The return of Walt Wallet: An interview with Jeet Heer

Many cartoonists have benefited from the recent interest in republishing classic comic strips, but arguably none more so than Frank King. While the Gasoline Alley creator had always been an artist of interest to those who caught a glimpse of his work in the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics or other like-minded coffee-table tome, he remained sadly undervalued until Drawn & Quarterly started collecting the strip in its Walt and Skeezix series of landscape-format books. The series caught on with both critics and more general readers and led to a complete re-evaluation of King and his work, to the point where he has entered many artists' personal canons.

Now, after an unfortunate hiatus of about three years, the series is back with a fourth volume that collects strips from 1927-28. I talked with the series' co-editor (along with Chris Ware) and renowned comics scholar Jeet Heer about the new book, and about King's legacy in general.

When were you first introduced to Gasoline Alley and what was your initial reaction to it? Did it become a favorite of yours right away or did it take time and multiple readings before you began to appreciate its finer qualities?

The first time I saw Frank King’s work was when I was around 16 or 17 and read The Smithsonian Collection of  Newspaper Comics (1977), a wonderful and essential anthology edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams. The book included six of King’s most memorable Gasoline Alley Sunday pages including the amazing strips from 1930 where Walt and Skeezix go to an exhibit of modern art and end up walking through paintings by Picasso and others. There was also the 1930 page done in woodcut style and an amazing birds-eye view of the entire Alley, which could be viewed either as a single page or as a series of panels about the various characters. I immediately fell in love with King’s work: with his sense of composition and sensitivity to body language as well as his obvious willingness to experiment; for me he was one of the top three or four cartoonists in the Smithsonian book (along with Winsor McCay and George Herriman). Interestingly, Joe Matt and Chris Ware also first encountered King’s work in Smithsonian book, which is a true goldmine of comics history.

But it took many years for me to find out anything more about Frank King because his work was out of print. I did find a Gasoline Alley collection done in the 1970s but the vast majority of it was devoted to Dick Moore’s Gasoline Alley, which had its charms but was a very different strip, more plot oriented and blunt, lacking in King’s subtlety. I saw bits of King’s work here and there in various anthologies and history book (notably the Drawn and Quarterly anthology that Chris Oliveros edited). Various friends – Joe Matt, Seth, Chester Brown – I had told me that King’s daily strips were a great read, but I didn’t actually get to read the dailies till I started researching the Walt and Skeezix series. Reading the strip from the start altered and enlarged my view of King: now I saw that he was as much a writer as an artist, that is to say he was a true cartoonist with a wholly integrated approach to art. King’s skills as a storyteller, especially his gifts as characterization, really shine through in the daily strips, which is why I’m glad that the Walt and Skeezix series has focused on them.

Perhaps to round out the story, I’ll note that on the first research trip we took to visit Frank King’s grand-daughter, Chris Ware and I made many amazing discoveries, not least of which was the original Sunday page for that 1930 woodcut sequence, which we had both first seen many years ago as teenagers in the Smithsonian book. So everything came around full-circle.

How did you first get involved with the Walt and Skeezix project? Did you help initialize the project or were the wheels already motion once you jumped on board (if I may mix my metaphors)?

The Walt and Skeezix project really started with Joe Matt, who had obsessively collected King’s daily and Sunday strips building up an impressive collection which, while not complete, was as good as anyone is ever likely do to. He showed some prime Gasoline Alley material to Chris Oliveros, convincing the publisher that this material was worth doing. In parallel with Joe Matt, Chris Ware had been collecting Gasoline Alley strips and merchandising, so when Drawn and Quarterly decided to go ahead with a series, they teamed up with Ware. I was brought into the project after that, because Chris Oliveros was familiar with my writing for the National Post and elsewhere. So the project was well underway before I was brought on board. I was, of course, immensely grateful to be asked, both because I admired King’s cartooning and for the chance to work with the two Chrises. (For the sake of historical completeness, it is worth recording that in the 1990s, comics historian  John Benson had tried to convince Kitchen Sink press to do a Gasoline Alley series, a project that never got off the ground).

If possible, can you articulate what exactly it is about Gasoline Alley and King's art that seems to resonate with so many modern cartoonists and readers?

I think King appeals to readers for the same reason Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Seth, and the Hernandez Brothers appeal to readers. Like them, he is a remarkably naturalistic cartoonist, able to capture the texture of everyday life and ineffable emotional states. His greatest skill was in character creation, and the way he could use visual language, particularly his close attention to body language, to convey what his characters were like as people. You can learn a lot about Walt Wallet just by paying attention to way he shuffles his feet. In the past, some critics have dismissed King’s drawing style as “pedestrian” (an odd adjective to use about a comic strip about cars). I don’t know how anyone who reads the Walt and Skeezix books could fail to realize that far from being “pedestrian”, King was a remarkably skillful draughtsman: almost all his drawings are pleasing to the eye, imbued with observation and love. I also think the long narratives that King unfolded have an especial appeal for modern readers in the age of the graphic novel: unlike a lot of earlier comic strips which have a jagged start-and-stop feeling because they were geared for daily consumption, Gasoline Alley does read like a long, leisurely novel.

I’ve been heartened by the many insightful reviews that the Walt and Skeezix series has received. One of the smartest of these reviews was written by Evan Dorkin for the Comics Journal. I’ll take the liberty to quote from it, since it provides the best answer I’ve seen to this question:

“King’s drawing, craft, and cartooning is extraordinary. The Alley is a fully formed and realized world you believe in from the first few strips. The characters aren’t simply gag ciphers and types but distinct personalities complete with personal habits and tics. I especially love what King does within the strips visually, the constant sense of motion, movement and passing time displayed in-between panels. My favorite examples of this are when King shows Bill lighting cigarettes, Skeezix‚ roaming about in the background, and the Way Walt Shifts Skeezix around as he carried him throughout a sequence. These observant details and bits of business are not only entertaining and observant details and an extra visual bang for the buck, they help define and delineate the characters and lend the proceedings that much more resonance. And while King’s short-term approach is top-notch, his long-term planning and execution is nothing sort of amazing. The steady build-up of relationships and situations, plot callbacks and conversational reminisces are all handled neatly and organically, as if King knew the strip was going to be collected some day in this manner and it had to work out just so.”

Can you talk a little bit about what is involved in putting together a project of this nature? Even with Matt supplying you with his collection did you have to do a lot of digging to find older strips? How did meeting King's granddaughter, Drewanna, help your research?

As mentioned, Joe Matt’s collection was the backbone of the series but we relied on many other sources as well. Chris Ware had built up his own collection which is particularly strong in terms of the many spin-offs of the strips (children's books, dolls, toys, etc.). This immeasurably enriched volume three of the series where we looked at the marketing of Skeezix. The Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State (now called the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum) filled in some of the gaps from Matt’s collection. Let’s pay a brief tribute to technology: without the internet, it would have been impossible to gather as much material together as we did: eBay, email, and list-serves of comics scholars all helped us.

But above and beyond all that, Drewanna King, the grand-daughter of the cartoonist, was our biggest benefactor. When we went down to see her, we had no idea of what she had. As it turned out, her grandparents had kept many documents relating to their lives (diaries, letters, thousands of photos, home movies, newspaper clippings). Unlike some descendants of cartoonists, Drewanna appreciated the worth of her legacy and carefully preserved it. Thanks to her, we know more about Frank King than any other early 20th century cartoonist, and his life story helps illuminate the larger story of newspaper cartooning. She has been unfailingly helpful and generous, allowing us access to anything we want to look at. And again, technology plays a role: we can now scan all those letters and photos so that readers can look at them, something impossible just a few decades ago.

One of the stories that takes up the bulk of this latest book is the battle (in and out of court) between Walt and Count Coda for custody of Skeezix. Without giving away too much from your introduction, can you talk a little bit about what inspired King to attempt that story, since it's a bit contrary to the sort of "life as lived" realism he had done up until that point?

As you say, we shouldn’t give too much away but the plot for 1927 and 1928 takes an unexpected turn with Walt Wallet becoming entangled in a custody battle that involves European politics. In my introduction, I talk about a specific incident in King’s life that seems to have sparked the storyline, but there were several other larger factors at work as well. By 1927, some new comic strips featuring long adventure storylines were taking off, notably Little Orphan Annie, which was created by a fellow member of the New York Daily News/Chicago Tribune stable, Harold Gray. In Annie, Gray featured melodramatic storylines in which a innocent American orphan is often separated from her adopted father, who on occasion has to battle against corrupt European aristocrats (such as Count De Tour). Little Orphan Annie quickly sky-rocketed to popularity during these years, and it is possible that King wanted to emulate Gray’s storytelling approach.

As well, both Annie and Gasoline Alley reflected the larger cultural politics of their parent papers, the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune. Both newspaper were animated by a conservative populist worldview which contrasted the wholesomeness of Midwestern Americans with the putative decadence of Europe (and latter in the 1930s with the alleged corruption of elite East Coast liberalism).  So the unexpectedly melodramatic storyline of these years was a  reflection of the isolationist politics of the era. Interestingly, King was much less comfortable with such stark black-and-white storylines, and tried to make all his characters recognizably human if sometimes unsympathetic. And he returned to his chronicles of everyday life as quickly as he could (in fact most of the comics in the new volume are just about daily life in Gasoline Alley).

One of the things that struck me about this volume in particular is King's eye for realism. The trial in the center of the book, behaves more or less like an actual court trial really would, and I even think the Latin terms flown around are used accurately. Even Walt's job as a salesman seems to be drawn from real-life observation. To your knowledge, did King do a lot of research in putting Gasoline Alley together? Was he a stickler for detail?

King definitely put in a great deal of research into Gasoline Alley. That’s part of what I meant when I said he was a naturalistic cartoonist. On a purely visual level, he took a great deal of trouble to get the look of things right. The best example of this is his extensive use of photographs, which we’ve tried to indicate in the series by including scores of photos in the introductions to show how King’s people looked like his family and friends. A particularly strong example is the photo of John and Louis Wetherill, the couple that showed Monument Valley to Frank King (and many other cartoonists). There is a photo of the Wetherills in volume 2 of the Walt and Skeezix (page 15) which directly influenced a Gasoline Alley panel King drew on July 1st, 1924. This is a rare case of King copying a photo almost directly. More frequently, he would use photo references to remind him what things looked like. When he moved to Florida, he took hundreds of photos of everyday objects throughout Chicago (streetlamps, mail boxes, the porches on apartment buildings) so that he would be able to draw these things accurately.  With the court case storyline, King was likely influenced by the fact that he himself became involved in a court case during this period when a candymaker released a chocolate bar that featured a Skeezix knock-off. King won the case but he must have spent a fair bit of time with lawyers on it, an experience that Walt Wallet replicates in Gasoline Alley. In portraying the world of work, King clearly spent time with friends who told him what their jobs were like (as well as paying attention to the details of housework that his wife and their servants did). King’s naturalism was hard won: it involved actively paying attention to the world around him. And that’s what makes his comics worth reading again: they bring us back to the world of his time in the way the best novels and movies do.

What do you make of Rachel, the nanny who takes care of Skeezix and the Wallet house? In some ways she seems like a stereotypical "mammy" figure, with her superstitions and "yas'm"s, but on the other hand she seems like an integral part of the cast and is characterized just as richly as everyone else in the strip.

Rachel is a tough one. On the one hand, King was clearly drawing from the longstanding “Mammy” stereotype in creating her, but she also emerges as a very strong independent character in her own right. As a white American born in 1883, King shared in the widespread racism of the era: he used the n-word on at least one occasion in his correspondence and often portrayed blacks with a bemused condescension. But he also had better instincts, rooted I think in his genuine humanism and naturalism, which led him to pay close attention to the African-Americans he came in contact with. In an autobiographical essay, King traced Rachel’s character to a lady he had known when he was an art student in Chicago. “The fact that while going to art school I got a job running an elevator furnished me Rachel for the strip,” King wrote. “Ten cents for a can of beer on Saturday night insured me a generous chicken dinner on Sunday and gave me entry to the kitchen where Rachel presided, big, black and jovial." I think this comment by King captures the odd mixture in his attitude which combines genuine affection with a slightly patronizing air (“big, black, and jovial.”)

Interestingly enough, Rachel was King’s first long-lasting character, pre-dating Walt and Skeezix. King first introduced her as a secondary character in Bobby Make-Believe, a Little Nemo inspired fantasy strip he started in 1915. King brought Rachel back when he had Walt adopt Skeezix in 1921. Being a bachelor at the time, Walt needed help in raising a baby. From the start, Rachel was a strong-willed character, worthy of respect despite the “Mammy” mannerisms. She was a servant but not subservient and many of the early strips are about how she’s more knowledgeable about raising a baby than Walt. She’s also given an independent life apart from the white characters, visiting her own family in Alabama when on vacation and dating men. In a storyline from the early 1930s, the Wallets hire a white maid to help Rachel. The white maid starts bossing Rachel around, causing Rachel to quit. When they realize their mistake, the Wallets get rid of the white maid and rehire Rachel. Later she leaves the Wallets and gets a job a defense worker and sets up her own household.

It may surprise many contemporary readers, but King’s portrayal of Rachel received positive coverage in the African-American press. Rachel was praised as a positive role model in both the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News (two of the leading black newspapers in America). Writing in the Amsterdam News on May 20, 1944 Constance Curtis was particularly pleased by the way Rachel was portrayed during the war years. “Gasoline Alley which was one of the first, if not the first, comic in which the children really grew, has again made a change for the better. The character Rachel, who in the past has been a made in the home of the the Wallets, is a made no longer. Last year she took a job in a dense plant. This year, with one of the characters home on furlough from the war, she is visited. A look at her home is enough to show you that something unusual in comic strips has taken place. Instead of the usual shanty in which Negroes are always supposed to live, she is housed in an attractive apartment house, with living room furniture that is quite as nice as that of her old employers….When such men as King, who draws Gasoline Alley beging to lend their hand to fair play for Negroes, we have gained an important ally.”

To what extent do you think Gasoline Alley can be seen as a snapshot of life in early 20th century America? Do you think historians and others interested in this time period can gain something from reading the strip?

If we keep in mind the proviso that King was working in an art form that had some fairly strict conventions that he had to follow, Gasoline Alley is a remarkably useful historical source. King was paying attention to all sorts of trends going on in middle class life: everything from women bobbing their hair to the sudden rise in popularity of crossword puzzles to the new tendency of ordinary people to play the stock market to the real estate bubble that overtook Florida in the 1920. You really get a feeling in the strip for the everyday topics that people were concerned with, along with the clothes they wore and how the furnished their houses. So far, only a few historians have used the Walt and Skeezix books but I’m hoping it’ll catch on and become a source for future research.

At the end of the new volume, you and Ware reveal a surprising link between his grandfather and King. Can you describe that and how you came across it?

Whenever Chris Ware and I go on one of our research trips we always seem to make an amazing discovery (I credit that to Chris who has a gift for such find: with his friend Reginald Robinson he discovered a new Scott Joplin composition). On the first trip we saw the original wood cut Gasoline Alley Sunday page that inspired our love of Frank King. On the most recent trip, the “eureka moment” came when I was shifting through a thick folder of Frank King’s correspondence and noticed a telegraph dated December 1, 1950 from Fredrerick Ware, writing from the Omaha (Nebraska) World Herald. In the telegraph Frederick Ware praises King (“We have thought highly of Gasoline Alley for many years”) but complains about what he saw as the Syndicate’s new policy of putting in product placement ads in the comic strip.  I knew Chris’s family was from Nebraska and his grandfather had been a newspaper editor so I took the letter to him and asked him, “Is this what I think it is.” And sure enough it was from Chris’s grandfather. It was a spooky moment.

In retrospect, I had two thoughts. One was that if you were writing a novel or a movie, you would never create a scene like this: a historical research unexpectedly finds a letter from his grand-dad in someone else’s basement.  It’s too much of a “rosebud” moment to be plausible. Yet life is sometimes like that.

Secondly, it all makes sense if you consider Chris’s background. His grand-dad was a would-be cartoonist who cared a lot about comics even after he became a newspaper editor. As a child Chris spent a lot of time around his grandparents who helped shape his taste (their large collection of Peanuts cartoon books certainly had an influence). Although Chris never talked about Gasoline  Alley with his grand-dad, he did know that his mom loved the strip. So the whole discovery of the telegraph was, to use the language of psychology, over-determined: coming from a comics-loving background, Chris became a cartoonist and researched the history of his art, which led him back to one of the root causes of his love of comics, his grand-dad.

In the new book The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, I have an essay about Chris’s relationship to Gasoline Alley which deals with the same issues on a more theoretical level. I’ll quote a relevant passage:

"In trying to understand the role that the history of comics has played in Ware’s work, it is important to bear in mind that he’s following a familiar pattern. Innovative artists often invent their own ancestors as a way of giving a pedigree to their work. There is a sense in which Franz Kafka invented Charles Dickens and T.S. Eliot invented John Donne. Prior to Kafka, Dickens was read as a popular entertainer who specialized in heart-warming picturesque tales. Kafka’s fictions and comments on Dickens recast the Victorian novelist as the dark writer of claustrophobic allegories such as Bleak House. Similarly, Eliot remade John Donne, largely relegated to the status of a literary curiosity, into a major precursor to modernism. In the field of comics, Ware has engaged in a comparable rewriting of the history by offering a new reading of past masters. Challenging the standard view of comics history, which has highlighted the work of realist illustrators such as Hal Foster, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Jack Kirby. Ware offers an alternative canon that prizes cartoonists who practise either formal experimentation or focus on everyday life: artists such as Rodolphe Töpffer, George Herriman, Frank King and Gluyas Williams."


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