Over the course of three decades, Gasoline Alley creator Frank King put his stamp on comic strips, influencing the likes of Peanuts, For Better Or For Worse, Calvin And Hobbes, and others in ways that have never been properly acknowledged. But like a lot of strips of the early 20th century, Gasoline Alley started as a little bit of nothing, until King settled on a voice and a concept. The first Gasoline Alleys in 1919 were one-panel trifles with inside jokes about cars and car enthusiasts. The panel became a strip, and on Valentine's Day 1921, its lead character, bachelor mechanic Walt Wallet, discovered a baby on his doorstep. A year later, the baby, Skeezix, was a year older, like Walt and all the other denizens of Gasoline Alley. King had created the first comic strip where the characters aged and changed.
That seemingly minor creative breakthrough proved major. Lots of strips in the '20s and '30s told long, involved stories, but when the stories ended, the status quo returned. Walt Wallet had comparatively tamer adventures—selling a car, taking a motoring tour through the West, and so forth—but because life could be irreversibly altered for King's heroes, even reaffirmations of the norm had meaning. Every day that Walt was able to put Skeezix to bed well-fed and healthy was a plenty good day.
King had the right art style for such a gently humorous examination of the everyday. His figures and vehicles were rounded and exaggerated, but his poses were natural, and he knew just how to draw a little kid slung affectionately over a big man's shoulder. King's senses of language and character were even keener. Gasoline Alley's residents had trouble seeing past their own obsessions, but their failings complimented each other, making for a misshapen but sustainable and practically idyllic society, where the worst insult one man could heap on another would be to point out that his "cubist rear tire is a chapter on misplaced confidence."
Following the model of Fantagraphics' bestselling The Complete Peanuts, Drawn & Quarterly has announced plans to collect King's complete Gasoline Alley run over the next 20 years. The first volume, the handsome, Chris Ware-designed Walt And Skeezix, follows life in the Wallet household just before and after the foundling's arrival. The Complete Peanuts was justly heralded, because comics fans had been waiting decades for Charles Schulz's strip to get the deluxe treatment. Drawn & Quarterly's Gasoline Alley project should make those fans just as happy. It's a real gift: the kind we didn't even know we wanted.