A String of Moment (Context)

Take the days, all of the days, and cut away all but what pleases you. Those moments of pleasure are strung together now, one by one, a trail of memory stretching uninterrupted from one year to the next. Together for the first time, they are new again.

Are you surprised at how much has been spent at the same task? Or did you cut all of that away, leaving only the odds and ends, a collection of punchlines for jokes never stated? There’s little variety or excitement in obligation. Just row after row of perfectly formed boxed filled with perfectly on-model cats gorging themselves on perfectly inked lasagna. Ack!

 

A Stranger Comes to Town

I have it on good authority that serial newspaper strips are not built in a day. Popeye, for instance, didn’t hitch his wagon to Thimble Theatre until more than nine years into its run. Gasoline Alley didn’t take quite that long to get going, at almost a year and a half into the strip. Allegedly it was Frank King’s editor who suggested the change, which seems ludicrous on its surface. “Let’s see—we’ve got this gag strip about men hanging about a garage discussing their flivvers and occasionally enacting a repair or two. How are we gonna make this appeal to women as well?” Well, why not add an orphan, and make him an infant for good measure?

It seems so crass, so misguidedly commercial, that it is both impossible and perfectly natural that it was really a demand from on-high. Ludicrous, but also functional. Previous to baby Skeezix’s arrival King’s observational abilities, and his eye for nuance, were primarily turned towards the ostensible subjects of the strip—the hardware, the gadgetry. The cars are lovingly discussed, examined, used and abused and eventually sold or discarded—another model on the horizon to discuss and dissect. But with Skeezix that great eye turned towards the people of the story, including this little infant who at first is so helpless, but who will eventually stand, walk, talk and play.

This innovation, this device of incredible power and utility that is the source of so much of the richness of the strip, the aging, seems to be, ultimately, an accident of Skeezix’s infancy.

 

Wading/Changes

I’ve read the first three volumes of Drawn + Quarterly’s Walt and Skeezix, collecting in total six years of the strip. I’ve watched Skeezix go from an infant in the arms of the confused and reluctant father Walt to seeing him run and play and talk with his newly-extended family—Walt, his wife Blossom, their maid and Skeezix’s caretaker Rachel, and their dog Pal. The deepness of this experience of shallow time, the slow accumulation of event, creates a very strange feeling of completeness, of reality, even through the melodrama, through the broad characterizations. The effect is that of reading a daily diary, dipping into the stream of days, wading, until it is a thing of itself, each one indistinguishable from the other.

 

History Without Intention

When Skeezix first arrived on Walt Wallet’s doorstop, what was the world like? America in 1919. Tell me. How did the air taste? How did the buildings look? How did people travel? How did they court? What did they wear? What did they swim in? What did they do for fun? Where were the hem lines, who were the heroes, and how was justice served?

The intimacy of scale encourages an inhabiting of the environment, an environment that would have largely been invisible to his readers at the time as it may have been largely familiar. After six years I feel as though I know this place in a way that would be impossible otherwise.

But what is the place that I know? Is it the unnamed town that Walt and his family inhabit? Is it all of small-town America? Or is it King’s imaginings of this place, his simplifications, his fictional yearnings and need for dramatic situation?

In 2041 will someone write a introspective retrospective on the recently unearthed T.J. Hooker, discussing all of the things they learned from the show about California in the 1980s?

 

Things I Learned From T.J. Hooker

  1. In the early eighties motor vehicles were extremely dangerous. If one were to roll over, it will in a matter of seconds burst into flame and then burn.
  2. In the early eighties policemen routinely fought vehicles in hand to vehicle combat, including but not limited to cars, trucks, forklifts, ¾ scale trains in amusement parks, planes and school buses. If any of these vehicles were to roll over on their backs in the course of this combat, they would very shortly burst into flame.
  3. In the early eighties certain police officers had extrasensory powers of perception that enabled them to discern, almost immediately and with no externally visible evaluation or investigation, the true nature of the various criminals they confronted, and whether such criminals were good people set upon a bad path, or irredeemable scum that should be punished by all means possible.

 

To Unwrap and Enfold

Has there ever been a book series so well-loved, so nurtured and cared for and sensitively addressed, by its designer? Ware’s designs for his own books are virtuoso pastiches of styles long past and fallen from favor; his work on the Krazy and Ignatz series seems showy and ostentatious, not so much supporting the work within but wrapping it like a confectionist, and occasionally smothering it. But the Walt and Skeezix books use his great powers of pastiche and adaptation and put them solely in the service of the books themselves, the color and the scope of the scenery bridging the gap between the intimacy of scale of the dailies and the grandness and lush color of the Sundays.

 

Changes Again

When I bought these books, only a few years ago now, I was a married high school art teacher; I kept them on the lower shelf to the left of my drawing board, near the closet that we had to keep closed, so that our cat wouldn’t climb inside to nest in our belongings. The Walt and Skeezix volumes were her favorite books—she would play with the slim red ribbon that hangs from the binding of each volume. Now she’s dead, buried in the backyard, and I’m no longer married. Nor am I a high school teacher. As for the books, they were boxed up and put into the basement when I cleared out all my stuff out of the work room. Maybe I’ll sell them when I move out. I don’t think I would keep them now even if I could afford them—there’s just no place for them now.

 

So What Exactly Is It You Do? You Know, For A Living?

I read almost four year’s worth of these strips before it suddenly occurs to me—what does Walt do for a living? Does he have a job? If so, how does he get all of that time off for his cross-country jaunts? Maybe he’s independently wealthy—he’s certainly well-off enough to take care of his family and have plenty of dough left over for buying a new car, purchasing land or investing in one of Avery’s schemes. And yet he talks continually about money being tight, about having to save and manage and scrimp.

Is it that King felt the details of a profession would bog the strip down and leave it with less latitude for geographical change and impulsive spectacle? Is the grind of a profession a step too far toward realism and true monotony? Or perhaps King’s relentless observation had prepared him to thoroughly examine only a single man’s day to day work—his own.

It’s not immediate, but this realization fundamentally changes the way I perceive the strip. Or it could be the increasingly complex dramatic plot lines. But whatever the cause, the spell is broken. A friend of mine has her first child. I find the occasion surprisingly moving, greeting the news with a wave of elation and jealousy and confusion. I briefly consider buying her the first volume of Walt and Skeezix  on remainder, and then think again, write a song instead.

Today

I did not draw. I did no work for money, had no goals, no expected outcomes. I played music, then biked to the house of a new friend, played more for sheer experience. Later we road down to the lake, wandered the park, climbed a concrete embankment, and swam in the chilly water until the sun went down around us.

It was blinding behind the trees. I didn’t think to draw it.

 


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