The Temporal Nature of Comics:
Persistent and Fleeting Time in Frank King’s Gasoline Alley
The comics of the early twentieth century were published in a variety of formats that convey their own inherent sense of time. Daily strips, Saturday single-gag panels, and larger Sunday strips are not only released periodically at different intervals, but their narratives, constrained by these formats, tick along at distinctive rates.
Many comic properties were locked into their separate (and inequitable) formats, not only by their artists’ creative limitations, but also by the expectations of the publishing syndicates and the national readership. After a brief description of the conventions of daily strips, single gag panels, and Sunday formats, my discussion will focus on Gasoline Alley, a cartoon property that, in its early iterations, exemplifies the limitations of strips, but then reveals the opportunities that arise when an artist steps over institutional boundaries. Drawing on examples from the recent publications of Sundays with Walt and Skeezix and reissues of King’s daily collections, this writing discusses how Frank King’s masterpiece, Gasoline Alley, evolved during its long publication and through various formats. In the strip’s early relegation to a niche market of technology and misogynistic car culture, and its eventual incorporation of the infant Skeezix, this strip transformed into a tender consideration of the passage of time. The introduction of this baby character forced King to abandon what would have remained a short-lived gag on car culture. Instead, the inclusion of Skeezix, who grew and matured in “real time,” demanded the breakdown of a stagnant, persistent temporal element. Through the story of a growing child, King’s own strip evolved, with a narrative that lasted a life span, and changed the way readers interacted with comic time.
This writing is about the nature of TIME in comics and how publication intervals, distribution, and story context can imply a sense of time and thereby affect the reader on a deeper, more meaningful level.
Writing on fourth-dimensionality in, “The World of the Comic Strip” by Pierre Couperie and translated Maurice C. Horn in 1968, stated; “Time is a major element in the originality of the comic strip as a narrative art – by imposing a rhythm on its publication, it cadences its narrative. Only the comic strip can enable reader and character to live the same time; only the comic strip can continue a story for decades. Series published in complete “book/album” form are deprived of the rhythm of the genuine comic strip, and tend to be illustrated proto-books.”
As in any aesthetic, artistic choice, there are different ways to handle the passage of time in comics. Depending on the type of story the artist is telling, events in comics can unfold over time, shifting sands. We see this in series like Love and Rockets and other auto bio comics.
A different approach to time is to ignore it entirely, and maintain a static, persistent (yet wholey independent) world that remains unchanged for the readers and creators a la Batman.
To illustrate the persistent and fleeting nature of time in comics, I’ll talk about Frank King’s Gasoline Alley as the primary example, which functioned under two distinct rhythms, changing it’s internal metronome after years of publication. At the strips outset, the tempo was static like a painted portrait.
And years later, King committed his strip to real time, and I argue, led to it’s unique position within the American comics canon.