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An Interview With

Gasoline Alley's Jim Scancarelli

 

Few comic strips have been as blessed with good fortune as Gasoline Alley. Beginning in November 1918, Frank King began weaving a hitherto unparalleled comic-strip tapestry, and he handed his creation to Dick Moores in 1969, who wrought 17 years of worthy work. And with Moores’ 1986 death, current Gasoline Alley steward Jim Scancarelli assumed duties on the strip. Of the three men, perhaps Scancarelli has faced the stiffest challenge: a marketplace that seems to care less about strips that tell stories about plausible, fully realized characters. Despite this, his Gasoline Alley continues to chronicle the lives of its residents in a way that defies our culture’s demands for postmodern, irony-drenched entertainment; its nostalgia and warmth are its strengths, and Scancarelli’s passionate devotion to his craft, and to the heritage of cartooning, befits what is one of the comics’ most venerable institutions. (Gasoline Alley is the country’s third-longest-running comic strip, behind only The Katzenjammer Kids and Bringing Up Father.)
This interview was conducted on June 15, 1997, by Jeffrey Lindenblatt for broadcast on WBAI-FM, a New York radio station.

 

Jeffrey Lindenblatt: Gasoline Alley did pretty well recently in the Daily News reader-popularity poll—it ranked in the middle, 22 out of 42.
Jim Scancarelli: Thank you, New York, thank you!
Lindenblatt: And your comic strip has run in the classified section for about 10 years now.
Scancarelli: That used to be the kiss of death. I was worried when they bumped me to the classifieds. Dick Moores used to tell me, “Once they do that, it’ll be two or three months and you’re out.” It was a test-drop to see if anyone would complain. But they bumped Annie and Dick Tracy and now Beetle Bailey is over there.
Lindenblatt: They used to run Winnie Winkle there, but the syndicate canceled Winnie, so they bumped Beetle over.
Scancarelli: They’re calling it “Classic Comics,” which I guess is OK.
Lindenblatt: But you have to look for them. The classifieds are two separate sections, and you have to find where the comics are.
Scancarelli: Oh, boy . . .
Lindenblatt: But at least you know that when people are looking for work, they’re reading the strip [laughter].
Scancarelli: I remember when I was a kid, you could pick up newspapers around the country and instead of having one page as being a comics section, they would have a strip to a page, so you would go through the paper seeing a funny at different points.
Lindenblatt: Now, everything has to have its own section. It has to be organized.
Scancarelli: Except the funnies [laughter].
Lindenblatt: How did you get
involved in cartooning? Scancarelli: I came from a very artistic family—my mother, my grandmother, uncles, aunts—everybody was either a fine-arts painter or a draftsman, some kind of an artist. So I guess I got it through my genes.
And when I was little, Daddy worked at the Italian Embassy, and he used to bring homeat least five papers, so I got to see quite a lot of funnies. But my earliest recollection of some of the comics was Gasoline Alley. My mother and father used to read it to me, and my grandfather used to sit me in his lap—here in Charlotte, N.C., in the very house I’m working and living in now—and read the funnies to me. He used to point out all the characteristics and everything going on in each panel. It made a big impression on me. Little did I know that 50 years later I’d be working on the comic strip in the next room.
Lindenblatt: You’ve depicted that in the strip a few times in the Sundays, with scenes where Skeezix is reading the comics to Rover or something like that.
Scancarelli: I try to put in the strip things out of my past. It’s a good well to draw from. I did a thing where Walt went down to the train station, and he was remembering when the steam locomotives would come in, and all the World War II servicemen getting on the train and getting off, the tears and goodbyes. He was reminiscing quite a lot, and then a workman runs him off—they’re going to tear down the old station because it was an eyesore. They were going to build a parking lot. That really happened here in Charlotte. So I drew the actual station and put it in the comic.
Lindenblatt: In the strip, you really give a perspective on what people’s lives were like 40 or 50 years ago and the differences between then and now.
Scancarelli: I try to do it without hitting you over the head with it. Some of the things in the past were really nice, sweet memories, and I try to present them in the context of the strip.
Lindenblatt: What artists inspired you?
Scancarelli: The first things I really got enamored with were Foster’s Prince Valiant, Li’l Abner, Roy Crane. Crane still sticks with me a lot. But the guys who hit me over the head hardest, when I got to be 13 years old, were Wally Wood, Jack Davis and Bill Elder on Mad magazine. They were phenomenal! I couldn’t believe anyone could draw like that!
Lindenblatt: You were a big EC reader.
Scancarelli: Oh, yeah. My parents didn’t like that a lot. They thought it was a little too much. I remember picking up an EC comic, Weird Science or Weird Fantasy, and Wally Wood drew some of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen—in spacesuits, or almost spacesuits [laughter]—I couldn’t believe anyone could render planets and moons and space vehicles with this degree of realism! It drove me crazy, and I would sit around and try to draw stuff like that. I think then my mother prohibited me from reading EC for a while [laughter].
Then Mad came along, and I would try to copy that stuff. A little bit of Davis rolled off, a little bit of Wood.
Lindenblatt: Did you ever try anything for Mad?
Scancarelli: Oh, no. It probably wouldn’t have worked out. I wrote them a letter once when I was a little kid. I always thought Bill Gaines made up the letters himself.
Lindenblatt: You put Gaines in one of your Sundays.
Scancarelli: He had just passed away, and I did a tribute to him. A friend of mine, Mark Cohen, was very good friends with Bill, and he wrote a little gag for me. He contributes some of my Sunday-page ideas. It’s a pretty good deal, because he works for free [laughter]. He contributes about one a month or so.
Lindenblatt: You seem to enjoy drawing dream sequences along the lines of what Winsor McCay might draw: giant tomatoes and so forth. And you also appear to be a traditionalist. Every year, you have an autumn leaves Sunday, and you have a birthday page each year. And at the same time, you allow your own stories and ideas to take root.
Scancarelli: Frank King, the genius that he was, used to do all these fantasy Sunday pages, and he would go wild with them. Skeezix and Walt would have seven-league boots, and they would travel all over the world. That would allow them to go to other countries.

Or maybe Skeezix would get up early at Christmastime, and Santa would lead him all over delivering toys. He would let his mind go wild. And I try to keep that same flavor in my own work.
Dick Moores was also a genius, and he would do all these super perspectives. Rufus and Joel would be climbing up a smokestack, and you’d be looking down from a bird’s-eye view, or looking up from a worm’s-eye view. He just had a panoramic sense, and I don’t think King usually went to that level of detail, but Dick was putting his own personality into it. So I try to put some King into it, some Moores, and while I’m not either one of them, I come out in it, too.
Lindenblatt: How did you meet Dick Moores and become his assistant?
Scancarelli: Dick lived about two hours away from Charlotte, were I live. He lived on a 75-acre mountain farm in Asheville, N.C.—actually, it was Fairview, a little community outside Asheville. He had moved there from Florida, where he had worked with King, to the mountains because his wife had liked that area a lot, so they built a house there. I had met his daughter one time, and I went to visit Dick. Two years later, in 1979, Dick was needing an assistant. He was getting on in age, so he called me.
Right around that time, computers were coming in. They put me out of work. I was doing slide art. I was a freelance cartoonist/illustrator, and I used to do a lot of artwork for slide illustrations for advertising agencies. And all of a sudden, my work stopped. It was faster, cheaper and easier to make a slide on a computer than it was for me to do it by hand. So all of a sudden, I’m looking out the window and twiddling my thumbs. But Dick Moores called one day—and this shows you how God looks after you—and he . . . Dick Moores, not God [laughter] asked me if I would like to try out. I think there were four people who tried out, and out of the four, I was the only one who read the strip and knew the characters, so that kind of helped. So he said, “Let’s try it on a trial basis,” and he would send me a week. They were pretty tightly penciled in those days, and he would have already inked the faces. I would do the rest of the inking. Evidently, I must have gotten the job, because he kept sending the things to me for seven years, until he passed away, and that’s when I took it over.
Lindenblatt: You must have

read the entire 75 years of the strip by now.
Scancarelli: Pretty close. I’ve got almost the entire run. A friend of mine, Bob Bindig, had all the clips, or most of them, and he made photocopies and sent them to me a little bit at a time. So I’ve got a six-foot-tall stack [laughter]. I’d like to put them in a book form some time—it would be easier to get at and use for reference.
Lindenblatt: How would you describe the difference in approaches to stories among a King, Moore, Bill Perry and yourself? Are there different themes?
Scancarelli: Oh, boy. Well, King had the family theme. The nucleus was Walt, Phyllis, Skeezix, Corky and Judy, and how their lives went. Skeezix went to war in World War II, and Gasoline Alley kind of reflected what was going on with the public at the time. After World War II, Skeezix was out of a job, he was looking for housing, he had just been married—millions of Americans were in that same position, so they identified with him. I never got to meet Frank King, but he was a very tender-hearted, sweet person, and he had his finger on the pulse of America.
Dick Moores had a different training and a different background. Dick had worked with Walt Disney, and he had cut his teeth working with Chester Gould on Dick Tracy.
Lindenblatt: And he was one of the best letterers in the business. I think he mastered the art.
Scancarelli: Oh my gosh, yes. Dick Tracy has never been the same [laughter].
Lindenblatt: Well, he left it in 1935 . . .
Scancarelli: OK, Dick Tracy was still good after that [laughter]. But Dick just had a different approach. He still had a focus on the family, but he had more of an animated look to everything than King did. King would sketch from life. I’ve seen some of his sketchbooks. He would go out to a park, and he would see how people were sitting, how they’re standing, walking, how women’s dresses move with each step, noticing the folds in the drapery. He had notebooks just full of that sort of thing. Dick Moores would do a lot of that from memory, and he used to try to train me to do it that way, which was impossible for me to do. He would say, “Notice how that guy is sitting in the restaurant. Make a note of it, and go back and try to draw it later.” It was a little difficult, but you can do it, if you work at it.
Moores was more mechanical than King. King was very loose and tried a lot of styles: pen and ink, scratchboard, he tried to get a lot of different feelings, and Dick used the tried-and-true.
Bill Perry was the longest assistant that King had. He started in 1928, I believe. He worked in the mailroom over at the Tribune. King said, “I can teach anyone to draw.” He grabbed Bill Perry and said, “I’ll train you,” and he did. Perry could really ape King’s style. I’ve seen some of the very early things he had done, and you really couldn’t tell it from King’s work. The sad thing was, Bill had gotten older by the time he was taking over the strip, and as he got older, he just couldn’t put the same energy into it, so it didn’t keep up with the times.
Lindenblatt: Perry basically wrote the Sundays, didn’t he? He never really wrote the storylines.
Scancarelli: He and King used to work out stories. He had quite a lot of input, but he never got to put his signature on the dailies. I think it was in 1951 that he got to take over the Sundays, and I think in 1974 or 1975 he quit altogether, retired, and Dick Moores took over the Sundays.
Lindenblatt: And Dick Moores combined the dailies and the Sundays.
Scancarelli: Yeah. And when I took over, I didn’t like having to recap. It bored me, and I was getting stagnant. So I changed it so gradually that I don’t think anyone really noticed. I made the Sundays a flight of fancy. I look forward to doing the Sunday pages now, because I can do anything. I can put old cartoon characters in it, which I do quite often.
Lindenblatt: At least once or twice a year, you have paid tribute to the classic comics characters.
Scancarelli: Oh, there are going to be some more!
Lindenblatt: You seem to have a thing for Smokey Stover.
Scancarelli: Well, I like Smokey. It was one of the craziest strips. I think that if the syndicate was to republish those things, they wouldn’t need any retouching—you could run it straight. It’s timeless. The humor in the strip was so bonkers back then that it’s current now. I like the two-wheeled car, the Notary Sojac, the Scram gravy ain’t wavy, that sort of thing. Every time I put one of those things in the strip, here comes the mail: “Hey, I remember Smokey Stover!”
Lindenblatt: One of the best things you ever did was the Wallet family tree.
Scancarelli: Oh, boy.
Lindenblatt: How did that come about?
Scancarelli: I used to get a lot of fan mail from people who said, “I came in late. I started reading the strip in the late ’70s,” things like that. And they would want to know who’s who—who are all these people? So after getting a load of mail like that, I said, “Let’s put out a family tree.” The syndicate didn’t want to mess with it, and I thought it was a good idea, so I did it on my own. And it cost me quite a lot of money. I printed 1,000 of these things, thinking that would be enough, and I’d probably have leftovers.
I ran a little blurb in one or two of the strips saying, send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I’ll send you a family tree. And I put together a story where Walt had worked up a family tree to show to his grandchildren. So he went to the printer, who made a mistake and ended up printing a million of them, so Walt was going to send them out to the public.
On day one, I got a little mail, about 1,000, so I had the printer print some more. On day two, holy mackerel—it was two mailbags! Day three, it was a mail truck with five mailbags! And every day the mail truck would come and bring two, three or four bags of mail. And each bag would contain 1,000 to 2,000 letters. There was no way I could sit there and answer them, stuff the envelopes and still do the strip. I had to hire some retired ladies to sort it, and it took three or four months to finish the thing. It filled up the room with mailbags. I ended up with 100,000 responses, which I thought was pretty remarkable.
Then, about a year later, I started getting more requests for the family tree, but this time, they were from the Philippines. Turns out the Philippines runs the strip about a year behind. I don’t know why they do that. I think every time there’s a political shakeup, they stop running the funnies [laughter].
Lindenblatt: I went through your family tree, and I found a couple of characters who haven’t appeared since you took over. I’m curious—where are they now?
Scancarelli: I know I haven’t used Nubbin.
Lindenblatt: You haven’t used Nubbin. Eve is another.
Scancarelli: I don’t know what happened to Eve. I’ve been thinking about trying to do a story about her. I picked up on her brother, Adam, who married a Polynesian gal from an island called Bali Lo. That’s the next island over from Bali Hai. They had a little baby named Ada.
Lindenblatt: She was born on August 8, 1988.
Scancarelli: That’s right—eight-eight-eighty-eight.
Lindenblatt: You introduced Amanda Lynn, who now seems to be the female version of Rover.
Scancarelli: King started this thing with Skeezix being adopted, left on the doorstep. Then Judy was left on the running board of the car, and Dick Moores had Rover being adopted, so I said, “Well, I can’t get left out of this,” so I had Amanda Lynn being adopted.
Lindenblatt: Babies left on doorsteps . . . it’s an interesting concept.
Scancarelli: People did that back then! You could get arrested for it now, but . . .
Lindenblatt: Now, they just drop them off at proms [laughter]. Your storylines seem to me to be very much in the tradition of the situation comedy, and I think it’s very unfortunate that they haven’t had the opportunity to be made into a situation comedy. I think only two movies were made out of the characters, and the radio show.
Scancarelli: Columbia put the movies out in 1950 and 1951. The titles were Gasoline Alley—now that’s a clever title—and Corky of Gasoline Alley. One of the radio shows came out of WGN in Chicago in 1931, when Skeezix was 10 years old. I’m trying to find copies of that, but no one’s been able to find any, so maybe they were all done live. Somebody’s unearthed maybe 12, 13, 15 shows from 1948, and it was quite a nice little show. It was produced out of New York, and Autolite was the sponsor. A local harmonica group out of New York, called the Polka Dots, did the theme song, and it was kind of nice.
Lindenblatt: You’re a fan of old-time radio. In fact, you’ve had a number of references to Jack Benny in your strip.
Scancarelli: In my book Jack Benny and Amos and Andy had the best humor. Even 50 or 60 years later, it’s just as current now as it was then.
Lindenblatt: Dick Moores used to use Pert, the old Jack Benny-like miser, a lot, but you haven’t used him much.
Scancarelli: Dick used to shy away from using King’s characters a lot, and he really did a lot with his own characters like Miss Melba, Rufus and Joel. I know Rufus was around when King was working on the strip, but I know Dick invented Joel. Because those were his children, so to speak, he relied a lot on them and shied away from King’s characters. Dick used to say it was sometimes hard to deal with Skeezix and Walt because they were getting on in age, and it was easier to do some of these wacko stories with Rufus and Joel. Now, I find myself in that same position, and I’m leaning more on some of the characters I invented than I am on Dick’s. I don’t know why—I like Miss Melba, but I’ve shied away from her. Not on purpose. She got into politics—she’s the mayor of Gasoline Alley—and I’m not very political-minded, so I guess that’s one reason I shy away from her.
Lindenblatt: Rufus and Joel are somewhat similar to another duo you used to work for—Mutt and Jeff.
Scancarelli: A friend of mine here in town, George Breisacher, got to write and draw Mutt and Jeff, and the syndicate gave him no instruction on it: who was the short one, who was the tall one, nothing. And his style was probably a little too modern, especially for the European market, who wanted a more traditional . . .
Lindenblatt: The Bud Fisher/Al Smith style.
Scancarelli: Right. So George called me and wanted to know if I was interested in helping him with it. He would write it and I would draw it, and I didn’t mind trying to ape Fisher or Smith. In fact, I enjoyed doing that—it was a big treat. I think we did a two-and-a-half or three-year run on it. We ran it past 75 years and into the ground [laughter].
Lindenblatt: Apart from the characters you created, which are your favorites? Which ones do you enjoy using the most?
Scancarelli: Slim is probably my favorite because he’s crazy and he’s a good foil. You can do a lot of goofball things with him. Skeezix is harder to work with—he’s more like the Amos character on Amos and Andy, too straight, too goody-goody to do anything with. And Amos and Andy ended up becoming Kingfish and Andy, because Kingfish was the grafter. It’s the same sort of thing. And Skeezix is 76 years old now!
Lindenblatt: You have a problem coming up. Skeezix is 76, and Walt and Phyllis are in their 90s now.
Scancarelli: I’m taking a wild guess that Walt would be 96 years old. Uhhh . . . I don’t want to think about it [laughter].
Lindenblatt: Your artwork has gone many places, one of them being the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Scancarelli: A friend of mine, Murray Tinkelman, is a brilliant illustrator, and he has a traveling show that is still going on. It’s booked all over the country, and the proceeds go to the Special Olympics. He had artists, cartoonists, illustrators, fine artists, all these people do baseball cards. I had Uncle Walt as a baseball player in 1918, on the Gasoline Alley ballclub. He played right field. So I made this story out of it, about how Walt had been on this baseball card that was now worth thousands of dollars. He finally got hold of the thing, and the wind blew it out of his hand and into a fire. So his fortune went up in smoke.
Lindenblatt: You sometimes have storylines where your characters end up in a foreign land and have a comic adventure.
Scancarelli: Oh, I love that stuff. That’s the Wash Tubbs and Roy Crane influence showing. You can’t always have the characters just sitting there talking in the living room. I try to keep up with the times. When King was working on the strip, it would take him weeks to get something planned. If they were going to build on Corky’s diner, Corky would come to his daddy, Walt would be planning out the thing, Walt would be talking finances, they would talk it over with his wife and they’d get Skeezix in on the act, and they’d go to somebody else, and finally they’d start building. That would be two weeks. Now, the market is just different. Everyone wants a faster pace; they don’t want to be bored. So you’ve kind of got to condense it. That’s what I’m trying to do. As Milton Caniff used to tell me, “I draw the strip to make you buy tomorrow’s newspaper.” That’s what the whole game’s all about.
Lindenblatt: You’ve got a tough job. Most people write either a gag-a-day or an adventure strip. You’ve got to write a continuity with a gag.
Scancarelli: How do I do it? [laughter] Why do I do it?
Lindenblatt: It must be a labor of love.
Scancarelli: That’s true—I do love it. The deadlines are the only thing I don’t love about it.
Lindenblatt: It keeps you going.
Scancarelli: That’s true. Dick Moores used to say that if he didn’t have the strip, he’d be dead. The bad thing is, he did have the strip, and he did die.
Lindenblatt: You do all the strips by yourself, right?
Scancarelli: Yes. Once in a while, Mark Cohen will write a poem or give me an idea for a Sunday page, but I do the rest of it. I stare at a blank sheet of paper and come up with it.
Lindenblatt: You seem to use female characters most frequently. I think the only male characters you’ve kept as regulars are Dr. Smartley, who hasn’t appeared in a long time, and Delicia’s father, who has become a comedy-relief character.
Scancarelli: I gave Rufus a brother named Magnus, and he sometimes writes a letter to Rufus on Sunday. I’ve got another male character, the preacher, Pastor Present. And Amanda Lynn’s grandpa is named Joe Pye. He’s a regular who’s kind of a crafty old geezer. Do you know what a joe-pye weed is?
Lindenblatt: No.
Scancarelli: It’s a real thing. It’s a wild weed, and it’s not a very nice plant. He’s a nasty old character, just like the weed.
Lindenblatt: Will we be seeing more of Joe Pye soon?
Scancarelli: I don’t know about soon. But as Milt Caniff used to tell me: If you come up with a good character, bring him back again and again. And after all, this is the longest story ever told!

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