“Comic Art” Exhibition: Exploring the History of a Beloved Format

While recently viewing the Library of Congress exhibition, “Comic Art: 120 Years of Panels and Pages,” I was struck by the effective storytelling Frank King employed in a cartoon drawing for his Gasoline Alley comic strip. In the cartoon, the main character Walt Wallet is depicted as a father whose well-meaning plans to introduce his son to the beauty of the great outdoors have gone awry.

<em>Gasoline alley. Walt, I'm going up the canyon</em>. Drawing by Frank King, 1921. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10592

Gasoline alley. Walt, I’m going up the canyon. Drawing by Frank King, 1921. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10592

After an uneventful start to his hike with his son Skeezix, Walt begins to suspect that his friend Doc is sneaking up on the two of them. Walt teasingly says “You can’t fool us!” before realizing they are actually being approached by a bear. A comical slide down a mountain into a river ensues, concluding the narrative. I particularly like how the frightening scene in the top panel alludes to the story’s conclusion.

Curator Sara W. Duke provided me with further context: “At the time this comic strip was created, each comic strip appeared on a separate tabloid page, which gave the artists plenty of room to use the title panel as a prelude to the story. While Walt and Skeezix encounter only one bear, Frank King imagines a much more menacing interaction.”

Cropped section from Gasoline alley. Walt, I’m going up the canyon. Drawing by Frank King, 1921. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10592

Gasoline Alley first appeared in print in 1918 and in 1921 became the first cartoon to show its main characters aging contemporaneously with its readers. It is also the longest running cartoon strip still in production in the United States. The exhibition provides these and many other facts and insights from the history of the art form.

For those of you unable to visit Washington to see the exhibit, please enjoy the online version, which includes digital copies of nearly every item displayed in the physical exhibit space. If you are able to visit the exhibition in person, you will have the luxury of seeing many original drawings close up.

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