What’s Going On In Gasoline Alley? August – November 2017


I got back to Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley a bit quicker than I figured! Last time around I predicted I’d get back to this strip in December 2017, and here it is November 2017, way ahead of that. But the point I made in the preamble there stands. This is a recap of the comic strip’s most recent developments. But if you’re reading this later than, oh, let’s say April 2018 then the strip has moved on. I’ll be out of date. And I may have some more recent-to-you post about what’s going on. You should be able to find it at or near the top of this page.

If you like comic strips that aren’t necessarily story strips you might look at my mathematics blog. There I regularly discuss the recent syndicated comics that did something mathematical. Ideally I don’t ruin the jokes.

Gasoline Alley.

21 August – 11 November 2017.

Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley has, since the 27th of April, been running a very dangerous story. Not that the stakes in it are that high. But in that it’s a crossing of two of the strip’s styles of stories. One is the weepy melodrama. Poverty-stricken kids Emma Sue And Scruffy, and their widowed mother, The Widow Emma Sue And Scruffy’s Mom, moved into the abandoned mill. The kids ran across the curmudgeonly codger Elam Jackson, who softens when he meets them all. Elam Jackson starts repairing The Widow Etc’s mill. Also he begins acts of courtship with The Widow Emma Sue And Scruffy’s Mom.

The danger is that it’s crossed with another of the strip’s story types. This is the Joel And Rufus Story. Joel and Rufus are preposterous, silly characters. They’d make sense on Green Acres. They can have adventures easily. Attaching emotions to them, though? That’s a tall order. Still, Rufus had encountered Emma Sue and Scruffy. He and Joel played Santa for the impoverished kids, back before the August update. Rufus gave some newly weaned kittens to the kids. He’s also got romantic designs on The Widow Etc.

Rufus, to Emma Sue and Scruffy: 'I'll see yo' kids soon! Right now I'm goin' t'say bye t'yo'momma!' Emma Sue and Scruffy: 'Thanks fo' th'kitties! We love 'em, an yo' too!' Rufus at the mill: 'There's Mrs Ruffington over by th'mill wheel with m'friend Elam Jackson!' In the third panel Rufus sees The Widow Etc and Jackson kissing.
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 25th of August, 2017. The terrible moment that sends Rufus off to the circus, ultimately. Can’t fault him for being heartbroken after seeing that. But then we the reader know a bit more about what’s going on, such as — a few weeks later — the strips from the week of the 11th.
So this storyline has to balance its absurdist-clown streak with its weepy-melodrama streak. It’s tricky. Anything goes wrong and all narrative could collapse. When we left off Elam Jackson’s courting of The Widow Etc had reached the point of actually kissing, in silhouette, off where Rufus could see. Rufus immediately despairs, a state not at all natural for this goofball. He storms home, puts a note on his mailbox that “I’ve gone away! Ain’t comin’ back! Pleze hol’ my mail!” and even leaves his cats without supervision. Well, he leaves them to Joel, about the same thing.

Jackson: 'I'm sure hot and thirsty, Leela!' The Widow Etc: 'Oh Elam! I appreciate all the work you're doing on the mill! How can I ever repay you?' Jackson: 'How about a kiss?' The Widow Etc: 'How 'bout some iced tea? It'll quench your thirst and COOL you off!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 11th of September, 2017. A fair sampling of the ways The Widow Emma Sue And Scruffy’s Mom politely but unmistakably turns any talk away from romance. Which, given how much she turns away kisses this time, makes one ask what the heck was going on in the previous strip? That the embrace is in silhouette allows for all kinds of mistaken-identity shenanigans. But they also require putting in some character who hasn’t been in the story so far. So, you know? The heck?
The news of Rufus’s disappearance spreads slowly. Scruffy recovers from his bike accident and with Emma Sue visit Rufus’s place to find him missing. They go back home to hear Elam Jackson talking seriously about marriage with The Widow Etc. The worldly Scruffy explains how he knew it was coming to that. But Jackson’s leading questions are left hanging in the air, the 16th of September, and we have not seen these characters since.

But Joel knows things are awry, and so, starting the 19th of September, begins searching in the logical place: other comic strips. Joel and Rufus are at the core of this slapsticky, absurdist, fourth-wall-breaking streak of the comic strip. Why can’t he pop over to Dick Tracy if he likes? So Joel meets up with Tracy slapsticky hillbilly character B O Plenty and then the super-scientific detective himself. Tracy has enough of this within a week and sends Joel back to his own comic strip, right where he left off.

Dick Tracy: 'Joel! What're you doing in my comic strip ? Are you lost?' Joel: 'No! Rufus is! I was lookin' for 'Mr Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons', but reckymembered WE and HE ain't on radio no mo'!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 25th of September, 2017. Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons ran on the NBC Blue Network/ABC from 1937 to 1947, and then CBS from 1947 to 1955. It’s mentioned because Jim Scancarelli is trying to get himself installed as an exhibit in the Museum of Old-Time Radio. Also, yes, Gasoline Alley was on radio several times. In 1941 (NBC, Red and then Blue) the daily serial even adapted the then-current storylines to the air. It also ran in 1948-49 in transcribed syndication. There’s some evidence that it was produced in regional radio as early as 1931, but John Dunning’s On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio doesn’t pin down where or when. Also, Dick Tracy ran as a kids’ police serial, starting on NBC New England stations in 1934, then bouncing between CBS, Mutual, NBC, and NBC Blue/ABC through to 1948. And this doesn’t matter but there was from 1932 to 1935 a syndicated comedy-mystery serial titled Detectives Black and Blue, about a pair of shipping clerks in Duluth who try for something more.
Just in time, too, since he’d left Becky (his mule) right by a poster for the circus. And Joel knows what this means. He hasn’t become one of YouTube’s top hosts of ‘Let’s Play’ JRPG videos without learning how to recognize the plot rails. He makes his way to the circus tents to see if he can get the next plot point going. It’s hard work, including swinging hammers around, sleeping with the elephants and mules, being haunted by visions of Rufus at all the sideshow posters, and being pressed into clown duty by owner P T Beauregard’s son, a Young Ralph from Sally Forth. This sends Joel to an encounter with another of the Gasoline Alley universe’s many Frank Nelsons. Also it offers some name-drops of Emmett Kelly, Otto Griebling, and (in Joel’s confusion) Walt Kelly. And gives Scancarelli an easy extra 25 points in his bid for installation into the Museum of Old-Time Radio.

Joel, on his mule-drawn wagon, looking very small amidst close-up pictures of tiger and lion and elephant and giraffe heads, while the ringmaster continues his spiel about the circus's offering: 'Lions, tigers, an elephant or two; this isn't all --- it's our pre-view!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 26th of October, 2017. Part of the entry of the gladiators and all that, and taken less because it’s key to the plot and more because I like the composition. There’s not enough craft in the drawing of newspaper comics and I’m glad Scancarelli resists the considerable pressures to put up simple, functional panels.
The show begins! And we get a good week or so of acts and animals and Joel cringing before some well-rendered lions and the like. And then, finally, the 27th of October we learn what’s come of Rufus. He’s the Human Cannonball, like it or not, and over Halloween he’s shot out of the cannon, through the Big Tent’s walls, and into Joel’s haystack. He explains: after seeing Elam Jackson kissing The Widow Emma Sue and Scruffy’s Mom he was heartbroken, ran away from home, and joined the circus. Along the way to the human cannonball job he’d been the beareded lady, the thin man, the four-legged dog, all the stuff Joel saw posters for. It’s not that complicated a story, but it had been two months since readers last saw Jackson or The Widow Etc or the kids. I don’t blame Scancarelli for giving a recap like that.

This week Rufus, deciding he’s had enough of the circus, rides with Joel back to the normal Gasoline Alley continuity. And Joel has hopeful news for Rufus. After getting the mill up and running again, The Widow Etc “done canned yo’ ex-‘fr’end, Elam!”. This is consistent with my reading of The Widow Etc’s reluctance and talking around Jackson’s questioning. It also raises some good questions. For one, how could Joel know that? Based on what we’ve seen on-camera, anyway? For another, what is the difference in pronunciation between “fr’end” and “friend”?

So that’s how the comic balanced the weepy-melodrama and the goofy-slapstick sides of things. Stepping out into another comic strip is going to work for some readers. Doing a month of circus jokes should work for others. But it forgot the weepy melodrama for several months. That’s probably as best as can be done. I’m not sure Rufus (or Joel) can sustain the pain of unrequited love. His getting shot out of a cannon fits him more easily. I’m surprised that Elam Jackson seems to be getting sent back to the primordial xylem of supporting characters from which he came. But I was also surprised to learn Rufus considered him a friend. I had supposed they were people in town who didn’t have much reason to interact.

The story reads as though it’s coming to its conclusion. This extends the strange synchronicity between story strips concluding stories around my recaps. (Of course, a story ending two or three weeks before or after my recap seems “around” my essay. With a margin like that it’s amazing a strip is ever not in synch with my recaps.)

The Sunday strips, not in continuity, have been the usual bunch of spot gags. Can’t say that any of them really stand out. And there’s no story, so, if you want to read one just go ahead and read it; you won’t be confused.

Next Week!

Prairie dogs are making a comeback. Mark Trail came to South Dakota to count these coming-back prairie dogs and blow up vehicles. And he hasn’t got near a prairie dog yet. Stop in here next week to, I hope, see bank robbers, abandoned mining towns, and vehicles exploding, all the important pieces of James Allen’s Mark Trail. Also, never ever EVER go outside. The parts of nature that aren’t trying to kill you are filled with weird life forms that can poison you or be really, really eerie. And the parts that aren’t trying to kill you and aren’t full of horrible lifeforms? The parts that are adorable little creatures like quaggas or obscure variations on hamsters or sharks that look like puppies? They’re dying. (Recommended soundtrack: Sparks, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth”.)

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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