All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
I was slow to appreciate the greatness of Gasoline Alley. The products that the strip generated were relatively few, compared to the likes of Felix and Mickey, etc. And what there was appeared, to me, to be whispering. It all seemed so polite and sweet, and the level of stylization was not extreme. It was not until I finally examined some of the Gasoline Alley Sunday Pages that I tuned in to the understated genius of Frank King. I was amazed to realize that many of these Sunday pages are excursions into Surreal Fantasy. Such flights of fancy were to be expected in Slumberland, but they are stunning when encountered in what purported to be, day to day, domestic reality.
The last thing that I intended to do here was to reproduce any comic pages, but in this case I would like to share a few with you. I discovered hundreds of original Sunday Funnies, at the local flea market, many years ago, and getting to know Uncle Walt and Skeezix turned out to be one of the things that made acquiring them exciting. I don’t quite know how to copy these. I also have a bound volume of the same strips in a smaller size, perhaps that will be easier.
In the first, Uncle Walt and Skeezix become silhouettes. Or do they? Walt points out that one becomes a silhouette, "when people see them against the evening sky." And so, we travel with them among their friends and discover how powerfully distinctive and recognizable the shadows of the characters in this strip really are, and we wonder if this is really happening, or it is just a conversation, until they encounter the sheet of paper, from which they, themselves, were cut out. And then, we segue inconspicuously into reality again, or do we? That is what I find so amazing about this quiet strip, the line between reality and fantasy is crossed gently, seamlessly, and with great subtlety, time and again.
This next one is subtler still, look carefully or you might miss it. I am reminded of a line from the Twilight Zone that went something like: “You are about to travel through a new dimension of time and space”. That is exactly what Walt and Skeezix do here. On the surface, it is nothing but a stroll across a public beach. Now, step back, and look at the whole thing. The beach is all of a single piece. It continues, seamlessly, behind the lines that divide the panel into squares, while the people on the beach, the shore line etc. and the entire scene, pass behind the squares. Now travel with Walt and Skeezix, as they move through time and space, interacting with this beach that always remains the same.
Last of all, Walt and Skeezix take a stroll through the abstract world of Modern Art. Skeezix, in the last panel, offers the suggestion that it might have been a dream, then takes it back, again. They leave a trail of paint behind. Such was the mild mannered world of Uncle Walt and Skeezix, 80 years ago. Uncle Walt is, now, over 110, and Skeezix is 92 years old.
Skeezix merchandise was quite polite. The drawings are delicate; the colors are sweet and light. Here is my little Gasoline Alley section, pretty much, in its entirety. From the Gasoline Alley Game, “Walt & Skeezix” to handkerchiefs and shoes and a tin toothbrush holder, with its original box and tube of toothpaste, all the art for these products was created by Frank King. Well, perhaps not the “Skeezix Cut Out Toys”. They look like they might been helped by someone else’s hand. There is an Orphan Annie version of these as well.
Here are a group of three oilcloth dolls. I have always been somewhat mystified by these. Years ago, I saw the catalogue of the company that manufactured them. There were dozens of designs. Nearly all the 1920s Comic Characters were represented, in a variety of sizes and variations, of which this doll of Uncle Walt, at 26 inches high, was the largest. There were many versions of Skeezix. This is the first. Each year, as he grew up, which he did do, in real time, in the strip, a new older version of him was released. As these dolls are flat, I never quite understood how a kid would play with them. Later on, variations with separate legs that could stand up, were made. The oilcloth is quite fragile and perishable. It’s quite miraculous that any of these survived for 90 years. Skeezix’ dog “Pal” is, perhaps, the rarest figure here.
In keeping with the gentle nature of Skeezix merchandise is this charmingly understated tea set. Not crude, like those later sets that japan supplied for Mickey and Minnie. This one, is fine china, made in Germany. And the edges were rimmed in gold.
What makes this set so extraordinary is the interior of the box, with all the vehicles in place. It recreates the colorful elaborate drawing on the cover. The platform of the box becomes the muddy roadway, complete with tire tracks. There is a cut out to hold each Tootsietoy vehicle. An illustrated traffic cop tries to maintain order, while Smitty’s dog, “Scraps” runs away.
So, now, that you have seen all the objects on this shelf, let’s pull back and reveal the entire thing.
Then, let’s move back, even farther, and show the complete showcase, with the Yellow Kid on the bottom, Andy Gump and Gasoline alley in the middle and Early Comic Characters on the top.
Up to now we’ve touched upon the origins of Comic Characters, the early ones, with whom it all began. And we have seen most of the showcases dedicated to them that are upstairs. Therefore, it’s time to go downstairs again, and meet the heart of Comic Toy collecting, face to face, in the form of Comic Windups.
Now, we come to the one killer item, well in this case, there are actually two of them. I went through Hell to get the first one, and when a second came along in the original mailing box, I couldn’t say, No! I’m talking about, the Skeezix Radio. This colorfully lithographed tin can is actually a Chrystal set. But, in 1924, that’s about as close to a real radio as one could get. The first radio stations in the United States had begun just two years before.
Around the canister are drawings that depict the wonderment of Uncle Walt showing Skeezix, who is still very young, the miracle of “Radio.” Sharing a pair of earphones, he asks, “Who is that Skeezix, Santa or the Sand Man?” The original box is nothing to get excited about, it’s just a plain brown cylinder. Those are the original instructions, behind the Skeezix bank. There is something about this object that holds magic. It captures the essence of a moment when a new technology, radio, entered and changed our lives. My own life was enriched by such moments as these, and every new thing from TV to Stereo was exciting. These days there is a new miracle introduced every day. Such things have become commonplace.
Moving to the left, in the same showcase, we discover a rather fabulous set of vehicles. They represent, possibly, the most creative packaging in the history of early Comic toys, the “Tootsietoy Funnies”! The toys themselves are just “all right”, slightly crude in configuration, although, each does perform some sort of “action”. Individually, the tiny diecast vehicles appeal to automotive fans, and Tootsietoy collectors, but they are not something that I would ever choose to own, without the package. The package, without the vehicles, would be mildly amusing, but together, in great condition, they are amazing! Each of the six vehicles involves, at least, one Comic Character. They represent: Uncle Walt in his Roadster, Andy Gump in Old 348, Moon Mullins in the back of a police car, driven by an officer, Kayo on the back of an ice wagon, Mamie and Uncle Willie in a boat and Smitty and Herby riding on a Motorcycle. Each of the figures are animated, and move as the vehicle rolls along.