I’m a comic book fan. No secret there. As a comic book fan there is usually some cross over with being a comic strip fan. And vice versa. Of course a fan usually prefers one format over the other, as I prefer comic books, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty of books on comic strips. Just fewer that a comic strip fan has.

As such I am familiar with most of the greats from the world of comic strips. I grew up on Peanuts and Doonsbury. I read Bloom County and The Far Side in their heydays and of course I have all of the Calvin and Hobbes books.

I even have plenty of books of strips that were before my time. Little Nemo in Slumberland, Pogo Possum, Terry and The Pirates, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, Krazy Kat, Denise the Menace, and probably others that I am forgetting. Yet I have never read much Gasoline Alley.

Gasoline Alley was one of those strips I saw in the paper as a kid (the 1970’s) and read a little bit of but usually passed over. It wasn’t the usual gag a day stuff and I never quite knew what was going on. The original artist who did the strip was long since gone (it having been started in the early 1920’s) so maybe the quality had declined and that’s why I never got into it. Maybe not. I’ll have to read them someday.

Whatever the reason for not having read the strip as a kid my reason for never having read it as an adult is that it hasn’t been collected in a book. Until now. “Walt & Skeezix” (before it was named “Gasoline Alley’) volumes 1 and 2 have been published by Drawn and Quarterly Books. I got the first volume (1921-1922) for Christmas and have been reading it a bit at a time. That’s how I read all collections of newspaper strips for some reason. I never sit down and read a whole book of strips all at once. I like reading a few weeks worth at a time and then putting the book down for later. Go figure.

In all my years as a comic fan I have never read or heard too much about Gasoline Alley. Sure I knew it existed and had read a few articles about it. Even some articles that declared it one of the great strips. But I didn’t know anyone personally who was a fan of it and I know fans of just about everything. It was pretty well under the radar of my friends and I. Of course none of us had access to comic strips from the 1920’s so it’s not too surprising. So I started reading the book with no expectations.

If you follow any of the reviews of comics I have written you might notice that the ones that are my favorites are not super hero books. I grew up, like most comic book fans, reading super hero stories and while I still have an appreciation for them I generally prefer stories about normal people. I like comics about everyday life; whether ordinary or extraordinary.

I am also a history fan. I dig the past. All of the books I read that have no pictures in them are usually biographies or history. I also enjoy comics about history such as “Age of Bronze” or “Louis Riel”. That’s why I enjoy “Walt & Skeezix” (Gasoline Alley) on two levels. As a slice of life and as a slice of history.

It’s a great strip. Maybe even one of “the” greats (Peanuts, Doonsbury, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side are the greats from my era). It’s kind of a gag a day strip but from before the time when the gag a day strip was completely formalized. Nowadays almost all strips are gag a day strips and they are almost all the same. Setup and delivery. The whole strip exists to support that last panel where the gag is. Everything that doesn’t immediately relate to the last panel is excised. One two three, one two three, one two three, it’s a steady beat that ends with Garfield making a joke. Every time. Relentlessly.

“Walt & Skeezix” isn’t like that. Sure there’s a joke at the end but each panel is important and exists on its own. The strip is about the world it creates. I think it has this in common with Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes. There are jokes at the end of those strips too, quite funny ones, but sometimes the best stuff is in panel one or two. They are not: one two three joke, one two three joke. They are about the richness of the world they create. The maniacal Calvin creating a horrible snowman in panel one is as fun and interesting as the punch line in panel three. It exists on it’s own. No panel one in Garfield exists except to support panel three. Gag a day strips are like flights of stairs with the steps existing for no reason but to support the step below and get to the top step. Not so with “Walt & Skeezix”. Each panel is a wonder on it’s own creating a world for the reader to enter.

I’ve only read the first six months worth of strips but Gasoline Alley is the street our characters live on where the men talk and work on their cars. A short time into the book the main character, Walter, finds a baby on his doorstep who he named Skeezix. Walter is a bachelor but raises the baby on his own. Jokes ensue.

The world of gasoline Alley is filled with buddies and wives and sitters for little Skeezix. They all have advice to give, things to say, and dreams to dream. It is an interesting world both as comic strip and as history. Unlike the mythical childhood worlds of Peanuts and Calvin the world of Gasoline Alley is the same as ours. It’s kinder, gentler, and maybe a better place to be but it is our world.

As history there are some interesting things happening too. The characters and their relationship to their cars I find fascinating. Most of the fellows in the strip are gear heads. They spend their time tinkering and talking about their vehicles. This isn’t very different than gear heads of today. It’s what the cars mean to them that’s different. Today we live in a world where a car is almost a necessity. We need them to get to our jobs, the store, and to move all the goods on our highways. If cars were to disappear everybody’s lives, even if they don’t own a car, would change drastically. But this strip was made in 1921. Cars were new and almost luxury items. The cars were used to escape the everyday grind. They are our everyday grind. All of the cars in the strip are also open topped. They exist so people can go for a nice drive in the country. They can see the sunshine and the trees. A car is magic to them. And the butt of jokes. Similar jokes are still being made about cars in our time. But there is less magic now.

The characters in the strip are still relatable today even if they have gas lamps. A baby still needs a bottle and a diaper. And cries all the time. The 1920’s aren’t far enough away from our modern world that we don’t recognize it as our world but they are the beginning of modernity and as such there are some interesting differences. These differences interest me as a history fan just like the actual comic strip interests me as a comic fan. Give it a try. I recommend it.