Friday, September 25, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

When Frank Was King.

by Rick Marschall. 

Two reasons had my “mind” returning to Gasoline Alley and its creator Frank King this week. From my friend Germund Von Wowern, the Maharajah of Malmö, I received some memorabilia of Tomah, the small Wisconsin town where King was born.

Also, I participated in the Theodore Roosevelt Center Symposium at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. I am Cartoon Archivist for the Center – all digital and internet work, as was this conference. All three days by Zoom. Complicated for the organizers, but actually efficient and accessible, and almost more intimate than the in-person event.

I mention the Roosevelt Symposium because this very week last year, while driving to North Dakota, I passed by a highway exit for Tomah, and was tempted to visit. Some day.

It surely is a place more interesting than most cartoonists’ heimat… home place, wellspring, inspiration. That is because Frank King invented his neighborhoods, whether Chicago houses’ garages, or the suburbs of later years of Walt and Skeezix, Phyllis and Nina. King had a superb sense of place; his environments were not stage-backdrops but, virtually, characters as vivid as the people with names.

So Tomah went with Frank wherever he moved, and whatever setting he chose for his characters.

After he retired from the northern Chicago suburbs, Frank King moved to the Winter Park suburb outside Orlando, Florida. I had written him fan letters when I was young and – well, I was still young – but every year our family vacationed in Florida. The Orlando area was a cartoonists’ colony, and my father encouraged me to write to my hero / pen-pals and see if we could visit.

So for many years, before returning to New Jersey and by gracious pre-arrangement, the last one or two days of “our” vacation would be a detour to Orlando (I use quotation-marks because I bless my father’s memory for this, but my mother and sisters were not thrilled) and see cartoonists. I have mentioned this here before, but almost every year Roy Crane and Frank King would be on the list, and then there were visits to Leslie Turner, Mel Graff, Dick Hodgins Sr., Lank Leonard, Zack Mosely, Jim Ivey, Fred Lasswell (some on the east and west coasts of the state).

By the time I started visiting Frank King, almost all the work on the strip was being done by Dick Moores, later a good friend; and in fact I became his syndicate editor. I have, and will, tell more here about the visits to Frank King – his studio and the interesting originals on the walls (for instance, work by onetime assistants Garrett Price and Sals Bostwick); examples of the “shadow boxes” he constructed – three-dimensional scenes with Gasoline Alley characters and elements painted on glass panes.

Every year the cartoonists gave me “parting gifts” of originals; Roy Crane once dug back for a Wash Tubbs from when it was only a Sunday top-strip. Frank pulled work from the 1940s, 1930s, and once a Rectangle panel, before Gasoline Alley was a titled feature. It is here, maybe the first time Skeezix’s name is mentioned – days after he was left on Walt’s doorstep.

Each year Frank’s age showed more and more; his recollections grew foggier. One year he smiled and said, “Let’s look for some real old-timers. The old drawings are in the tool shed.” It might have been years since had gone there, because the central-Florida humidity had done its work. Piles of originals were matted together, covered in mold. Tears came to his eyes.

Mine too.

The Tomah drawing was for a special publication marking the town’s centennial in 1955. To my eyes, although Frank might have done a thumbnail sketch, this is by Dick Moores at the very beginning of their collaboration. The panorama drawing, on the other hand, seems to be 100 per cent Frank King, and from the details and lines, how he drew at the time.

In the text he identifies the location of the alley! Vast areas of Chicago have homes whose back doors face rows of garages, and middle-class owners of new automobiles tinkered and compared notes in those alleys.

“The row of garages near 63rd Street in Chicago,” he wrote; and ID’d Bill, Avery, Walt, and Doc.

I used to urge Dick Moores to construct a story about Walt’s death. I certainly had nothing against the old boy… but the Gasoline Alley WAS noted for its characters growing in real time. I thought, and think, it would be true to the strip’s essence to “draw” that curtain. Jim Scancarelli, the current and excellent artist, has Walt and Skeezix still around, challenging the actuarial tables at Social Security; it was almost 100 years ago when Walt, an adult, found Skeezix on his doorstep.

But if they do ever “retire,” I know this great small-town American village in rural Wisconsin where they would fit right in...




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