An Interview With
Gasoline Alley's Jim Scancarelli
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 cultures
demands for postmodern, irony-drenched entertainment; its nostalgia
and warmth are its strengths, and Scancarellis 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 countrys 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.
Gasoline Alley did pretty well recently in the Daily News reader-popularity
pollit 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, itll be two or three months and youre
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: Theyre 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, theyre 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
familymy mother, my grandmother, uncles, auntseverybody
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 laphere in Charlotte,
N.C., in the very house Im working and living in nowand
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 Id be working
on the comic strip in the next room.
Lindenblatt: Youve 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. Its
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 offtheyre 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
peoples 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 Fosters
Prince Valiant, Lil 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 couldnt believe anyone
could draw like that!
Lindenblatt: You were a big EC reader.
Scancarelli: Oh, yeah. My parents didnt 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 Id ever seenin spacesuits, or almost
spacesuits [laughter]I couldnt 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 wouldnt 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. Its 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
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 youd
be looking down from a birds-eye view, or looking up from
a worms-eye view. He just had a panoramic sense, and I dont
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 Im 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, Im looking out the window
and twiddling my thumbs. But Dick Moores called one dayand
this shows you how God looks after youand 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, Lets 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 thats when I took it over.
Lindenblatt: You must have
read the entire 75 years of the strip
Scancarelli: Pretty close. Ive 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 Ive got a six-foot-tall stack [laughter]. Id like
to put them in a book form some timeit 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
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 marriedmillions 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
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. Ive seen some of his
sketchbooks. He would go out to a park, and he would see how people
were sitting, how theyre standing, walking, how womens
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, Ill train you, and he did. Perry
could really ape Kings style. Ive seen some of the very
early things he had done, and you really couldnt tell it from
Kings 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
couldnt put the same energy into it, so it didnt keep
up with the times.
Lindenblatt: Perry basically wrote the Sundays, didnt 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 didnt like having
to recap. It bored me, and I was getting stagnant. So I changed
it so gradually that I dont 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
wouldnt need any retouchingyou could run it straight.
Its timeless. The humor in the strip was so bonkers back then
that its current now. I like the two-wheeled car, the Notary
Sojac, the Scram gravy aint 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
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 whos whowho
are all these people? So after getting a load of mail like that,
I said, Lets put out a family tree. The syndicate
didnt 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 Id
probably have leftovers.
I ran a little blurb in one or two of the strips saying, send me
a self-addressed, stamped envelope and Ill 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 mackerelit 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 dont
know why they do that. I think every time theres a political
shakeup, they stop running the funnies [laughter].
Lindenblatt: I went through your family tree, and I found a couple
of characters who havent appeared since you took over. Im
curiouswhere are they now?
Scancarelli: I know I havent used Nubbin.
Lindenblatt: You havent used Nubbin. Eve is another.
Scancarelli: I dont know what happened to Eve. Ive 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. Thats the next island over from Bali Hai. They had
a little baby named Ada.
Lindenblatt: She was born on August 8, 1988.
Scancarelli: Thats righteight-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 cant get left out of this, so I had Amanda Lynn being
Lindenblatt: Babies left on doorsteps . . . its an interesting
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 its very unfortunate that they havent
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 Alleynow thats a clever titleand
Corky of Gasoline Alley. One of the radio shows came out of WGN
in Chicago in 1931, when Skeezix was 10 years old. Im trying
to find copies of that, but no ones been able to find any,
so maybe they were all done live. Somebodys 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: Youre a fan of old-time radio. In fact, youve
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, its 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 havent used him much.
Scancarelli: Dick used to shy away from using Kings 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 Kings 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 Im leaning
more on some of the characters I invented than I am on Dicks.
I dont know whyI like Miss Melba, but Ive shied
away from her. Not on purpose. She got into politicsshes
the mayor of Gasoline Alleyand Im not very political-minded,
so I guess thats one reason I shy away from her.
Lindenblatt: Rufus and Joel are somewhat similar to another duo
you used to work forMutt 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 didnt mind trying to ape Fisher or Smith. In
fact, I enjoyed doing thatit 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 hes crazy
and hes a good foil. You can do a lot of goofball things with
him. Skeezix is harder to work withhes 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. Its 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: Im taking a wild guess that Walt would be 96
years old. Uhhh . . . I dont 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.
Its 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. Thats the Wash Tubbs and
Roy Crane influence showing. You cant 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 Corkys 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 theyd get Skeezix in
on the act, and theyd go to somebody else, and finally theyd
start building. That would be two weeks. Now, the market is just
different. Everyone wants a faster pace; they dont want to
be bored. So youve kind of got to condense it. Thats
what Im trying to do. As Milton Caniff used to tell me, I
draw the strip to make you buy tomorrows newspaper.
Thats what the whole games all about.
Lindenblatt: Youve got a tough job. Most people write either
a gag-a-day or an adventure strip. Youve 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: Thats trueI do love it. The deadlines are
the only thing I dont love about it.
Lindenblatt: It keeps you going.
Scancarelli: Thats true. Dick Moores used to say that if he
didnt have the strip, hed 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 youve kept as regulars are
Dr. Smartley, who hasnt appeared in a long time, and Delicias
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. Ive got another male character,
the preacher, Pastor Present. And Amanda Lynns grandpa is
named Joe Pye. Hes a regular whos kind of a crafty old
geezer. Do you know what a joe-pye weed is?
Scancarelli: Its a real thing. Its a wild weed, and
its not a very nice plant. Hes a nasty old character,
just like the weed.
Lindenblatt: Will we be seeing more of Joe Pye soon?
Scancarelli: I dont 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!