a girl or imitate key aspects of his Uncle Walt can be jarring in much the same way seeing one's own child reach a mildstone can feel shocking. King's keen understanding of those rhythms of daily life as a family man is absolutely the key to why this strip was so popular at the time and why it's still so relevant as a work of art now. It's why I read a whole volume of this and immediately want more, which is not a typical experience I have with many classic comic strips, which tended to repeat themselves more often and with fewer fleshed-out characters. (I'm thinking specifically of George McManus' Bringing Up Father here, where a little of that strip goes a long way.)

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