What’s Going On In Gasoline Alley? Why Is ‘Peggy Lee’ In It? July – October 2018


If you’re looking for the latest story developments in Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley, thanks for thinking of me. If you’re reading this after about January 2019, there’s probably a more recent article for you. It should be posted here, and good luck finding what you need.

On my other blog I talk about mathematics touched on by comic strips, which might interest you. Also for the last several months of 2018 I’m looking at words from mathematics and explaining them. You might find either of these interesting; please give them a try.

Gasoline Alley.

23 July – 13 October 2018

When I last recapped Gasoline Alley, the comic strip was publishing new strips again. Walt Wallet was trying to buy clothes from omnipresent clerk Frank Nelson. So that was going well.

Frank Nelson: 'Where will you gentlemen go in your new dapper suits?' Walt: 'Diaper suits?!' Skeezix: 'No, Uncle Walt! Dapper! You know! STYLISH!' Walt: 'You don't have to yell! I'm not deaf!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 23rd of July, 2018. Oh, yeah, so why does Skeezix call his adopted father ‘Uncle’ Walt? Well, you see … I don’t know. I assume it was explained at the time. It keeps throwing me when I want to describe the action and there’s that ‘Uncle’ throwing me off about the relations among like five generations of the Wallet family.

Still, it’s productive. Nelson bemoans the world situation and, longing for a hero, asks “Where is Orphan Annie when we need her most?” Wallet picks up the line. He finds it the right close for his roast of Little Orphan Annie at the Old Comics Home. Skeezix and Walt drive to the Old Comics Home, which is bigger than it used to be. Also very empty. They don’t know what’s gone wrong.

(Pulling up in the car.) Skeezix: 'Wake up, Uncle Walt! We're here! I don't remember it being so big before!' (The Old Comics Home sprawls out over the whole strip, a mass of porches, overhangs, gabled roofs, conical rooves, floors, and walkways, like it was built by a guilt-ridden guns manufacturer's widow and if they ever stopped building they'd die.)
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 3rd of August, 2018. And for all that the Old Comics Home is this sprawling, rambling, architecturally incoherent thing, it doesn’t provoke the spontaneous laugh from me that about two-fifths of the McMansion Hell spectacles do. Possibly because it does look like someplace it’d be fun to wander through.

Jiggs, of Bringing Up Father, rescues them. The dinner is at the new banquet hall. They could afford it thanks to “a famous cartoonist that included us in his will”. The commenters at GoComics speculate that Jiggs was talking about Mort Walker, who died earlier this year. That sounds good to me. You don’t think of Beetle Bailey as having raked its creator a great heaping pile of money, but remember, he also had those Boner’s Ark royalties coming in for years. They need the expanded home, too, as there’s more and more old-comics every day, what with newspapers having died in 2008.

They get to the banquet hall, and Jiggs passes off Walt and Skeezix to Mutt and Jeff. This opens things to a good spot of corny old dining jokes, and a lot of challenges to identify some 1930s comic strip character. But finally, with the start of September, the banquet reaches its point: it is not a roast of Little Orphan Annie. It’s a tribute to Gasoline Alley in honor of its centennial. Walt Wallet points out this is a couple months early. Mutt says “We know! We’ve got an Orphan Annie roast planned then!”

The strip began to recap the first century of itself. This included some nice-looking redrawings of vintage comics. This Scancarelli did using the original Frank King-style model sheets, or good adaptations of them to modern newspaper needs. And then jump ahead to reviewing the 14th of February, 1921, when a most important thing happened: Jack Benny turned 39. And the infant Skeezix was left on Walt Wallet’s doorstep. This is taken as the moment when Gasoline Alley leapt out of its original premise — jokes about guys and their obsessive tinkering with cars — into something people cared about, wildly. Walt Wallet adopting this foundling was a story.

Mutt, as emcee: 'OK, Walt Wallet! Here's a photo of where it all began --- in the alley behind your house!' (Mutt holds a black-and-white photo of a small house and tiny garage.) 'And here is a shot of you and Avery, Doc and Bill, working on your autos in Gasoline Alley --- Nov 24, 1918!' (Black-and-white rendition of four very 1910s young men around a car. It's captioned 'Sunday morning in Gasoline Alley - Doc's Car Won't Start') Mutt: 'Isn't that how the town got its name?' Walt: 'Yeah! Uh, which one is me?'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 13th of September, 2018. I have heard that a “gasoline alley” was the slang term for anywhere bunches of young men would get together to tinker over cars that might someday even run. This seems plausible enough, and of a kind with the “radio shack” that the bunches of young men into ham radio would build. And would explain why there are places named “Gasoline Alley”, some of them even still having anything to do with cars. But I don’t know of citations for the term “gasoline alley” that predate the comic strip. Google’s NGram viewer doesn’t seem to have examples of the phrase from before the comic strip. And after the “Skeezix” word-origin mystery I want to be careful about passing on anything that isn’t at least a bit researched.

The strip recounts what I am going ahead and trusting are early comics about Walt trying to take care of Baby Skeezix. And describes the nationwide poll that I’m trusting Scancarelli when he says was held, to pick a name for the child. The result, I am surprised to learn, was “Allison”, a bit of wordplay on his being the Alley’s son. And a reminder that any name we might think of as a girl’s was also a boy’s name at most three generations ago. But Skeezix stuck. Walt repeats the claim that Skeezix is “cowboy slang for a motherless calf”. Perhaps, but I can’t find support for that word-origin story that doesn’t come from Gasoline Alley. “Skeesicks”, or several variant spellings of it, does seem to be 19th century slang for a rogue or rascal. The connotation of the word softened as the 20th century dawned. By 1912 it was the sort of thing a P G Wodehouse protagonist (in The Prince and Betty) could call the stuffy old fellow with money who’s slowing the whole scheme down.

Walt, recounting events of finding young Skeezix: 'Doc, Avery, and Bill came over to help bathe the little feller! I thought we'd wash and polish him like we do cars, then dry the moisture off, leaving the body finish in sparkling condition!' (Illustrated by the young men coming in, and drying off a baby while holding mop, sponge, and car wax, none applied to the baby.)
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 21st of September, 2018. I like seeing art done closer to the style of the original character designs and I’m surprised how well they work on the modern screen. Also, I admit, I’m a little glad the action is being narrated, because actual comics of the day had way too many words in them, and then would throw in eye-dialect to make it that little bit more of a task getting through everything.

All looked ready to carry on with recapping a century’s worth of overarching stories when October, and a special guest, arrived. I expected Phyllis Wallet, who died in the strip in 2004. Part of Gasoline Alley‘s gimmick has been that the characters age, loosely in real time, which for a long-running strip means even the core characters have to die. Walt Wallet’s been spared, I imagine for reasonable sentimental reasons. But it does mean if you pay attention, he’s 118 years old. There’s two people in history who lived demonstrably longer than him. Moving Walt to the Old Comics Home seems like a natural way to avoid having to bring up his age without killing off the last of the comic strip’s original characters. Reuniting Walt with Phyllis and letting them stay together would make so much sense. It might yet be done.

But it wasn’t done this month. The guest was one Mrs Peggy Lee. Whom the strip tells us is a real person. That she’s drawn in a much-more-realistic style than any other character suggested this. And why Peggy Lee? Says the strip, she also turned 100 years old this year. This opens the door to a couple weeks of old-age jokes (“I knew I was getting old when it took me longer to recover than it did to tire me out!”). And why Peggy Lee as opposed to any other centenarian? Apparently she’s been a fan of the strip her whole life, and Jim Scancarelli came to know that. Well, that’s sweet.

Mutt, as emcee: 'Peggy Lee told me she has read all the adventures of Gasoline Alley since 1918!' Peggy Lee: 'I did indeed!' Mutt: 'But wait a second! How could you have? You were a baby in 1918!' Peggy Lee: 'I was a fast reader!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 4th of October, 2018. Really, to have read all of an historically important comic strip is pretty amazing. The only important comics I could make a similar claim about are Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and Bloom County, although I’m probably close enough for jazz for The Far Side. And four of those made it easy by being, in the scheme of things, pretty short-run comics. (I want to count Cul de Sac, since it was so fantastic, but I don’t know that it lasted long enough to be important.)

And that’s what’s been happening. The Sunday strips have kept on being spot jokes. They don’t fill out any particular story, but do keep the other characters in the comic. I assume the comic is going to continue celebrating its centennial. That will come, barring catastrophe, the 24th of November, or just short of six weeks from now. It seems likely to me that Scancarelli’s already completed the centennial strip. Wow.

Gasoline Alley is the oldest (American) syndicated comic strip that’s still in production. (The Katzenjammer Kids lapsed into eternal reruns long ago, and I have no idea if it’s still offered to any newspapers anywhere or if it’s just posted to Comics Kingdom.) There are a few others that should join it soon, though. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (if you count it as a comic strip) first appeared the 19th of December, 1918. Barney Google first appeared the 17th of June, 1919. Popeye first appeared, as Thimble Theatre, on the 19th of December, 1919, and it at least still has new Sunday strips. (Popeye himself didn’t join the strip until 1929.) I suspect none of them figure to do an anniversary celebration like this.

Next Week!

Mexico! Mysterious artefacts in the Yucatan! The strange and wonderful wildlife of Central America that we somehow haven’t killed yet! Yes, this storyline is still going on in James Allen’s Mark Trail, but never fear! I’ll catch you up!

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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.

17 thoughts on “What’s Going On In Gasoline Alley? Why Is ‘Peggy Lee’ In It? July – October 2018”

    1. I saw Offisa Pupp, yeah, and Krazy and Ignatz have appeared in the margins of earlier strips too. At least during an Old Comics Home sequence it’s reasonable enough for these characters to show up.

      Really, it’s a little surprising how many cameos these characters get. They don’t appear in other comics as often as Peanuts characters do — nobody could — but they do show up a lot. I feel bad for people who just read comics casually, and all they know is these strangely-drawn characters with bricks show up without explanation. I’m not sure anyone would even know how to find out what was being referenced, except that every comic strip has a comments page these days.

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    1. It would be an interesting project! Possibly a licensing nightmare, although Mort Walker (of course) and Jerry Dumas more or less got away with it in Sam’s Strip. But the strip also only survived a couple years. It might be a bit too specialized-nerdy a subject for a mass audience, but then, that might make it all right for a web comic.

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    1. I haven’t seen many examples of Sam’s Strip. The examples I have seen did have old characters in it, come out to do their classic business or make jokes or such, uncannily like Old Comics Home sequences in Gasoline Alley. The three examples given in the Smithsonian Collection Of Newspaper Comics, in fact, are about a huge banquet with dozens of characters going back to the Yellow Kid showing up to eat.

      Jerry Dumas did pull Sam out of cancellation to be a character in Sam And Silo, but that comic doesn’t do any more crossovers and callbacks than any other comic would.

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    1. I don’t know. It’s a fair question, but I know only the most basic, generic stuff about the Gumps, that it was the first humor strip to do that Tom Batiuk trick of turning into a soap opera and start killing off characters. Or at least that it was the first important strip to do that. The way Scancarelli is going on about it is weird, though. It seems like an amusing enough idea for one strip, but somehow the Gasoline Alley centennial is going to be about whether the hot comic protagonist of 1918 looked like the hot comic protagonist of 1908?

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  1. Speaking of Halloween and A. Mutt, have you seen the lobby cards from the turn of the century “Mutt& Jeff” stage shows, I believe Stripper’s Guide has some of them. The work they put into crafting Mutt’s nose puts Robin Williams’ Popeye arms in mind.

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    1. I have not, but thank you for giving me a head’s up. It’s a bit dazzling at this distance to imagine a stage show based on Mutt and Jeff, but I suppose they’ll say the same thing in a century about whatever they do make stage shows of nowadays.

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    1. I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t get at least a cameo, but I’m not worried. Even if Jim Scancarelli completely overlooks the character there’s like a 75% chance he’s going to appear in Dick Tracy within the next eighteen months. (Granted, you can say that about any character who appeared in a comic strip or comic book from before 1965, including Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo from Gustave Verbeek’s little thing where you read the six panels, then flip the page upside-down to see the end of the story.

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    1. It does seem appropriate, yeah. And as weird as it is for other Barney Google as a strip to intrude on Gasoline Alley the actual week of the centennial, I do appreciate that the strip is alternating between recaps of major plot developments and bits of nonsense or physical comedy. I see where some of the Comics Curmudgeon commenters are fed up with how long this self-congratulatory storyline has gone, but I think it would be much worse if it were nothing but invitations to remember something that happened back when Alben Barkley was a name in the news.

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