The sad sad world of Walt & Skeezix.

In his excellent thorough introduction to this volume, volume two of the the complete Gasoline Alley, Jeet Heer continues his biography of Frank King and family. He writes about how Frank King and his wife tried to have a baby but she miscarried. A couple years later, in a pretty harrowing diary excerpt, King describes the day his wife went into a labor a second time. It was an incredibly hard labor, having to go so far as to cut the pelvic bone to get the baby out. You can see in his writing how happy he is describing the baby boy and recovering mother and chicago snow fall. you feel it, how many years later, how he must have felt. I guess there's a level of happiness had only by new parents.
Looking at photos of his wife, she looks about 20 years older than what the captions state. She smiles in a couple, though more often than not she looks hardened by life, tough. King also has the same sort of face, worn out, weathered. But he also has this softness. A glimmer of kindness. A spark of life, a curiosity. A something. Sort of like a little kid maybe.
From Heer's intro and the photos you can get some idea of the relationship. King was the "fun" one, his wife the homemaker and more sensible one. Looking at the facts, you see they sent their son, who King adored, to boarding school when he was pretty young. It seems like something his wife would have pushed for. But either way, King was the dad and agreed to this. Thereafter his relationship with the boy grew more and more distant. King probably thought he was doing right by the boy. Maybe he was. Regardless, it obviously crushed King. You finish reading that, and you get to the strips and you can barely look at them. You cant help but read them as the internal dream world of the cartoonist. It's gives even the most slight or goofy strip in the collection a certain heartfelt intensity.
When you draw comics all day, and you finally put down your pen, the whole world around you looks different. It makes you hyper sensitive to the details. People on the street look a bit different, the shape of a door knob feels a bit more real, etc etc. Everything takes on a heightened intensity. I think this is because you have just spent the whole day totally immersed in a flat, made up world of your own design. Usually a world you enjoy being in, creating. When you look up from the page, it's sort of jarring seeing the 'real' world, the one that actually exists. You look at it a bit funny. Drawing comics allows the cartoonist to close themselves to the world and make something they can control and "live" in. It's both scary and comforting, and probably accounts for the fact that most older cartoonists are pretty fucking nuts. In my more autobiographical comics I cannot only visit friends who live a million miles away, but BE them by putting them in my comics. And its not them as they are, but how I choose to remember them. In my real fiction comics, it's even creepier because I spend months with characters that I WISH existed (Kim Deitch ended his spectacular series 'Stuff of Dreams' talking about this same idea). And it seems King was doing this with Gasoline Alley. A father making comics about being a father to a son who in reality was not there. And tellingly, in the comics, there is no mother.

I can barely get through this book. But every time I read one page I am simultaneously blown away by his form, his seemingly casual storytelling/plotting, and it's sharpness at really capturing these characters and their world as they are. it feels more like a document and less a forced piece of fiction. Like Peanuts, the backgrounds are super minimal, but you 'feel' a particular place. this is probably because to King, it was totally real.
Just a quick note on Chris Ware's design work, as not mentioning it would negate talking about one of the great things about this series. Other designers could learn a thing or two from Ware's example here. You don't feel Ware's aesthetic all over the place like with other designers on other reprint series, its subtle but furthers the overall tone that King sets in the strips. Instead of it feeling like something titled CHRIS WARE PRESENTS, it feels like a Frank King book through and through. Every time I hold it I think of how happy King would be to see this collection. The stars really aligned for Drawn and Quarterly on this. In every which way it's a marvel.
And we have a big book of sundays to look forward to as well! Sick!

posted by sammy at 4:56 AM