So shy are farms like scrapbooking, but for food? A couple years ago the schoolteacher in Gasoline Alley promoted scrapbooking to the kids, as a good creative thing they should do. And Jim Scancarelli’s comic strip talked about it a lot. Or so it felt like; probably it was just a month or two of the characters being really into scrapbooking. That memory’s lodged itself in the Gasoline Alley snark-reading community, anyway. It’s a fun reference whenever a comic strip seems to start obsessing over something, whether it’s Mary Worth and CRUISE SHIPS or Gasoline Alley again and … farms. So that’s what I was on about last week.
After a couple weeks of waiting-room gags Beluga meets Aubee Skinner. She’s the three-year-old latest generation of the comic strip’s star family. And we follow her and her mother home, to Rover Skinner. (Grandson of Walt Wallet, original centerpiece of the strip.) The handoff is done … oh, I’ll call it the 24th of March. You could date it as early as the 12th, when they arrived at the clinic, if you like. Or the 19th, when Aubee climbs into Beluga’s lap.
Rover is getting ready for the Farm Collective’s meeting. And he talks his teenage son Boog into coming along. (Wikipedia tells me Boog was born in September 2004, and Aubee in September 2016. So, yeah, these ages still check out for being real-time.)
The point of the meeting: to promote “saving our farmlands”. Attending the meeting are a bunch of the local farm families. Skinner’s thesis: without family farms, they’ll pave over the land, there’ll be no food, and people will starve. Checks out; that’s what must happen. But Skinner expands on the problem: land is expensive. And that’s all he mentions before explaining his special guest speaker isn’t there yet.
The Molehill Highlanders band plays, particularly, the World War I ditty “How’re You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”. Boog sees in this century-old paean to the dullness of farm life a way to get people excited about farm life. His father agrees, and soon everyone is buzzing about their campaign’s theme song. Also they have a campaign, I guess. Charlotte, Boog’s girlfriend, also has a great idea. Wouldn’t it help cut down farm expenses if local teens did the farm work, but for free? It sure would!
She’s thinking internships or something. Anyway after all this, special guest speaker Eric Helmet arrives. He’s got a broken tractor and a bunch of farm-life jokes. And talks about how farming is expensive and hard. But, he figures, what if they had some kind of outreach program so that people understood agriculture? Also, Don Henley wrote “A Month Of Sundays”. That’s a fanciful ballad imagining a time in 1957 that bankers were friends to farmers.
I don’t mean to make this sound disjointed. But what we see on-camera is disjointed. And shallow, considering it went on for about two months. I’m willing to trust that in “reality” Helmet talked in some detail about being a struggling farmer, or as it’s known technically, “being a farmer”. And I understand Scancarelli wanting to tell corny but amiable jokes. It’s more readable than the screwed up parts of agricultural policy, or as they’re known technically, “all of agricultural policy”. But it did read like a slightly weird obsession.
There’s no handoff to the current storyline. It just started the 18th of May. It’s also a repeat, something I would not have noticed (at this point) without reading the comments. It originally ran from the 19th of April through the 5th of June, 2010. So that’s six more weeks of this storyline. As it is, Walt Wallet is home from the hospital, after a stretch of being a hundred and twentyten years old. Gertie looks over his pills and worries about the side effects. We’ll see what happens after the 6th of July.
I last checked in on Gasoline Alley in the weeks before Christmas. A train full of kids were riding the Mistletoe Express to see Santa Claus. But it broke down in front of Corky’s diner. Corky put in a call to Slim Wallet to get his Santa gear on and entertain the restless kids. And what do you know but he got there in record time and put on a great show, never breaking character, and giving everyone a merry time. Even talking in rhyme the whole day. And there’s nothing mysterious or ambiguously supernatural about that at all.
Well, the day after Christmas started the new story thread. It’s still focused on Corky’s diner. Terry, the regular waitress, is back. She’s completed her treatment for the actue angina pectoris that Peter Glabella had diagnosed. With Terry back, guest waitress Baleen declares she’s off. But Corky and T-Bone (the cook) beg Baleen to stay. She has none of it.
Anyway, the diner’s doing great business. It’s crazy crowded. The strip never says their hotcakes are selling like hotcakes, but Jim Scancarelli is kicking himself for not doing that joke. They put up a fresh sign begging for more wait staff. And who shows up again but Baleen? She claims that she caught the wrong bus, and this is where it stopped for lunch. And she missed them all.
So Jim Scancarelli has realized that Baleen’s a pretty good fit for the gang at Corky’s Diner. She steps back in, and we get back to restaurant jokes. And a bit of story development: a jerk customer starts mocking Baleen’s name. T-Bone leaps to her defence. Terry had said that T-Bone had a crush on Baleen. The first real evidence we get of this is the hearts in his eyes when Baleen kisses her thanks. But then she gets all cold, particularly saying she missed him “like the bucolic plague”. Which when you look at it is a hard thing to parse. Terry gives T-Bone the advice to be patient and let Baleen find a comfortable spot.
But, it’s Valentine Season. Baleen starts getting cards. She’s been popular with the customers, to the point of sometimes sitting down with them. This is pretty much my deepest restaurant nightmare. There’s a Wendy’s I can’t ever go to again because the cashier recognized I always order the baked potato. A server feeling comfortable enough to sit down with me might well cause me to burst into embarrassment flames.
All the attention is making T-Bone jealous. Terry recommends he send her flowers. He feels like that’s hopeless. Terry claims Baleen sent the (anonymous) cards to herself and made up a Valentine party she was going to. I don’t know on what basis she deuces this other than that “Valentine party”? Well, T-Bone at least sends a card. And then a wreath of roses arrives.
He didn’t send them. Also they’re a funeral wreath. Terry reveals she ordered the flowers on T-Bone’s behalf. She didn’t order a funeral wreath, though. It’s one of those zany screw-ups that happen at florist’s in the 60s-sitcom world of Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley. T-Bone thinks fast for once, and says it shows how he’ll love her until she dies. And this wins Baleen’s heart.
That seems to put their story at a good resting point. The last couple days have been jokes about Baleen painting signs for the diner, advertising their hours and whatnot. Oh, and hey, is there something ritualistically special about Leap Year in proud-to-be-old-fashioned comic strips like this? Mm?
Gasoline Alley had started the story of Peter Glabella, substitue physician assistant. He’s supernaturally good at his job. He has “mirror-touch synesthesia”, allowing him to feel what patients feel. This gives him a real edge in figuring out where someone’s ache comes from. This turns out to be a real actual thing that really exists in the real world, for real. I know, right? Wikipedia says something like one person in fifty has this to some extent. In the real world, it’s more like people who will feel it themselves when they see one person touch another. This can extend to empathy, strongly feeling the emotions someone else shows, or feeling the pain they’re experiencing. As with most things about how the brain works, it’s amazing and it takes clever experimental design to sort out what is happening. So I apologize for being too snarky back in September about the thing.
Glabella spends a couple weeks explaining the condition, trying to convince the reader this is on the level. He stops short of telling snide readers like me to look it up on Wikipedia. And trying to establish that he isn’t magic, he can just tell at a glance that somebody’s back hurts. Me, I have to look up if the person is more than 38 years old first.
Chipper Wallet takes Glabella to Corky’s Diner. They arrive the 3rd of October and that sets the scene for the new story. Glabella notices Terry, their server, has some heart trouble. Chipper urges her to make a clinic appointment, as if someone working in a restaurant could afford medical care in the United States. But she does, and gets an appointment with Glabella. Who by the way finally lets us know what his name means: it’s “the space between your eyebrows and bridge of your nose”.
The diagnosis: it might be acute angina pectoris. She needs a couple weeks off from work. So we shift to Corkey, trying to figure out his staffing problem. Stepping in is Baleen Beluga. She’s a good fit for Jim Scancarelli’s comic world. She starts in with tales of an adventurous past, with a lot of sailing on ships. She claims to be heading to Texas to join a cattle boat. That plan’s messed up when Terry’s diagnosis comes in. She needs surgery, about a month of recovery time, and some time of light work after that. Beluga’s willing to stay on, trusting that there’s a lot of cattle boats in the sea.
That’s not many events — there was a lot of characters saying funny things to each other instead. It takes us to the 21st of November, when Scancarelli noticed he haven’t even started his Christmas plotting. Luckily, a train breaks down right outside the diner. The Mistletoe Express has a burst water line. It’s a tourist-attraction locomotive now. It works for the Gasoline Alley Railway and Kitchen Cabinet Company. It’s bringing kids to see Santa. Beluga brings them a section of their stove exhaust vent. This probably won’t raise the diner’s carbon monoxide levels to dangerous heights.
And the stopped Christmas train brings out the press. It’s the Gasette’s Hulla Ballew. She fails to mention she’s the suspiciously young sister of Wally Ballew, on-the-site reporter for the Bob and Ray Show. Good for the diner. Maybe getting better: the locomotive needs even more emergency repairs. Corky invites the kids and parents in to the diner for ice cream. And calls Slim Wallet, telling him he needs a Santa Claus. Slim leaps into action and gets his red coat out. He makes fantastic time, too, and that’s where we’ve gotten.
Golly jeepers, you don’t suppose there’s anything … curious … about Slim as Santa Claus here, do you? Mm? Hmmm? HMMMMMMMM?
Before I get to Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley I want to give a heads-up about Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean. According to newspaper articles, Funky Winkerbean is in the next couple months doing a story with the suicide of a character. People who do not need that sort of thing in their reading-for-fun may want to drop the strip for a while. I’ll try to give an all-clear when the immediate aftermath has passed.
It is a startling development. Since the 2008 time-jump, skipping a decade in which Les Moore spectacularly failed to deal with the death of his wife Lisa, Funky Winkerbean has moved mostly past its misery porn incarnation. This is the most serious topic for a storyline in quite a while.
I hope for the story to be a good, thoughtful exploration of why a person would suicide, and how the people around them react and are changed. I’m always hoping for this. I will snark so far as to admit that after the storyline about gay students going to the prom (the principal says of course gay students can go to prom since there’s no rule that says they can’t, and we never even see the gay students on-screen), and the storyline about a fictional version of the Virginia Rappe killing and what that did to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (in this version, a talking chimp killed her), I … well. Just.
All right, I expect the story to be handled with all the deftness of Inspector Clouseau, unaware that he’s swallowed the horse tranquilizer, stomping about Charles-Philipe-Louis Desuetude’s Irreplaceable Antiques Boutiquery, while he’s wearing roller skates and somehow has his hands trapped inside cans of potted meat. But, I promise, I hope it’s a good story. I just want people who do not need even a well-handled story about suicide in their recreational reading to know, and to plan accordingly.
Now back to my real business.
24 June – 14 September 2019
Oh, right, Jim Scancarelli was making a fool of me last time. Rufus had taken in Willow, a woman fleeing from wolves. She moved in, ate all his food, and (passively) kicked him out of the house. As Rufus tells his woes to Mayor Melba Rose, he thinks he sees Willow. On the ride home with Joel, Rufus worries how to make her leave. He even puts a coin in the wishing well to hope the problem goes away.
And … it works. Willow and her dog Toro are gone. She’s cleaned the house, and done Rufus’s laundry. In the note she also mentions seeing Rufus’s lovely Lady Friend, Melba. It’s the ending everyone wishes for from awkward social interactions. The unpleasant person is gone, leaving behind nothing but a note of thanks and the scent of fresh-cut flowers.
So, the 19th of July, we get into the new story. It looks like it’s more of Rufus courting Melba. He stops in the jewelry store for another encounter with Frank Nelson. In-between insults Rufus is able to buy a $15 cubic zirconia brooch. But, leaving the store, he trips and wrenches his ankle. Plus a crow swipes the brooch.
A cop takes the note that Rufus slipped on a broken sidewalk. This seems like the setup for something not yet paid off. And he brings Rufus to the Gasoline Alley Care Clinic, even turning the siren on for Rufus’s delight. And, hey, the crow flies back, dropping the brooch on Rufus’s head. So everything’s turning up Rufus.
The 13th of August Rufus finally gets to the clinic and we see more of the current story. Chipper Wallet, physician assistant and established character, is on vacation. But they have a substitute, Peter Glabella. He’s uncannily empathetic, and is able to treat Rufus quickly.
Glabella is good at more than diagnosing Rufus’s problems. Hoagy Skinner brings in her daughter Aubree. (Hoagy Skinner’s the wife of Rover Skinner, Skeezix’s grandson.) She’s listless, confused, pale … rather like Glabella is now. He feels she’s dehydrated. She has only the one head and no signs of cauterized sword wounds. He joins her in some sugar-free soda. And in almost no time she’s in good spirits. Physician and patient burp together.
Finally Walt Wallet comes in. Glabella nearly forgets to act like a normal hew-mon. He asks how long Wallet’s left knee has been bothering him before Wallet can say anything. But he goes through the diagnostics of a man so old that when he was born, Jack Benny was telling people he was 32. It’s hard taking on temporarily the ailments of a man that elderly, but he does it.
Chipper Wallet finally comes back from vacation and meets Glabella. This makes me question the clinic’s hiring practices but, all right. Glabella explains that he has “mirror-touch synesthesia”. It’s a “gift of sorts” that he’s always had. I think it’s also something they wrote into Lieutenant Ilia’s backstory, when they thought Star Trek: The Motion Picture was going to be a TV series. It’s why she does that thing where she heals Chekov’s burns instead of letting Doctor Chapel do it by medicine.
Where this is going, I can’t say. That’s as far as we’ve gotten. It may seem to defy reality that a magic doctor is in the comic. But one of Scancarelli’s modes for the comic has long been this light, sitcom magic touch. The sort of magic where, you know, how could that department-store Santa have known what I wanted as a kid unless … . So this fits that tradition squarely. A bigger break is that Gasoline Alley names are often some kind of wordplay, often gentle puns. If “Peter Glabella” means something I don’t get it.
So yes, I do enjoy the couple hours I spend each week perusing the story comics so that I can write a plot summary. And even the writing of the plot summary. If I am doing a public service, good. It’s fun, and it seems to help people out.
Anyway I’m just hoping that this was coincidence. I’d hate to think Jim Scancarelli was trying to undercut me. I thought it was clear that jokes like saying he was trying to get installed as an exhibit at the Museum of Old-Time-Radio were affectionate. I mean, I’d love to be at the Museum of Old-Time-Radio myself.
I’m happy to be one source of plot summaries for Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley. If you’re reading this after about September 2019 I may have a more up-to-date summary at this link. I also have a good number of older essays at that link. If you want to know the last couple years’ story developments. Thanks for using them.
Rufus takes Melba to Corky’s Diner. It goes well. Rufus is walking on air as he heads home. He’s also walking through the woods, which gets him chased by a wolf. The wolf gets stopped and scared off by Toro, a small dog. Toro’s there with Willow, a young woman wandering the woods. Toro’s hungry. Willow claims that she isn’t, right before passing out.
Rufus feeds both of them, and offers Willow a place to sleep. He sleeps on the porch, in the rain. By morning, when Joel picks him up to go in to work, he’s a mess. And please consider how bad he has to look for Joel to think he’s a mess. They go to the thrift store for some better clothes and run into Frank Nelson. It’s a rare non-Skeezix-connected appearance for Frank Nelson in these pages. They get a fresh coat and head on.
At the end of the day Rufus returns home. Willow’s sleeping, but she offers to make dinner. If Rufus has brought any more food, since she finished what was there. And Toro is still a growling, angry little dog. This after being fed several times and getting to see that Rufus is a good guy. I mean, you may find the comic tradition he comes from annoying. But he’s been consistently kind and generous this story.
Come bedtime Rufus heads out to Joel’s. He doesn’t want to sleep on the porch in the rain again. He doesn’t like how Toro’s chased out his own cats. Joel has harsh advice on this: stop feeding Willow and Toro. If she’s sick, take her to the emergency room. If she’s not, then — what’s she doing?
And it’s a fair question. Rufus spends the night sleeping with Joel’s mule. He stinks of it when he gets to work. He covers this up with the free perfume samples at the department store. This is too much in a different direction. But he’s able to tone his odor down to “existing” by lunchtime. He and Melba walk the streets downtown. And then he sees …
Well, he’s sure he saw Willow’s reflection. Why would she be in town despite her fatigue and dizziness? We’ll see in the next few weeks what her deal is. The strip has gone to some length to paint her as a mooch and even an unpleasant person. But I notice it hasn’t committed to anything that couldn’t be rationalized. I don’t say there is a plot twist coming. I think it’s plausible there will be, is all.
Before writing a What’s Going On In … essay I try to remember the highpoints of the last three months’ of a comic. I go on to re-read the whole comic run, yes. But I like to think of what my impressions were. It helps me figure whether I need to schedule time for another 2,000-word doorstop of an essay. This time around I realized I couldn’t think what had happened exactly. Rufus and Melba Rose … were on a date back in early April, and then this last week … they still were? Something like that? With an odd week of Frank Nelson in the middle?
Mind, there’s nothing wrong with a story strip not being that plot-dense. Jim Scancarelli writes a casual comic, with low stakes. I’m surprised that it has been this little. I suppose this is why I expect Willow not to be what she obviously is. I’m also surprised by Rufus getting two stories in a row. Also that there’s a mention to the unresolved story of his courting The Widow Emma Sue and Scruffy’s Mom. I’d assumed that story was dropped in favor of Rufus courting the Mayor. So, even if not much is happening there’s still surprises coming around.
If you’re looking for plot recaps for Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley, and it’s later than about June 2019, this essay is probably out of date. There should be a more current one here. There’s also my complete back catalogue, so you can see what was going on in months gone by, including during the long Centennial celebration. If you just want to understand the first three months of 2019, in the context of this one serial comedy strip, this is a correct place.
Joel gives Rufus advice. None of it involves the 2017 storyline where Rufus courted the Widow Emma Sue and Scruffy’s Mom. Rufus was set up for heartbreak there, averted when The Widow turned down rival Elam Jackson’s proposal. But the strip went into reruns and I guess we’re dropping that thread now that it’s out again. In the current storyline, Rufus faces heartbreak when Melba Rose won’t acknowledge him. Anyway, Joel’s advice is to stop feebly asking out Rose and tell her he’s taking her out. This is because Joel and Rufus come from a world where it’s still a 1940s radio sitcom. Or a 1920s Harold Lloyd movie. This advice fails, as it always has. The next day Rufus doesn’t even recognize Rose, who’s dressed up and has different hair and also a boyfriend.
She’s dating Major “Buy-Buy” Bertie. She’s impressed with him. Bella, one of the cleaning women, isn’t impressed. She explains Bertie’s nickname comes from his land speculations, but that he’s not honest. He’s not even an actual Army major; that’s his middle name. (This reminds me of President James Garfield’s doctor. Garfield’s doctor was named Doctor Bliss. Like, Doctor was his first name. Doctor Bliss had a medical degree too. But, tragically, it was in 19th century medicine. This in turn reminds me of why everybody treated me like that in middle school.) Rufus rushes back to Joel with the news; Joel already knows. Everybody who knows Bertie, except for Rose, knows he’s a fraud.
Joel leads Rufus over to Zeb, a local moonshiner. Joel and Rufus need more of what they term medicine. While there, Bertie drives up to see Zeb. Bertie’s carrying a million-dollar check and a contract to buy Zeb’s land off him. Or so he says; he breaks Zeb’s glasses before he could read anything. Bertie gets Zeb to sign the contract, and then whites out part of it. Zeb doesn’t notice this. Rufus and Joel, standing by the window, do.
After Bertie leaves Rufus and Joel ask Zeb what’s this all about. Like, selling twenty acres to someone for a million dollars is fine, but the contract’s been whited out to make it a sale for a thousand dollars instead. Zeb is offended by this double-dealing. The check still says it’s for a million dollars, though. What if they get to the bank before Zeb can stop payment?
Now at this point you’re either going along with it, appreciating its slightly dopey old-time sitcom plotting. Or you’re tearing your hair out because of its slightly dopey old-time sitcom plotting. It’s a Rufus and Joel story. It’s going to be like this. At this point the story gets really old-time sitcommy. If you’re not liking this, you might want to bail of the rest of this summary.
So they get to the bank. It’s not open, but there is an ATM. Rufus and Joel and Zeb are characters from a 1968 sitcom at the latest. How can any of them deposit a check in an ATM? They give it their best try, and the machine eats up the check. Zeb takes this as well as you or I might. He goes to apply reason to the machine and also a sledgehammer. Also a crowbar. And some moonshine. They rode their horse cart into town, which is why they have the tools to break into an ATM.
Or to try breaking in. They’ve made no progress getting in when the Gasoline Alley City cops intrude. The cops — one of them named Barney, by the way — are starting to arrest them when bank manager J Thaddeus Pelf stops them. He claims the ATM’s been eating checks and these are the guys hired to fix it. It’s a convenient coincidence, but, you know? I accept it. If the machine’s eating checks, it makes sense it would eat Zeb’s check. It also makes sense that someone would be coming to fix the machine. I understand if you’re not sympathetic to this style of plotting. But it defuses the characters’ crisis in a way that’s believable enough. If you’re a sympathetic reader. I understand if this makes you grumble. (If you do, meet me around back and we’ll say snarky things about Luann some.)
Rufus and Joel and Zeb got the machine open and unclogged. The grateful manager offers to cash Zeb’s check right away, and trusts Rufus and Joel to put the machine back together. There’s the bad news for Zeb you might expect: of course Bertie doesn’t have a million dollars. Or any dollars, as his account’s overdrawn and closed. I’m not sure those are actually logically compatible states. Pelf may be speaking for dramatic emphasis. Sad news. Rufus, Joel, and Zeb head out, in time for the actual ATM repairers to arrive.
Back to work. Rufus sees Mayor Rose in City Hall. She’s miserable. Major Bertie’s been arrested, for “falsifying contracts, an’ passing bad checks, an … falsifying his affections to me!” Rufus explains what he knows of Bertie’s attempt to buy Zeb’s land, although I’m not clear that this is part of the rap against Bertie. Or at least isn’t yet. I had thought this came the same day as the ATM shenanigans. But that isn’t explicit, or necessary. Anyway she says the million-dollar check is one of the reasons Bertie’s arrested. This does make the breakup of Bertie and Rose something related to the story. Rufus tries to console Rose. He’s not very good at it, but she does take him up on the offer of a consoling ice-cream sundae.
It’s too soon to make it official. But I suspect we’re at the end of this storyline. Among other things, Bertie’s already been sentenced to “never mention his name again” status. Also ten years in prison, which seems like a pretty speedy trial, considering. But they used to wrap up loose ends fast in old-time sitcoms. I expect a transition over to some other characters in the next week. I mean besides the transition to another comic strip I’ll be making next week.
In short, I have no idea why Bertie wanted to buy Zeb’s land, although I guess if it worked then getting twenty acres for a thousand dollars would be worth the effort.
October saw Mutt and Walt Wallet explaining early events in Skeezix’s life. The mail-in contest that got his unused name of Allison. The hiring of caretaker Rachel. The adoption of a pet dog and a cat. The question of whether Mutt looks like Andy Gump. You know, of the hit 1920s serial melodrama comic The Gumps. There is some resemblance. Maybe Gumps cartoonist Sidney Smith did take a few elements from Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff. Maybe it was quite hep in the 1920s to joke about Andy Gump being a clone of Augustus Mutt. (I mean, even their names are similar.) I never heard of such, though. It seems like a weird diversion for Gasoline Alley‘s centennial.
But this is an example of a thread in Gasoline Alley’s centennial celebration. Jim Scancarelli would fill out the panels, and the storyline, with comic strip characters from the long-ago days. And I would disappoint Roy Kassinger. I’d have to admit I don’t recognize any of the characters from Dok’s Dippy Duck. And I only know the figures everyone recognizes from Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Trolley. I know what everyone says about reading the comments. But GoComics.com has a good community of people who can pin down character cameos. It’s worth checking the full comments if you see a figure that’s got to be from something and don’t know what.
Gump and Mutt come close to a fight, and then write the whole thing off as an orchestrated joke. This doesn’t actually make sense — it was set off by a chance comment by Walt Wallet — but who cares? Everyone gets back to highlights of Gasoline Alley‘s history. Like the time, after Walt Wallet and Phyllis married, when they found another abandoned baby, this time a girl dubbed Judy. Before we can start asking what kind of reputation the Wallets were getting the story advances to World War II. Recapped here — surely not coincidentally the week of Armistice Day — was Skeezix’s wounding in World War II. We see only a few moments of it. It’s easy to imagine the suspense of the events.
And then another interruption from an ancient comic strip character. This time it’s Snuffy Smith, pointing out how the comic strip he took over from Barney Google is about to turn 100. Where’s his celebration? This befuddles Mutt. Smith, ornery in a way he hasn’t been in his own comic strip in decades, starts a grand custard-pie fight. And this silliness is what’s going on when the strip takes a moment the 24th of November, 2018, to observe its centennial. With a strip that got used for the 90th anniversary, a choice which logic I’m still not sure about.
Despite the intervention of Fearless Fosdick the custard pie battle rages. Walt Wallet and Skeezix decide to leave. This again passes up the chance to let Walt die of old age or prevent noodges like me pointing out the man is three years older than the Ford Motor Company. Or, for that matter, seven years older than the comic strip Mutt and Jeff. All right. They return their custard-stained tuxedos to sales clerk Frank Nelson. (Who’s working, I noticed this time, at Tuxedo Junction, a name I imagine is a reference to the Glenn Miller song.) So there’s the indignities of dealing with him. And a total $400 cleaning bill. And, on top of that, a parking ticket.
The parking ticket — received the 15th of December — starts the segue into what looks like the new storyline. Skeezix, grousing about the ticket, accidentally drops it in a street Santa’s donation box. Skeezix swaps that out for a $20, and then grumbles about giving away money he needed. And then finds on the sidewalk enough cash to pay his ticket, affirming the sidewalk Santa’s claim about how God will be generous to the generous.
Skeezix heads to City Hall, where he runs into Rufus, of the Joel-and-Rufus pair. Rufus we last saw in November 2017, before the strip went into unexplained reruns. That was a story about him courting the Widow Emma Sue and Scruffy’s Mom. She probably had a name of her own. But she was also pursued by Elam Jackson. Rufus was heartbroken by Jackson proposing marriage. But he had just learned The Widow had turned Jackson down. That’s not resumed, or even mentioned, here. It’s the first chance to, though. This is the first story since the stretch of reruns that wasn’t about the centennial.
Rufus is working as janitor. He’s smitten with the Mayor, Melba Rose. He asks if she’d join him in a cup of coffee. She answers that the two of them wouldn’t fit, indicating that the mayor is either Gracie Allen or Commander Data. While I have my suspicions what sort of character she’ll be, I don’t actually know yet. And I don’t know whether the earlier storyline, abandoned but at a natural stopping point, will get mentioned.
The whole centennial celebration leaves me, as ever, with mixed feelings. The device is a good one. And it’s one appropriate to the comic, playing as it does on Scancarelli’s love of older comedy. And on the Old Comics Home that’s been one of the comic’s recurring scenes for ages now. And reviewing the strip’s history is a great use of the premise. And the conceit that the audience is every comic strip character ever is also great. Plain old recaps of plot developments are boring. Breaking them up with jokes or slapstick or cameos from other characters allows for good pacing. Also for Scancarelli to show off that he can draw every comic strip character in history. (I know, I know, he’d pick ones his style made convenient, or practice ones he absolutely needed until he got three panels’ worth of good art. But it’s a good stage illusion of omnicompetence.)
But the execution fell short. What actually got recapped? That the strip started out as a couple guys trying to make cars work. That Walt found and adopted Skeezix in an event that got nationwide publicity. Then some weirdly fine-detailed things like how Walt hired a housekeeper, or how they adopted some pets. Later, World War II happened. And that’s it. Time that could have outlined the Wallet family tree went instead to real-life centenarian Gasoline Alley fan Peggy Lee. Or to how Mutt, who’s appeared outside of Gasoline Alley as recently as the Reagan Recession, looks like Andy Gump, whose strip ended the 17th of October, 1959. That’s literally so long ago that Linus Van Pelt had not yet said the words “Great Pumpkin”. It’s fair to suppose someone reading in detail about Gasoline Alley‘s centennial is interested in comic strip history, yes. But it’s fair to expect the story to be about Gasoline Alley. The in-universe story, yes. Maybe reappearances from Gasoline Alley characters who have died or wandered, unexplained, out of the comic. Maybe something about Frank King, its originator. Or about Bill Perry, Dick Moores, and Jim Scancarelli, who’ve written and drawn the strip and who don’t get so much attention. A storyline that’s gone from July through December, and that has a goal of one task, shouldn’t feel like it wasn’t enough time. But it does feel like the centennial didn’t get some important things done. Maybe the bicentennial strip will summarize everything better. We’ll check back in in 2119.
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!
Gasoline Alley, as of Saturday, is a century old. If I haven’t overlooked something, it’s the second (American) syndicated newspaper comic strip to reach that age without lapsing into eternal reruns. (The Katzenjammer Kids was first; it started running in 1897, and was still producing new strips once a week until 2006, and we noticed that in 2015.) And I’d like to add my congratulations to it, and to Jim Scancarelli for being the cartoonist there at the milestone. He’s only got to keep at it through 2027 to beat Frank King’s tenure on the strip. (As credited artist and writer, anyway. Scancarelli was assistant to Dick Moores, responsible for the comic from 1956 to 1986.)
There are some more comic strips that, barring surprise, will join the centennial family soon. The next one, if it counts as a comic strip, will be Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Robert Ripley’s panel first appeared the 19th of December, 1918, as a sports-feats panel. It mutated by October 1919 into the general oddball-stuff report that it still is.
The next — and it’s been mentioned this week in Gasoline Alley — should be Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. That comic started the 17th of June, 1919. I don’t know whether Barney Google is planning any centennial events, but they’re missing a chance if they aren’t. Thimble Theatre, known to mortals as Popeye, began the 19th of December, 1919. The strip has only been in production on Sundays since the early 1990s, though. And Popeye took nine years to show up in it.
But to Gasoline Alley … I admit not having childhood memories of the strip. It probably ran in the New York Daily News, so I’d see it occasionally at my grandparents’ house. But I don’t remember the experience. I’ve come to it late in life, when part of my day is just reading lots and lots of comic strips, including the story strips. I’ve also heard the occasional episode of its adaptations to radio. Not enough to understand the series as a radio show. But enough to be driven crazy trying to think where I know that voice from.
It won’t surprise anyone that I like the comic strip. I like comic strips to start with. And Gasoline Alley has this nice, cozy tone. It’s got an old-fashioned style of humor that feels nostalgic to me even when it’s new. That Scancarelli shares the love I have for old-time radio adds a layer of fun as, hey, I recognize he’s tossed in a character from The Mel Blanc Show.
And then I always have a weird reaction to things. I recently read the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, a 1977 compilation that tried to give some idea of the breadth and scope of American newspaper comics. The editors felt it impossible to show Gasoline Alley fairly by samples of the daily strips, as the stories needed too much context for any reasonable number of dailies to make sense. But it included some Sundays, which — under original artist Frank King, as with today — would be stand-alone panels. And one of them was just … this full-broadsheet-page, twelve-panel piece. The whole page, together, was an aerial view of the neighborhood of Gasoline Alley: houses, streets, parks, businesses. Each panel was just a tiny bit of stuff going on at that spot at this time on this day. And it was beautiful. The composition was magnificent. Each panel made sense, and each panel was magnificently drafted. Houses with well-defined, straight rooflines, streets that lead places, fences that have structure. And each panel fed logically to the next, so the page was as good as a map. And somehow I was angry, that a comic strip could be this beautiful.
It’s not as though we don’t have beautiful comics now. There are magnificently drafted comic strips, Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley quietly among them. The compositional conceit of a strip that’s a vast area seen at one time is hardly gone. Even the specific variant of the vast area being rendered in panels is rare but still done; indeed, I think Frazz has even done it recently in daily panels. No newspaper comic has the space that Frank King had, a century ago, true. I can’t even show you the comic; it’s too large, at the reduced size for book publication, for me to scan, and taking a photograph of the page would leave the thing illegible. And no web comic could achieve that effect of space, except for those people with the six-foot-wide computer monitors. But to be angry to see a beautifully done comic strip? That’s a strange reaction. To have that dominate my thinking as the comic reaches its centennial? That’s even stranger.
Well, may everyone who creates at least once do something that makes someone angry that it was that good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Last time I checked in, Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley seemed to be running new strips on Sundays. After months of reruns every day of this week this was a good sign. It didn’t get the strip back to its full healthy serial-comic main nature. But it was evidence that Scancarelli was at least alive and well and getting the strip, in its 99th year, back on its feet. The daily strips — the ones that run a serialized, comic story — were running repeats from 2007. They’re not, anymore. It looks to me that since mid-June the comic strip has been new, telling what as best I can tell is an original story. But let me get those old stories out of the way.
Corky’s Diner. The perpetually drunk and incompetent Suds wants his dishwashing job back. The perpetually perky and incompetent Joy and Dawn want the dishwashing job. They’re having a race to see who can clean the most dishes. Joy and Dawn win by one plate, which they accidentally break while celebrating their victory. Joy and Dawn decide they don’t want the dishwashing job anymore. They thought it might be “the fast track to management”, and instead they’re washing dishes. So they quit, to try to their hand somewhere else, because they still believe in capitalism. And Suds has his job back.
New story. It started the 15th of May. It, too, started at Corky’s Diner, for a fairly graceful transition. The problem: Slim Wallet can’t sleep. The exhausted Slim does nod off at work, under a car. He bangs his head but good when he’s startled awake. He can’t stop hearing bells, a symptom baffling to everyone around him, who expected this was going to be a Sitcom Amnesia storyline. Right? I mean, doesn’t that write itself?
Still, it’s a good chance for him to get to the emergency room, and to do a couple week’s worth of old hospital/doctor jokes. “The form asks ‘sex’? I’m putting ‘none of your business’,” that sort of thing. The doctor prescribes some pills for Slim’s massive concussion. He’s shown with little bells orbiting his head even weeks later. It’s great visuals, but, like, it’s not like he’s a professional football player and we can pretend head trauma isn’t a thing.
But the ringing does go down, and he tries to get through his insomnia, for which the doctor prescribed sleep. And Slim even gets to sleep, dreaming of being on a deserted island with some Kissing Women. This dream Clovia wakes him from, unaware of the astounding thing that’s happened.
The astounding thing is that, when this storyline first ran in 2007, Slim didn’t have this dream. He had a string of things getting him out of bed, including construction next door. They put in a basketball court, causing late-night basketball games that keep him awake. This lead Slim on a long and daft storyline in which he buys a meteorite off eBay and gets a friend of his to drop it from his helicopter. The hope is to destroy the basketball court in a way that couldn’t be traced back to him as long as nobody ever tried. Not Slim’s finest moment here.
But no; from the 14th of June, the strips are — as best I can tell — new. Whatever caused Jim Scancarelli to step away from the strip in early November seems to have passed. He did not resume the storyline about Rufus courting the Widow Emma Sue and Scruffy’s Mother. That storyline left off on the news that Elam, Rufus’s rival for her affections, had proposed marriage and got turned down. I have no information about whether the storyline will resume up or what the fate of Emma Sue, Scruffy, and their Widowed Mother might be.
With the 18th of June started the current, and best I can tell, new storyline. It’s about Walt Wallet, the original star of the comic strip from 1918 — a date he mentions in his first word balloon. It started with a bit of daft old-guy cranky conspiracy theorizing that I saw confusing a lot of comics readers. Walt’s thesis: toothbrushes have more bristles than they used to. That is, from the front to the back of the toothbrush there’s more bristles. Why would toothbrush makers do that? It’s obvious. Everyone puts on enough toothpaste to cover all the bristles. So the only point to putting more bristles on is to make people buy more toothpaste. As corporate conspiracies go this is … eh, you know what? At least it would be an honest corrupt conspiracy. You would at least get clean teeth out of it. I’ll take it.
Anyway this nonsense barely gets started. Walt’s got an invitation from the Old Comics Home. This is one of the reality-breaking, slightly-magical aspects of the comic strip. The Old Comics Home is this boardinghouse for the characters of retired or cancelled comic strips. Now and then Walt Wallet visits, letting Jim Scancarelli do a bit of work with Major Hoople or Buster Brown or Little Sammy Sneeze or whoever.
The Old Comics Home is having a roast. They want him to be a speaker as they poke fun at Little Orphan Annie. “Will she think it’s funny,” asks Walt’s caretaker Gertie, and a fair question. But an important part of the behavior of the hew-mon is that your friends have license to insult you, and you accept these insults as love. In hindsight, “chimpanzees with anxiety” was a bad foundation on which to build the human species. Next time around maybe we should try basing humans on, I don’t know, “pheasants with gemütlichkeit” instead.
Walt’s preparation comes to thinking of the jokes you would think of about the comic strip. He takes notes of stuff like how Gertie thought as a girl the strip was named “Little Arf an’ Andy”. I am sure that at least one time when Walt Kelly’s Pogo was riffing on Annie they called the comic strip that. But I’m too lazy to check, so will go ahead and give the strip credit for a multifaceted allusion.
Other jokes are less deep cuts: how do the characters see without pupils? They’d bump into each other all the time! Or: Daddy Warbucks leaves Annie unsupervised an awful lot! What if Child Protective Services investigated the billionaire war-manufactures oligarch, as though law constrained the rich? Or: Little Orphan Annie had a jingle when she was on the radio; what if they changed some of the words? Well, if I understand, the point of a roast is for everyone to tell dumb insulting jokes about someone as a show of how much they love them. They don’t need to be insightful commentary that changes one’s view of things. They just have to exist.
At the tuxedo rental, Walt and Skeezix run into who else but Frank Nelson. This is a good chance to share some of the insult patter conversations Nelson did so well with Jack Benny. And that’s where we’ve got to by the end of the past week.
I trust the next couple of weeks will get the roast organized. Maybe Annie will go missing and need to be found or something. And the visit to the Old Comics Home will probably show off Smokey Stover or Ignatz Mouse or so on. It seems like time with the Old Comics would be a natural feed-in to Gasoline Alley reaching its hundredth year. But it won’t reach that until the 24th of November, four months off. A serial comic can drag its story out, but something this slight for that long? It’s hard to envision.
Meanwhile. The Sunday strips are their own little thing. Standalone gags that don’t play off the weekday continuity. Many of these have sported a nice Gasoline Alley 100th Anniversary sticker in the title panels. These came out of reruns first, and were the first signs that whatever kept Jim Scancarelli from writing and drawing the strips might pass. You can dip in and read any of them. I would swear last Sunday’s was an adapted Jack Benny-and-Phil Harris bit, but I can’t pin that down.
But the important stuff. The Old Comics Home. Old-time radio riffs. Elaborate bits of doggerel for the Sunday strips. Yeah, Jim Scancarelli is back. If I ever hear where he’d gone, I’ll pass that along to you. Thanks for checking in.
Mexico! Mysterious artefacts in the Yucatan! The strange and wonderful wildlife of Central America that we somehow haven’t killed yet! Maybe even a Sunday informational panel about cacomistles. All this and more in James Allen’s Mark Trail, if Nature hasn’t gone and killed us yet!
I still do not know what’s happening with Jim Scancarelli. However, Gasoline Alley for Thursday and Friday have been, as best I can tell, new strips. The comic strip had been rerunning a 2007 story in which Slim conks his head and has to get help for insomnia. In the 2007 run of this story Slim’s natural insomnia gave way to his being distracted by kids playing basketball in a court that had just gotten built. This turned into a story where, I swear, he bought a meteorite off eBay and arranged to have it dropped from a helicopter on the court in order to cancel basketball for the indeterminate future.
This time around, after finally getting some sleep, Slim has dreams of being on a deserted island with a bunch of Kiss Girls, which gets him in trouble with his wife.
What I don’t know that this means the strip is going to full-time new comics. This could mark a transition to new stories, or at least new little joke strips. But this could also be Scancarelli going back to working part-time, slipping in new strips to a rerun arc. I haven’t got any information either way, and will have to wait for developments.
I have thought that the last several Sunday strips were new. There’ve been several featuring a Gasoline Alley centennial logo. Perhaps whatever has taken Scancarelli away from new work has passed and the comic can get back to normal. And, perhaps, even resolve the story of Rufus’s wooing of the Widow Emma Sue and Scruffy’s Mother. That story was left on hold when the comic went into unexplained reruns in November. It was held at a good pausing point, but there is unfinished business there yet.
So, the 15th of May came and Gasoline Alley remained in reruns. I still haven’t heard anything about Jim Scancarelli’s condition. The new story is one about Slim Wallet. He’s the current owner of the auto care place that’s the gasoline alley the strip was built on before Skeezix changed everything.
The story that’s rerunning now, as it originally ran in 2007, was built on Slim having trouble sleeping. That story had a natural stopping point the 16th of June, 2007. So perhaps in a month Scancarelli — or someone else — might pick up new strips without leaving anything hanging. We’ll see the 18th of June this year.
If the strip continues in reruns after that, then we get into a storyline that became notorious, especially on Comics Curmudgeon. Eleven years on this is still one of the iconic references. This is the story where Slim realizes that kids are playing basketball late at night in the playground next to his house. Also that there’s a playground next to his house. This goes into crazypants territory. Yes, one of Scancarelli’s comics modes is the wacky sitcom. But this … well. Here.
I will refrain from spoiling you if you want to see this nonsense play out in real time. The end of that storyline came the 28th of August, 2007. So if these strips rerun the whole storyline, then the next chance to step on with a new story will be the 30th of August, 2018.
I don’t think there are any cases where, like, a Gasoline Alley Salutes Flag Day strip would need to be inserted that wasn’t there in 2007. Or that needs to be put in because it wasn’t observed the first time around. But this might throw the story’s end date off by a couple of days. Inserts for observing anniversaries in the comic strip are what keep the 2007 reruns from being perfectly in synch with 2018’s dates.
I don’t know what’s going on with Jim Scancarelli and don’t know anyone who does, but we may know in two weeks and two days. I say this for people who want to know what’s the deal with Gasoline Alley but aren’t willing to read more than the preview text of this article. If I get any news, though, I’ll post an article that you can find at this link. Also, if you want a summary of the plot that’s relevant for later than about the 16th of May, 2018, it’ll be there if I’ve written one.
I’ve heard nothing. I’ve encountered nobody who knows who’s said anything. I hope that Scancarelli’s well. The centennial of the comic strip is this November. There would be something terrible in cutting down a comic strip so close to that milestone. And for Scancarelli not to draw the strip for that milestone would be cruel.
And yes, Gasoline Alley is an old-fashioned strip. Some of this is Scancarelli’s personal interests. He has old-fashioned interests. He’s an old-time-radio enthusiast. Or he makes way more references to Frank Nelson than average for a person in 2018. He also has a lot of riffs on Bob and Ray, but any reasonable person might do that. But some of this is also built into the structure of the comic. Gasoline Alley is that now-rare creature, the serialized comedy strip. Serialized comedies, in which there’s a long-running story but (pretty much) every installment is meant to be funny, used to be common. The style has fallen out of fashion; the last important serial comedy in the comics page that I can think of is Walt Kelly’s Pogo. Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby is also a great serialized comedy, and has recently got collected into some handsome books. Oh, yes, Popeye was serialized and mostly comedic. But that’s been in reruns ever since Bobby London did a three-week sequence in 1992 that made people aware Popeye was still running in 1992.
There are plenty of comic strips that blend comedy and drama, or try to. The standard model for this is to pick a storyline for the week and do riffs on that, and then (usually) pick up a new storyline the next week. You saw this in Doonesbury. It’s still like that in Funky Winkerbean or Luann. It’s not much different from comic strips that don’t try to advance narratives, which will often do a week’s worth of riffs on a premise and then pick up a new one.
Gasoline Alley runs a storyline until it’s resolved, regardless of how many weeks that takes and whether it finishes midweek or not. That’s almost unique among syndicated comics. The only other humor strip I can think of doing this is Bill Holbrook’s Safe Havens. That strip began as the antics of a bunch of kids at the same daycare. Holbrook allowed them to age in roughly realtime and grow up. The comic strip, having picked up a few new cast members (a pop star, a mermaid, a time-travelling babysitter, the genetically-engineered revival of the dodo birds, an infant Leonardo da Vinci) has sent everyone off to explore Mars. It’s a bit of an odd strip when you stop and think about it. I’ve considered whether to start recapping its storyline in my rotation here.
Anyway, I don’t like institutions passing from the scene. I say this the weekend that my neighborhood is losing the Fish and Chips. It used to be an Arthur Treacher’s until the franchise shrank out of the area. They ripped the name ‘Arthur Treacher’ off the signage and carried on like before. Whether the lost institution is the serialized comedy genre or merely this one comic strip doesn’t make much difference. Oh, gosh, and now I realize I don’t know when I last went to the Kewpie Restaurant, and yes it’s a burger place based on Kewpie dolls. If that closes we might as well shut the whole city down.
(Yes, I’m aware web cartoonists do great work in serialized comedy stories, except that no web cartoonist has ever finished a serialized comedy story. Um. Hi, my friends who are web cartoonists. I say hurtful things out of love because we’re all friends? Besides, most comedy web strips do finish their first long-form story, and their second. It’s the third that doesn’t make it.)
And yet there are signs that someone is at work at Gasoline Alley Master Command. The first ambiguous sign was the 14th of February, and a panel celebrating the birth of Skeezix. His discovery on Walt Wallet’s doorstep madeGasoline Alley, as he aged in roughly real-time and his story made the comic must-read stuff. The strip copyright was 2018. But there wasn’t anything to it that couldn’t be a modified reprint from an earlier birthday.
The stronger sign was an exciting Sunday, the 25th of February. It’s a musical number from the Three Blind Miceketeers. It’s a running thing; the singing trio of mice do old-time-radio/50s-live-TV style advertisements for Chef Meowrice’s Cat Chow. Yes, Chef Meowrice is a white cat in a chef’s hat. Anyway, this is a song dedicated to Gasoline Alley’s centennial. Signed by Scancarelli. Looks like his line art, to my (I grant) inexpert eye. I wondered if it were a reprint from an earlier anniversary, the 90th or 95th or 85th or so, but couldn’t find it. It seemed to be a new comic. Hopeful sign that Scancarelli might be back once the ongoing daily-comics story reached its end.
And last Sunday, the 22nd of April, was another new comic. This with a logo for the comic strip’s centennial, and a song to go with it. It’s presented as a musical performance by the Molehill Highlanders. One of the GoComics commenters said the Molehill Highlanders are a band Scancarelli was in. I can’t find corroboration for that, but the mention, and the more-realistic drawing of the Highlanders, make this sound plausible to me. Also according to Wikipedia, Jim Scancarelli is a well-known bluegrass fiddler. And a onetime prizewinner for the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia. He’s also a model railroader. The only thing that would make this bundle of facts about him less surprising would be to discover he has a ham radio license.
The Sunday strips are new work. The modified daily strip implies that someone is at least reading the comics before sending them out for reprinting. So the comic isn’t wholly on automatic pilot. Will Scancarelli get back to writing the strip soon? I don’t know.
But: if the storyline from 2007 continues reprinting each strip, without insertions or omissions, then it’ll wrap up the 14th of May, 2018. This would be a natural time for Scancarelli to resume the strip. That’s not to say he will. If he’s had some problem keeping him from working, then making new Sunday strips while recuperating, or finding help, would make sense. There are plenty of reruns that could fill the daily strips. I am interested in what we’ll see the 15th of May.
(I’ve also wondered if GoComics is going to start running Gasoline Alley Classics, showing the strip from decades ago on purpose. I understand if they don’t want to run the strip from the 1918 start. Strips from that long ago take a lot of restoration and curation to publish. And then it always turns out there’s some impossibly racist figure in a small, unavoidable part. But from, say, World War II? From the 60s or 70s? It would let people better appreciate the comic strip as it was read at the time.)
While tearing out a countertop, Suds discovers an envelope with … The Lost Deed To Corky’s Diner. Pert Bobble, before his death, had deeded the diner and its land over to Corky. And so Wilmer Bobble was not the land owner and had no right to evict Corky. With the bulldozer at the front door Corky rushes to a lawyer to figure out whether this long(?)-lost deed is valid.
Now, um. I can imagine circumstances in which this might ever hold up. They amount to: you live in the world of an old-time radio sitcom. Or a sitcom from the 50s or 60s. It happens Jim Scancarelli’s characters pretty much do. It’s an old-fashioned sort of storyline resolution. If you accept the conventions of the genre then this is an acceptable way to save Corky’s Diner. If you don’t, well, then the story’s lost on you. Sorry for you, but it’s good news for the oatmeal shortage. I don’t know what to call this genre. But there is a kind of story this is an example of. And this resolution works for this kind of story.
(Okay, I can imagine another way this could work. The first element is if Pert transferred over the deed recently so that the place isn’t too far in arrears on property taxes. Or if in a fit of generosity he paid the property taxes anyway. The second if is Pert died recently enough that his estate’s still settling. I don’t see offhand a reference to when Pert died, or when the new deed was written. So there’s a possible thread by which this resolution could kind of work. If you need to have that instead.)
Bobble tries to bribe the sheriff into ignoring the deed, and that doesn’t go over well. The sheriff concludes Corky has a good title to the diner and the land it’s on. Not sure that’s the sheriff’s job. But someone has to tell the bulldozer driver what to do. They run Senator Bobble out of town and have a merry reopening.
And then the past month’s story, roughly: Suds, the dishwasher, is missing. After a couple of spot-joke interviews Corky hires a pair of young women, Joy and Dawn. They giggle a lot. They’re overwhelmed by the number of dishes. Also they’re kind of dumb. There’s a couple sitcom-class fiascos. Mostly broken dishes. Also putting enough soap in the dishwashing machine to cause a 50s/60s-sitcom-style mountain of suds.
And this brings Suds back into the picture. He got “shick” after “shellebratin’ Corky gettin’ t’own th’diner” and you get the picture. So Joy and Dawn are incompetent, but Suds is unreliable and only intermittently competent. Who keeps the dishwashing job? This turns into a contest to see who can clean the most dishes. Joy and Dawn using the dishwashing machine, or Suds by himself using sink and scrub brush? Who! Will! Win? That’s where the story stands as of the 28th of April.
It’s got two weeks more to play out. If you are aware of the genre Scancarelli writes in you have a fair guess how this is going to play out. But if you want to know before mid-May, I’ll not stand in your way. I would like to know what’s happening after that, myself.
Will Mark Trail die at the hands of Dirty Dyer? Will he die at the airport when a vehicle of some kind explodes from under him? Will he die at the hands of a flock of inadequately counted prairie dogs? There’s no telling, not until next Sunday when I look at what’s going in in James Allen’s Mark Trail.
Yes, I am very aware of the past week’s developments in Mary Worth (21 more panels, 13 with explicit muffin content, bringing the year to a total of 61 muffin panels out of 154 possible) only to interrupt all the wonderful goofy muffin content with actual assault.
Yes, poinsettia that’s still technically going from Christmas is probably in its last days and spending them waiting until it’s quiet in the house so it can drop a shriveled leaf in exactly the way to make the biggest, loudest rustle possible. So yes, our poinsettia is a drama queen is what I’m saying.
Yes, Funky Winkerbean has spent two weeks and counting establishing the fact that Wealthy Comic Book Collector Chester Hagglemore Yes That Is Too His Name wanting to talk with former comic book guy Mopey Pete without saying what he wants to talk about. (I’m guessing it’s Hagglemore Thank You The Theoretical Lead Of The Strip Is Named “Funky Winkerbean” So Let’s Just Carry On And Get Through This Quick As Possible is figuring to restart the whole Batom Comics lineup and he wants Mopey Pete to write them all so we can see all kinds of strips where Mopey Pete can’t finish stuff on deadline.) Also yes, it is a retcon to say Mopey Pete used to write for Batom Comics, since he was previously shown to write for Marvel and then DC. And the strip sure had been running like Batom Comics was a long-gone publisher brought back to memory by one of its properties being made into a movie.
Yes, niacin was first synthesized in the 1860s, decades before anyone even suspected vitamins were a thing and long before anyone would imagine it had any nutritional value. It was used as a photographic chemical under the name “nicotinic acid”.
So I say this for people in my future who’re looking for information about Gasoline Alley, the venerable, long-running serial-comic strip. If I learn more about what’s going on in it than I do now, the first weekend of February in 2018, I’ll post it here. Somewhere above this article on the page should be some more current idea of what’s going on.
Independently of that, I try to track mathematically-themed comic strips. I discuss them on my other blog, the mathematically-themed one. You can tell it’s different because it uses a serifed typeface for article headlines. The most recent of the comic strip posts is right here. I try to have at least one a week. The past few weeks Comic Strip Master Command has been sending me lots of stuff to write about, although it’s mostly “a student misinterprets a story problem”. But you never know when the teacher in your life is going to need something fresh taped to the door. So give that a try, please.
Nothing had been announced about planned reruns. It’s not unprecedented for a cartoonist to put the strip into reruns a while. They deserve holidays as much as normal people do. Or they have personal crises — a health scare, a house fire, a family emergency — and only a capitalist would complain about their taking time to deal with that. It’s a bit unusual for there to be no news about it, though. This stuff might not draw the front page of the Newark Star-Ledger. But to hear that a cartoonist has had a medical crisis and had to take a few unexpected weeks off is why comics sites have blogs. Also, Lincoln Pierce, of Big Nate, is “attending to family matters” and that’s why that comic strip went into reruns for a month. There’s not any word about when he’ll be back. It does happen, though. Darby Conley, of Get Fuzzy, stopped drawing new dailies altogether without notice over a decade ago. In the middle of a story, too, although it was a boring story he’d done many times before. No explanation, and he’d keep drawing new Sunday strips, although those have tapered off too. Why? No one who knows, says. Jeff Keane’s The Family Circus has been nothing but reruns from the 70s, sometimes touched up with modernized captions. We’re supposed to pretend we don’t notice. Dan Piraro and Wayno will redraw some vintage Bizarro, usually remaking a weekday strip as a Sunday. But that’s a complete redraw. And Bob Weber Jr and Sr’s Slylock Fox reuses puzzles. Sometimes, like, the Comics Curmudgeon remarks on both printings of a strip.
So what’s going on with Jim Scancarelli? I don’t know. I haven’t found anyone who does know and says. It’s an unsettling silence. It’s easy to imagine things that might leave Scancarelli unable to write or draw the strip. Few of them are happy thoughts. Gasoline Alley is — or at least had been — the oldest (American) syndicated newspaper comic not in eternal reruns. It’s terrible to think that the worst might happen and Jim Scancarelli might not be drawing the comic strip when it turns 100 years old this coming November 24.
(If my research doesn’t fail me, the next-oldest is John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, if that counts as a comic strip; it began the 19th of December, 1918. Then there’s John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, begun the 17th of June, 1919.)
I’m sorry to have so little to definitely say. If I get news, or even any good rumors, that aren’t made under a pledge of confidentiality, I’ll share. In my entire life I have exactly once ever gotten a tip about comic strip news, and that was in confidence. So I couldn’t even go into Usenet group rec.arts.comics.strips and make an accurate “prediction” about what would happen and then be all smug when it came true. In fact, I predicted the opposite of what would happen, because that reflected what I would have thought if I didn’t have inside information.
Still, perhaps somehow you weren’t reading Gasoline Alley with care in 2013 or didn’t remember the story. So what did happen? Rufus sings awful. Choir director Holly Luyah and Pastor Present work out that there is one note Rufus can sing, and hold him in reserve for exactly that note. He signs that note with enough power to break a stained-glass window. Rufus and Joel replace the broken piece with part of a beer sign, and then scrub the letters, and all the color, off the window.
29th of November: the next rerun story begins, with Slim Skinner working as a Santa Claus for the Bleck’s Department Store. That’s a plot which ran November and December of 2008. Slim’s not all that enthusiastic about the Santa Claus job, but it gives him the chance for a bunch of jokes about awful kids. Then he gets a sweet bug-eyed girl who wants something nice for her Mommy, since Daddy was killed in Iraq. The weepy melodrama sort of story that the comic does. This was also when I realized something was awry in the dailies. Playing Santa Claus for a grief-stricken impoverished family was where the Rufus and The Widow Emma Sue And Scruffy’s Mother started their storyline.
Slim figures to forego his own family’s Christmas and instead use the money to give the poor kid’s family a proper full holiday. With a fully-decorated tree and bunches of presents he breaks into the kid’s house. Before he can enter, he’s arrested by the Gasoline Alley police, which is about average for a Slim Skinner plot. The people whose house he mistakenly broke into don’t prosecute, and the police donate something to the poor girl and her mother. The girl’s name was finally given as “Mary”, because of course it would be. Close out with some talk about Slim’s resolutions for the New Year and that’s that.
With the 2nd of January the next (and current) story began its rerun. It first ran in January of 2007. It’s got Skeezix hanging out at Corky’s Diner. After a couple gags about about the food story interrupts in the form of Senator Wilmer Bobble visiting. He reminds Corky of the part he played in getting his Uncle Pert to sell Corky the diner back in 1950 (“I’ll talk with you, Corky, but not if Wilmer is in the deal!”). And they think back to the buying and early days of the restaurant that for all I know are faithful reconstructions of how the storyline back then went. And Bobble explains that now that his uncle Pert has died, and deeded the land to him, he’s evicting Corky’s Diner. He notes that “nothing lasts forever”, which is a pretty good line for a longrunning syndicated newspaper comic strip. He’s hoping to build a ten-story parking garage. The bulldozers will be here in two weeks.
And that’s the rerun story where it stands, as of the 3rd of February. (If they keep rerunning the story without interruption, the story will be here about seven more weeks. Spoiler: it doesn’t end unhappily for the core cast.)
The Sunday strips have been the usual spot gags, not part of any particular story continuity. Sunday strips have a longer lead time than weekday strips do. So it’s likely that the most recently published Scancarelli comic was one of the recent Sundays. I don’t know which. Commenters on rec.arts.comics.strips (particularly D D Degg) and on the GoComics.com pages have identified most of the rerun dates. This strip from the 17th of December was a rerun from 2007, as the phone suggests. The last new strip might be that of the 10th of December, 2017. Can’t say for sure.
(Late-breaking addition, punishing me for getting this all written up like 30 hours before deadline: I can’t find where the strip for today, the 4th of February, 2018, ran before. The lettering, to me, makes me think the strip is another from around late 2007 or early 2008. But I can’t find the original if it is out there. Maybe we worried for nothing? Or Scancarelli had a couple strips almost done and was now able to do the Sundays at least? Even if he isn’t able to get the dailies done?)
I promise. If I get news, and can share it, I will.
Has Nature killed you, or anyone you know? Has it dropped parachuters onto any bank robbers? Have you ever counted the prairie dogs outside Rapid City, South Dakota? If the answer to one or more of these questions is “the heck are you even talking about?” please join me as I check back in on James Allen’s Mark Trail. Be warned: it does involve geographically implausible appearances of giraffes. Also be warned: it appears to build a story around things mentioned during but not directly related to a previous story. Also it’s been years since we saw a giant squirrel discussing the smuggling poachers. Just saying.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.)
Do you know what time it is? Or what day it is, anyway? Because if it’s later than about December 2017, this isn’t an up-to-date report on the current plots of Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley. I’m writing this in mid-August 2017 and try to avoid making unfounded guesses about where stuff is going. So if it’s gone far enough that I’ve written a newer story summary, it should be at or near the top of this page. Thanks for reading.
In accord with the Law of Christmas Mysticism, the attempt to play Santa Claus crashes on the shoals of physical comedy. But a mysterious figure dressed as Santa Claus and explaining that of course he didn’t forget about the children delivers a pair of bicycles. But wait, you say, Joel is still dressed as Santa Claus and stuck on the water wheel! Who was that mysterious Santa-y figure giving presents to children? Hmmmmm?
Hm. Well, Rufus goes back home to find his cat’s had a litter of kittens. Emma Sue And Scruffy, the poverty-stricken kids he tried to give bikes to, see them too. Rufus’s reasonable answer to whether they could adopt them (“you have to ask your mother”) inspires Joel to ask why he doesn’t try marrying The Widow Emma Sue And Scruffy’s Mom. Rufus tries to dodge this plot by going fishing. Emma Sue And Scruffy do too, biking to the fishing pond.
There they find a codger, drawn realistically enough that when he tells them to scram they scram. Or they do until And Scruffy drives his bike down the embankment and learns it was a mistake not to also ask Santa Claus for bike helmets. Rufus did warn them about biking without protection, and honestly, when Joel and Rufus are the voices of wisdom …
Emma Sue goes seeking help. The codger, bringing his fish back through the fourth wall, finds And Scruffy. This promptly melts his heart, so the codger picks up the crash-victim and moves his spine all around bringing him back to the old mill. The codger — Elam Jackson — introduces himself and offers the fish he’d caught for a meal. Plus he offers to cover the medical bill to call a doctor for And Scruffy.
Rufus calls Chipper Wallet in from the Physician’s Assistant public-service storyline. Chipper examines, judging And Scruffy to be basically all right, and leaves without charging. This short-circuits the attempts of both Rufus and Elam to win the heart of The Widow Emma Sue And Scruffy’s Mom by paying her family’s medical bills. Rufus shifts to bringing two of the kittens as gifts to Emma Sue and Scruffy. Elam shifts to fixing the water wheel, offering The Widow Etc the chance to grind cereals as the public needs. I admit I’m not sure whether The Widow Etc and family are actually legit tenants of the old mill or if they’re just squatting.
And as with my other low-daisy-content story strip reviews, this one might be out of date. This post should be good for explaining plot developments in the couple of months before late May of 2017. If it’s later than, oh, August 2017 when you read this, then if all’s gone to plan I have a new post updating things further. My most recent Gasoline Alley posts should be at the top of this link. Thanks for reading and I’ll do my best to be not too wrong in describing the goings-on.
Gasoline Alley, 27 February – 26 May 2017.
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley has four major kinds of storyline, with many variations possible in those types. Three have been seen since late February. The missing one is the magical-fantasy storyline, wherein Walt Wallet or crew visit the Old Comics Home or something similar. The kind of story that just warps what reality could be. That hasn’t been around the last few months.
The second time is your classic old-style sitcom, ah, situation. The kind where one of the main cast has some scheme that gets advanced and then falls apart. You know, every sitcom from the 50s and 60s, and many of the radio sitcoms from the 40s. It’s an old-fashioned format but it’s still a perfectly workable one. Last time we looked at Gasoline Alley they were coming near the end of one of these. Walt Wallet had been invited to the TV show Shark Bait to pitch inventors his idea: put every household appliance together in one big raging appliance monster. The millionaire or billionaires (the strip made a point of raising confusion about this) don’t see how it would work, and one of them finds that exactly this idea was patented by the Hotenkold Appliance Company in 1935 and still makes the things. As predicted by everyone who’s encountered stories before, Walt Wallet does not go home wealthy. (The strip didn’t pay off the millionaire-or-billionaire question.)
The strip passed things off to Hoogy Skinner and her kids Boog and Aubee, for a medical check. This led a couple of weeks of pediatrician jokes and let us follow the Physician Assistant, Chipper Wallet, into the third of the stock Gasoline Alley plot kinds. And I’d like to mention the smoothness of the segue: we followed Walt Wallet out of the TV show plot, passed off by switching from one car to the next with characters that brought us to Chipper Wallet, and from that into his story. It’s all smoothly done; I wonder if daily readers even notice they’re being passed on like that.
Anyway, this third kind of storyline is the public service announcement. Chipper Wallet leaves the office to drive to Durham, North Carolina, where he’s to speak at the dedication of the Veteran’s Memorial Garden of the Physician Assistant Society. Wallet gets waylaid by some car trouble and meets Reverend Neil Enpray and mechanic Don Yonder whom I’m just going to assume are from the Earth-2 Gasoline Alley. They gave me the vibe of being established characters but I don’t know the canon nearly well enough to guess. But it’s mostly a chance for the characters to explain to the reader about what they are, what they do, why they’re important. The story ends with Wallet being reunited with a woman he, as a Navy Hospital Corpsman in Vietnam, helped deliver a child. As I say, a bit of story and a good bit of public service announcement. It’s also a chance to fundraise for the historical society.
And this led into the current storyline, one of the fourth type. It’s the weepy melodrama. It stars Joel and Rufus, two of the (bluntly) stupider adults in the strip. They’re usually busy with more outlandish hijinks and misunderstandings. (The segue for this story was Rufus bringing his cat in to see Chipper Wallet on the grounds that of course he’s a vet; he served in the Coast Guard.) Rufus has just met Scruffy, a kid whose family just moved into the abandoned old grist mill and is so poor they can only use parts of the Walt Kelly Pogofenokee comic-strip-southern dialect. The story’s in its earliest days so not much has been established past that the family’s desperately poor. I expect this is going to lead Rufus and Joel in a story in which they make some grand and slightly overcomplicated gesture to help that which misfires but still results in their being a little better off. (At this stage it’s playing Santa Claus Running Late. This may evolve.) That’s the kind of story Gasoline Alley does.
The Sunday strips have all been one-off jokes, mostly characters setting up and delivering corny old gags well, and not part of any continuing storylines. That’s fine and pleasant but there’s no context I can usefully give to them. They’re whole on their own.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose eleven points as everyone was relieved to learn everyone else had clicked on that silly clickbait ad about ten ways to earn money from your hobby and there was no reason everyone should feel ashamed that, like, apparently there’s people whose hobby is investing in real estate? I mean, come on. Anyway the index is at 210 and that’s not even an all-time high and isn’t that amazing too? It’s amazing, yes.
I, too, thought I was done with story strips. And then I realized I’d forgot one. And what a one to forget: it’s, I believe, the oldest syndicated comic strip that isn’t in perpetual reruns. Coming to us from the 24th of November, 1918, it’s …
If you know anything about Gasoline Alley you don’t need me to tell you anything about Gasoline Alley. It’s one of those comic strips that’s been around forever even though the last child to grow up enthusiastically reading it went on to fight in King Philip’s War. Have to admit, a someone who only started paying attention to it in adulthood, the kids are missing something. That something is a lot of old-time radio references. I honestly wonder how artist/writer Jim Scancarelli wasn’t hired to draw the Lum and Abner comic strip.
So the comic strip is a slice-of-life serial comic. Its big gimmick, and the thing that’s let it last nearly a century, was the day in 1922 when protagonist Walt Wallet discovered the orphan Skeezix on his doorstep. Since then most of the characters in the strip have aged more or less in real time. People get born, they grow up, they move off, they move back, they marry, they have careers, they bring new people into the strip, they retire. The whole cast is impossibly vast and interconnected in ways that only Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury compares to.
Walt Wallet is still around, even though the progression of time makes him something like 115 years old. I imagine Scancarelli is a little too sentimental to kill the comic’s original star, even if there have been like four whole generations of plausible lead characters since then. He doesn’t even have to kill Walt. Scancarelli embraces a bit of magic whimsy in the comic (a lot, really), and one of the conceits is the Old Comics Home. It’s the boarding house for all the characters from the classic old comic strips. They have a visit every year or so. I can’t imagine anyone objecting if Walt, and maybe Skeezix too, were to pay their annual visit to Mutt and Jeff and Buster Brown and Smokey Stover or whoever and just … not come back.
But Walt Wallet does come back. And the current storyline, begun the 16th of January, stars him. He’s inspired by a newspaper advertisement offering “big bucks for your inventions”. After several days sleeping on it he has an inspiration. It’s a combination freezer-fridge-stove-grill-microwave-TV, the sort of thing you might create as a dubiously practical all-in-one contraption for a 60s sitcom. Wallet admits he got the idea from thinking about how in Dick Tracy the B.O. Plenty clan had a stove with a built-in TV set. I don’t know that this actually happened, but I believe it. Scancarelli shows a love for this particular kind of pop culture. He is not so reference-crazy as the actual current staff of Dick Tracy, but then neither is the writing staff of Family Guy. Still, he could hold his own in a highly referential conversation with them.
Wallet’s idea underwhelms Skeezix and his nurse. But he attracts the attention of Gasoline Alley TV’s Shark Bait. So he goes to the TV studio to pitch his idea — or really the novelty of a 115-year-old inventor — to the jury of millionaire investors. He gets to the studio and meets, who else but Frank Nelson.
You know Frank Nelson. OK, you know that guy on The Simpsons who goes YYYyyyyyyyyeeeeeess? That’s Frank Nelson they’re impersonating there. He appeared in a lot of Jack Benny Program episodes as the clerk or ticket-taker or information desk guy or anyone at all that Benny would have to get information from. And he’d instead get “YYYyyyyyyyyeeeeeess” and “OOooOOOoooh” and insults. This may sound like thin stuff, but, again: character actor. And done for one or two minutes a week, two weeks a month, the character doesn’t exactly get old. It gets familiar, the way a fun running gag does. Frank Nelson’s reappeared in Gasoline Alley to torment Walt Wallet because, like I said, Jim Scancarelli’s an old-time radio fan. The comic probably reads fine if you have no idea what’s being referred to here. If you know how the lines should be read, I imagine they’re funnier.
But I don’t know what it reads like to someone who doesn’t get the references. Scancarelli likes them, and will keep making them. Even if they’re a little baffling. A while back he introduced Molly Ballou, radio reporter. Who’s carefully introduced as the sister to Wally Ballou, famously mis-cued reporter for Bob and Ray. And shortly after that he introduced Polly Ballou, Wally and Molly’s other sister. I understand wanting to do a little Bob and Ray fanfic because who would not? And it’s simple professionalism to do it with your own character, because that way, if you screw up nobody’s qualified to tell you you’re wrong. (Frank Nelson’s appearances have, I believe, avoided coming right out and naming him, allowing for some deniability if the character goes completely wrong. At the cost of confusing people who realize there’s a reference to something here that they don’t have enough stuff to Google.)
But why make them Wally Ballou’s improbably young-looking sisters? In the comic strip that defined “comic strip that passes more or less in real time”? Why not make them his daughters, or granddaughters? And why Molly and Polly, when it seems like one would do? Maybe it’s pure self-indulgence. As cartoonist self-indulgences go this seems quite tolerable to me. Or maybe I just like that I get the references.
So, as of this week, Walt Wallet’s gotten onto Shark Bait. It’s going out live because Gasoline Alley TV just does that. You can roll with it or you can read something else, okay? There’s an odd bit of confusion in the show’s opening about whether the jury is a panel of millionaires or billionaires and that might be a hint there’s some mischief up. I make no predictions for how it’ll resolve except that at the end of it Walt Wallet will not be a millionaire. The strip doesn’t break reality that much, plus, think of the biographies of every inventor you know. How many of then end with “died in poverty after long court fights with the companies that ripped off his/her patents”? Yeah.
This is the storyline running Monday through Saturday. On Sundays the comic strip runs separate gags. They’re usually one-off panels, not connected to any storyline. And they’re usually the sort of big dumb old-school sketch comedy stuff that was old when old-time radio was new. And Scancarelli draws it in this warm, friendly, very gentle style. It works for me. I like that kind of comedy. Don’t know that it communicates today.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index fell eight points following uncertainty as to which of the paczki is the strawberry and which is the red raspberry. This might have been weathered but similar doubts were raised regarding the blueberry and the prune ones.