Tuesday, April 6, 2010

“Walt and Skeezix 1927 & 1928”

By Frank O. King
ISBN No. 978-1-897299-39-5

Pity the comic strip. They’re rarely taken seriously, relegated to the crosswords page, and in colour only once a week. Even worse for the cartoonist, there’s no way to tell if your strip is a keeper, one that people will remember long after the newspaper’s gone into the recycle box. Is it any wonder that Gary Larson and Bill Watterson stopped writing, respectively, “The Far Side” and “Calvin and Hobbes” at the height of their success? Smart guys: they wanted to know how much their work was appreciated while they were alive and bask in the glow of adulation. Put another way, not every cartoonist has a strip as epic, far-reaching, as definitive, as “Gasoline Alley” in him.
Whereas the stories in the previous three volumes of that comic strip were mostly about the daily life in a Mayberry Farm-ish community (who got a flat tire? who needs a cup of sugar?) the main plotline driving this fourth volume of strips, reflecting the political climate of the day, has new father Walt wondering if his adopted son, Skeezix, is a descendent of Europeans. Yes, Europeans.
Now obviously the main appeal of “Walt and Skeezix 1927 & 1928” is its historical value. That’s why there’s a “1927 & 1928” right there in the title. I mean, we’re talking about a comic strip that’s as old as five Jonas Brothers or two Osmonds. Remember when Bill Paxton tells us we’re looking at a piece of paper that’s been underwater for 80 years? It’s pretty much the same thing. And like “Titanic” the story telling in these strips is as engrossing as it is revealing. The problem with reviewing a book like this is that no single synopsis can convey the depth and affection that King invests in his characters. (Even better is the inclusion of a Frank King family album, full of drawings, picnics, old houses; the worthwhile morality stuff. Sigh… “epic” – so overused in computer-generated movies these days - is the only word for it.) The Gasoline Alley strips have the socio-political weight to tell us about the kind of people we were back then – and where we’re headed.
In “Fahrenheit 451” Ray Bradbury imagined a futuristic society that burned books and banned reading. The idea seems as preposterous now as it did when the book was first published in 1953. But the truth is today’s texters have had books on a simmer for years; slowly euthanizing one consonant after another (hey, when your tweets are limited to 140 characters something has to go). In such an environment is it possible that these exhaustively detailed volumes of Gasoline Alley comic strips might someday take the place of “Little Women” and “Jude the Obscure” in high school classrooms? Are these comic strips the new “fiction” – plot-driven, metaphor-heavy, and above all, accessible?