Comic strips have been entertaining American newspaper readers for more than 120 years. This month, November, marks a huge anniversary for one comic strip in particular, “Gasoline Alley,” which turns 100 on Saturday, Nov. 24.
The writer-artist behind the ongoing strip today is Jim Scancarelli of Charlotte, N.C. He is just the fourth cartoonist to work on the comic.
Scancarelli grew up reading the feature as a kid. He had been introduced to comics by his mother and grand-father. “Gasoline Alley” was his favorite.
“Comics were my escape as a kid,” Scancarelli says. “The characters became my friends. My dad used to bring home three newspapers every night and we’d read the comics.”
Gasoline Alley was created by cartoonist Frank King of Tomah, Wisc. Originally, the strip featured chubby, good-natured Walt Wallet and his neighbor friends Doc, Avery and Bill who lived in a small town and were cars enthusiasts. Then Walt woke up early Valentines Day in 1921 to a knock on his door, only to find a baby on his porch. Suddenly, it became a family strip about bachelor Walt trying to figure out how to care for a child.
Through the years, Walt married and his children grew up and had their own children. There are now five generations of Wallets. Stories continue to be built around family and life in a small town. One Wallet family member owns a gas station and repair shop. Another owns an old style restaurant. Yet, another is a physician’s assistant. They all interact with other members of their small town community.
The strip and its cartoonists have won the National Cartoonists Society’s Humor Strip Award six times since it started. Scancarelli himself received the Society’s Story Comic Strip Award in 1988. Readers of the strip describe it as having a gentle humor to it. It is never mean-spirited. Scancarelli says it is a humorous reflection of real life. It is poignant. “I think people see themselves in the characters. It never has what I would call a dark humor, like we see a lot today.”
Scancarelli says his Catholic faith has definitely influenced his writing. “When I took over the strip I dedicated it to God. I felt very blessed He had given me this strip”.
“Even though the characters were already set up before I took over the strip, I do influence them. They attend what I would say is a Protestant church. That’s because I figure most readers are going to be Protestant. And I have the characters pray. But there’s a limit to what I can do.”
In one of Scancarelli’s stories, a con man and his wife pass themselves off as a guest preacher and wife, while the real pastor is out of town. As his wife is packing up the pastor’s belongings to take off with them, the con man notices a Bible and reads it for the first time. Come Sunday, the con man is a changed man and preaches an amazing sermon. Soon after, he announces he has decided to go to seminary.
The stories in Gasoline Alley are filled with heart and the characters often learn life lessons from their experiences.
Scancarelli wrote one story in Gasoline Alley back in 2012 about Walt’s great-great-great grandson, Boog, being bullied (https://www.gocomics.com/gasolinealley/2012/11/09). It was inspired by his own bullying experiences in childhood when he moved to a new city.
This year that bullying story was reprinted in its entirety by in a special edition newspaper by North Michigan Christian Voice and distributed free to various elementary schools in that area. Scancarelli is very pleased the story is helping more children with this second printing.
“If this story can just touch the life of one [bullying victim] it will be worth it,” says Scancarelli.
Currently, Scancarelli is celebrating the strip’s 100th anniversary with a special story. In the current storyline (https://www.gocomics.com/gasolinealley/2018/09/13), Walt visits the Old Comics Home, where he is roasted by classic comic characters from years past. Through that story, Walt recalls how his family began, taking readers from the early days of the strip to the present through brief flashbacks. It is an idea which can introduce new readers to the strip as well as take current readers down memory lane.
Now in his fourth decade as its cartoonist, Scancarelli is still excited to be working on the strip which was his favorite growing up.
“It is fun. It is like I am creating all these people’s lives. It is kind of like living in a dream world. Not only am I the set director, but I am pulling the marionette strings on all these characters. Every one acts a different way. It’s just a joy to work on.”