My father was a successful lawyer, an urbane intellectual with a first-class wine cellar in his suburban basement. But give him a Sunday afternoon in a house full of children, animals, and backfiring appliances and he would revert to his Brooklyn roots. Standing in the kitchen holding a crying baby in one hand while trying to unplug the sink with a plunger -- as smoke billowed from the toaster -- my father's eyes would roll upward to the heavens and he would implore, "Is dis a system?"
This line was from Milt Gross, a recurring plaint in Gross's prodigious outpouring of books, articles, and comics. As a kid I didn't know the origin of the expression, I just knew that it indicated utter exasperation and a pending thunderstorm in the kitchen. When my mother arrived at the back door and saw children ducking for cover as father waded knee-deep in sink bilge, unplugging the toaster with a pair of weenie tongs so as not to electrocute himself, she had only to give my father a single, questioning glance to receive this response:
Gross churned out an amazing volume of work from 1917 to 1945. He was the author of half a dozen books and regular newspaper columns in dialect, at least that many separate regular comic strips (many of which ran simultaneously), radio scripts and screenplays as well as a body of work in comic books. He was a set designer, animator/animated filmmaker (silent era), and animation studio producer for MGM in 1937.
|Spread from Nize Baby, 1926
Yet his most innovative piece, perhaps his masterpiece, is neither a prose piece nor a comic strip. It's the wordless graphic novel, He Done Her Wrong
|Fran Masereel: "Solitude," 1957
In 1929, wood engraver Lynd Ward published the first American wordless novel-length story, God's Man
. Ward was influenced by the work of Belgian artist Frans Masereel who had created a handful of such books, using wood cuts in the 20's (Otto Nuckel was another influence, although he only did a single book). Ward's work is finely wrought, a soul-searching but often turgid struggle between corruption and commerce versus art and the human spirit. It is fine high falutin' stuff. I loved it when I was fifteen.
Then, in 1930, one year after God's Man
, comes Milt Gross with the second wordless novel produced in the United States.1
Without it's dustjacket, the solemn black cover with red deco lettering portends a serious tome. But open the ebony door and ...Kablam: welcome to the funhouse! Gross was first and foremost a Gagmeister, an iconoclast who made a career out of pricking the pincushion of pomposity. Yes, he's going to tell a book-length story in pictures like Mr. Lynd Ward, artiste, but it's gonna bust yer gut.
Lynd Ward's book is a serious work of Art. No kiddin'. Gross, on the other (and much faster) hand, has another purpose in mind. His pen-and-ink rendering is jazzed with high octane. He is entertaining. His staging is exquisite. The eye registers all that it needs in a flash. The drawing can be clunky or inconsistent. Some pages are boiled down to their essence, while others are over-rendered. Gross breaks all the laws of perspective. The result is utterly, utterly charming and, what's more, fun to read. In comparison to Gross's comics work, the drawing in He Done Her Wrong
is generally more contained and controlled, but the reader can feel the velocity of Gross's hand rushing across the page. It makes you giddy. Much of it looks like a child's idea of comic drawing, but in my copy of the first edition you can see just how hard it is. Some child has tried to redraw Gross's figures in the margins. Forget it, kid. It takes years of the daily grind to draw like a child.
The story of He Done Her Wrong
is simple 19th century melodrama: Hero loses Girl, Villain takes Girl to city, Villain leaves Girl destitute, Hero triumphs and Villain gets what's coming to him, Girl and Hero live happily ever after. Like a good silent comedy, the story is told solidly through the actions of human beings with clearly defined, if stereotypical, character traits. And it is always funny. These are funny human beings with funny character traits pursing goals in a funny fashion.
Even when Gross uses a page simply to move the characters from one location to the next, he makes certain that plenty of gaggage is unloaded on their trip. In a single full page drawing, with the story-duty burden of depicting the Hero dragging the Villain down a city street, I count no less that eight ancillary gags. They have little or nothing to do with propelling the plot but plenty to do with propelling the guffaw from the solar plexus. Like Will Elder, his spiritual grandson in farce, Gross cannot help himself. He is on autopilot in a cartoon Kamikaze course to broadside respectability and the machinations of a contemporary clockwork civilization.
Many set pieces in the book are carefully planned-out comic bits which tell you about the characters as they move the story along.
In a multi-page sequence the Hero, a roughneck rube from the Klondike, saunters into a modern department store to be outfitted in city attire. From this routine, we learn that he is a poor schnook who is unfamiliar with city ways but we also become convinced that he is indeed capable of the impulsive risks he takes in pursuing the Girl. The bit goes like this: upon entering the store, he is beset by a horde of snotty clerks who proceed to measure him, fit him, and flatter him. When it comes time to pay up, our backwoods bozo whispers discreetly in a clerk's ear. Next page he is booted through the glass store window, his coonskin hat behind. Unfamiliar with city ways, he took the sign in the window on face value: "Just Say 'Charge It!'".
Is dis a system?
Meanwhile, in another multi-page sequence, the Villain, sauntering down a city street, decides to pop a coin into a gum dispenser. From this sequence we learn that the Villain is an addictive sort of louse and so it comes as no surprise when his actions leave the Girl destitute. The bit goes like this: The gum dispenser doesn't deliver. He pops in another coin. It still doesn't deliver. In hysterical frenzy, coin after coin is crammed into the machine without payoff. The Villain ends up in a fit of total exasperation (one of Gross's specialties), sacrificing everything he owns to feed this street corner no-armed bandit.
Again, I ask: Is dis a system?
He Done Her Wrong
does not contain a word of Yiddish and the lead characters are clearly gentiles, yet it reeks from knishes and chicken fat. This is the world of immigrant outsiders interacting with a perplexing New World of department stores and gum dispensers. We laugh at them (those dopes), we laugh with them (those dopes am us).
Gross' humor rests largely on observing human behavior. The sole premise of his long-running Count Screwloose of Tooloose
comic strip was that people on the outside of Nuttycrest Asylum were nuttier than those inside. His characters' over-the-top actions, manic reactions, and frantic interactions are pure slapstick. Although Gross did travel to Hollywood, and is reported to have worked on Charlie Chaplin's The Circus
, the broad moments in He Done Her Wrong
are more along the lines of the Keystone Kops. When the Hero first comes to the city to find the Girl he throws his head back, puffs his chest out and grins. Immediately he is conked by a falling can of paint, whacked under the chin by a 2 X 4, stomped on by a shod horse, cracked by a turn signal, spun around by a rush of city traffic, and tossed at a cop who, in turn, boots him in the keister. Welcome to our fair city.
However, the most inventive sequences are those where Gross takes advantage of the lengthy novel form to stretch out a gag for maximum effect. Job hunting, the Girl enters a department store. She explains her sad plight to the first clerk she meets. We see her describing in pantomime her pathetic life story. This same pantomime routine is repeated five times as she works her way up the chain of command. After the dozen or so department store executives have heard her tale, they retire to the board room in consultation. The entire sequence takes 27 pages at the end of which she gets a job: the privileged opportunity of spending her forty hours a week on her knees scrubbing the department store floor.
He Done Her Wrong
has a few quiet moments, as well. When the Hero leaves to make his fortune and the Girl is left alone, Gross crafts a stirring page of pathos worthy of Frans Masereel. Few of the pages are as cleverly constructed as this one. In general, the compositions in the book do not strike the reader as excessively clever, but they work. In a two page sequence where the Hero approaches the city, the left hand page is horizontal because the Hero floating on a log in the river is obviously a horizontal image. The right hand page shows his arrival at the foot of the towering metropolis, and, to no surprise, the composition is vertical. Multiple images appear on a page when the action needs to be speeded up, or a gag needs multiple hammerings to drive the laff stakes deeper. Close-ups are used when we need to really see something up close, like, say, the Hero's nose being just-barely-touched by the sawmill blade (of course at some point the Hero is strapped to a log in a sawmill, silly!). In other words, Gross uses whatever graphic device he needs to prove a point, get a giggle, or prod the plot. Nothing fancy. Nothing artsy. Just tell the story clearly, get the gag across, and go home. It's all in a day's work.
Is dis a system?
The author wishes to thank Mark Newgarden for his
advice, guidance, and encyclopedic knowledge of the lives and dietary
habits of dead cartoonists.
1 He Done Her Wrong
was originally published in 1930 by Doubleday Doran. It was reprinted by Dover in paperback form in 1963, and again by Abbeville in 1983, both under the inexplicable new title, Hearts of Gold
Milt Gross's book bibliography: Nize Baby
, 1926; Hiawatta Witt No Odder Poems
De Night in De Front From Chreesmas
, 1927; Dunt Esk
Famous Fimmales Witt Odder Ewents From Heestory
, 1928; Pasha The Persian
, 1936, Dear Dollink
and I Shouda Ate the Eclair
, 1946. Return...
Devoid of the treacly sentimentality which soaked his later films, The Circus
is one of the best films Chaplin made.
I wonder what impact Gross had on the film? Return...