Sunday, June 23, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Jim Scancarelli drew this poster design for an exhibition I organized in 1988 for the Salina (KS) Art Center and the Mid-America Arts Alliance.


by Rick Marschall

Two legendary comic strips celebrate their centenaries this year, in fact about these same mid-year weeks.

Gasoline Alley and Barney Google sprouted in the fertile soil that was Chicago cartooning of the ‘teens and ‘20s. For all of the camaraderie and cross-pollination of the  Chicago “school” who fraternized, were students at, or taught at, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, there are no substantial records of a close relationship between Frank King and Billy DeBeck, respective creators of those strips.

Otherwise they were nurtured by common ferment and the glories of a great era in American cartooning.

Frank King was born in Wisconsin, but moved to Chicago and lived in the northern suburbs before the Florida sun seduced him late in life. Gasoline Alley was self-consciously set in those Chicago neighborhoods where garages faced each other behind rows of Sears Catalog Homes. Billy DeBeck first cartooned in Youngstown OH and Pittsburgh before moving to Chicago. Before settling in Tampa, after Chicago he mostly lived where good times and golf courses beckoned.

The halcyon days of the Chicago School produced an amazing Who’s Who of talent and influence in American cartooning: Editorial cartoonists John T McCutcheon, Carey Orr, Luther Bradley, Vaughn Shoemaker; strip cartoonists King and DeBeck, Sidney Smith, Harold Gray, Frank Willard, Ferd Johnson, Carl Ed, William Donahey, E C Segar, Sals Bostwick, Penny Ross; panel cartoonists Clare Briggs, H T Webster, Quin Hall; illustrators Garrett Price and Dean Cornwell… and others too numerous to mention.

Long were the careers – and influence – of many of these creators. Gasoline Alley and Barney Google are unique in that they have survived a hundred years, the latter albeit largely having been kidnapped and eclipsed by Snuffy Smith.

When I was the young cartooning-enthusiast son of indulgent parents, the last day or two of annual family vacations to Florida were given over to visiting cartoonists. The only condition was that I be bold and clever enough to arrange appointments in advance. Al (Mutt and Jeff) Smith, my mentor, and other professional friends, and Marge Devine of the National Cartoonists Society, helped me with addresses and phone numbers. After that, I reliably trusted on the native good will and friendliness of professional cartoonists.

So, criss-crossing the Sunshine State for many vacation years, I first met Frank King, Roy Crane, Leslie Turner, Jim Ivey, Ralph Dunagin, Dick Hodgins Sr., Lank Leonard, Zack Moseley, Fred Lasswell, Mel Graff, Don Wright, Worth Gruelle, and others.

Frank King was old and slow, but with a quick memory, when I met him and visited several times. The strip then firmly was in the hands of Dick Moores. On each visit Frank would give me an autographed, vintage Gasoline Alley original. They ranged from the week after Skeezix appeared on Walt’s doorstep (depicting him holding the baby before the Alley gang) to the 1930s.

I have several distinct memories. One is tragic. Frank said he could dig out an old original for me, and went to a shed out back… where he, evidently, had not been for years. There were stacks of old Gasoline Alley originals, but the years – and Florida humidity, maybe a leaky shed roof – had taken a toll. They were mildewed, stuck together; hundreds and hundreds of them. He was shell-shocked.

Other things I remember, and I hope they were saved by his family. For his own amusement Frank created what he called “shadow boxes,” scenes mostly from Gasoline Alley. Each was a large wooden box, open at the front and top. He painted backgrounds on the sides, bottom, and back; and then he painted characters and image details on panes of glass that slid into grooves. The one I remember was of Walt and Judy raking Autumn leaves – when you looked into the shadow box at eye-level, you beheld a three-dimensional cartoon of Walt and Judy and hundreds of colorful leaves all around them, including behind and in front of them.

Frank had many originals on his walls, and I remember being struck by names I had not heard of – Sals Bostwick, a talented assistant who died young; and Quin Hall; and his friends from the early days whose names I knew as illustrators but not as cartoonists, like Garrett Price and Dean Cornwell.

Audacious camera angles, meticulous detail, masterful shading, dialog revealing mature character delineations – hallmarks of Dick Moores’ work on Gasoline Alley)

Later I became a friend of Dick Moores, also as his Editor at the syndicate. An amazing talent, as was the next successor and current resident of the Alley, Jim Scancarelli. A friend who discusses mountain fiddling and Uncle Fletcher’s washrag collection (from radio’s Vic and Sade) as readily as he discusses comics history.

Gasoline Alley can be read as The Great America Novel. For my money, the continuity lines and characterizations in Billy DeBeck’s creations (including in Parlor, Bedroom, and Sink and Bunky) rival Dickens in craft, depth, and invention.

I did not knowe DeBeck, of course; he died in 1942. But I got to know his successor Fred Lasswell very well. One of the most colorful figures in American cartooning; surely the inevitable cut-up in any room he filled with his outsized personality. And body. King Features Present Joe D’Angelo was resigned to being, in some innovative way or another, the butt of a Lasswell practical joke whenever Fred visited New York. For instance having a waiter deliver a bottle of champagne and flowers to every table in a restaurant… charged to Mr D’Angelo.

By the time DeBeck died, relatively young, during World War II, Barney, Loweezie, and assorted hillbillies had taken over the strip. Barney himself receded as a side-character – Spark Plug even more so – and the mountain-folk indeed were a national sensation. Never a casual about any of his passions, DeBeck became a first-rate scholar of Appalachian life, lore, and language. He read all the dialect humorists of the mid-1800s, and caught the mountain folks’ personalities and ways. Phrases he did not borrow, he manufactured… with authenticity.

Such things were not in DeBeck’s background; neither Lasswell’s; but he was a quick study. The stock cast has dominated the strip for nigh-on 80 y’ars naow. Fred was an “A” personality, and even starred in “Uncle Fred’s Cartooning Lessons” videos in the 1980s. We occasionally appeared together in the mid-1990s promoting the US Postal Service’s “American Classic” set of commemorative stamps. We each sported ties, by coincidence, with hand-painted Yellow Kid figures on them.

Snuffy and other denizens of Hootin’ Holler comfortably are in the capable hands of John Rose these days. As in life itself – I mean real life; or realer life than comics – longevity can be attributed to many factors. With Gasoline Alley the old characters and new faces surely have attracted readers’ sympathies. It was the first comics strip where characters aged in real time. (I remembering urging Dick Moores to have Walt die, something that he would have handled sensitively; today Walt should be at least 120 and Skezzix 100. It would have maintained the comic-context realism, and garnered publicity.)

But the changing cast of Gasoline Alley and the frozen-in-time setting of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (it probably has been a half-century since Barney or Snuffy visited a big city, the strip’s original setting) explain only parts of the strips’ longevity. Obviously the talents of the successors are responsible as well.

But as in real life, as I said, in strips there is a healthy gene pool that is dominant. The premises and conceptions of the progenitors obviously are the gloriously guilty parties. I feel especially blessed to have known, in my Crowded Life, some of the gifted people who have managed these precious creations so well.


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