The Comedic Genius of Milt Gross

I laughed out loud at certain pages of The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story and grinned with delight at the rest. This new, juicy, 354-page, beautifully-designed book from author, historian, and cartoon geek extraordinaire Craig Yoe shines a long-overdue spotlight on a great, nearly forgotten master of cartoon mayhem and merriment: the inimitable Milt Gross (1895-1953).

To look at the comic art of Milt Gross is to be sucked into a tornado. The sheer exuberance of his drawing style immediately captures the eye. In his world, there is no stasis; everything moves, and the reader is never bored. Even the comic’s picture panels differ in size and shape from each other, sometimes disappearing completely. What they barely contain are raucous, loose-as-a-goose characters—Count Screwloose of Tooloose, Moronica the Nation’s Nitwit, Mr. and Mrs. Van Pickestaff, La Mariposa, Patsy Pancake and his pet penguin Chives, and so on. Their upfront attitudes expressed in strong body poses and facial contortions act out absurd situations that prick the pompous and champion the underdog, often quite literally: See Pete the Pooch, a bumptious love-starved mongrel whose neediness reliably leads to delicious chaos.

To describe Gross’ drawing style, writers have used terms such as “visual insanity,” “frenzied froth,” and “demented hilarity,” among others. However, beneath the looseness and sheer cartoon-y energy resides the artist’s bedrock craftsmanship, intelligence and (yes) subtle drawing skills. Gross’ staging and composition within the panels is masterful, and his instincts are those of a born entertainer.

Yoe’s book (endpapers, above) focuses on reprints of all the furiously creative 1940s comics Gross wrote and drew, framed by a succinct front-of-the-book biographical essay that touches on his varied career and fame. Starting in 1915, Gross created long-running comic strips containing wild but good-hearted graphics and affectionate Yiddish-isms and slang that became widely popular (“Nize baby”; “Dunt esk!” “Banana Oil!”). Max Shulman praised Gross as “far and away the best Yiddish dialect humorist that ever practiced … the effect in his skilled hands is not caricature but hilarious accuracy.”

A restless soul, Gross pioneered the graphic novel in 1930 with He Done Her Wrong, which he described as “The great American novel—and not a word in it!” He also wrote and directed animated films based on his comic strip characters (first in 1917 at New York’s Bray Studio, later in 1939 at MGM in Hollywood); wrote radio scripts and screenplays; drew set designs for films, advertisements, posters and murals; and supplied gags to Charlie Chaplin, a Gross fan and friend. Other admirers of the likeable Gross, a bona fide cartoon celebrity in his day, included Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane. Actors Charles Laughton, Edward G. Robinson, Thomas Mitchell and producer Jed Harris bought Gross’ drawings and paintings.

Gross once said there were ten rules for becoming a cartooning success: “Rule Number One is to be funny at all times. The other nine don’t count.” He certainly lived by his first rule, and his loopy laugh-provoking graphic signature and verbal wit has infected and inspired numerous print and animation cartoonists, including R. Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Bob Clampett, and John Krisfalusi, among others.

Joe Grant, one of the subjects of my upcoming book Two Guys Named Joe, held affectionate remembrances of Gross. George A. Grant, his father, was head of Hearst’s New York American newspaper art department and hired Gross as a copyboy in 1912. “My father and Milt were very close,” Joe told historian Charles Solomon. Years later in Los Angeles, the two Grants often visited Gross at his home in Los Angeles. “The den had a very strange tobacconist’s smell,” he recalled laughing.  “We found out that he threw his cigar butts in back of the books. And his wife was furious with him.” Joe Grant, who was Walt Disney’s right hand man on classic films such as Pinocchio and Fantasia, said, “Milt was very influential in animation, his style. I don’t think he’s been given half the credit for what has been appropriated from his work. His drawings were him, he had that wonderful comic sense.”

His gifts are apparent even in his 1916 one-panel strips titled “Then the Fun Began.” The example showcased in the book pre-dates by decades the petty hijinx of “The Office”: sly sadistic male office workers lead two stutterers toward a m-m-m-mo-m-m-mentous introductory m-m-m-m-meeting. Gross uses the left to right reading progression to stage speech balloons and the entrance of the first office group as they push their victim toward the second group’s equally innocent victim. Everyone is in motion, yet each of the seven characters are individualized in their appearance and dialogue. It is as fine display as any of Gross’ talent for clarity in communication. His anticipatory set-up is perfect for the “fun” to begin when the two stutterers exchange greetings, which is left to the reader’s imagination.

In Gross’ cartoons, small events often build to satisfying violent resolutions—the catharsis when snooty Mrs. Van Pickestaff is baptized with a banana crème pie in the snoot, or Gaylord Ginch rides a renegade combo lawnmower/vacuum cleaner as it tears up a lawn. Sometimes nothing will do except for a huge explosion to literally climax an untenable situation. In these moments, Gross pulls out all the stops: radiating lines from the powerful blast and chunks of buildings surround people who continue their everyday activities none the worse for wear, as they fly nonchalantly through the air.

I haven’t seen Gross’ silent era animated films, but the two he directed for MGM in 1939 (Jitterbug Follies, Wanted: No Master) are disappointing. The attempt to translate his strip’s anarchic humor and highly individualistic drawing style to the screen fails. By all accounts, he was frustrated by animators who balked and made the animation too predictable and safe. Milt Gross was a one-of-a-kind Super Cartoonist, whose sly subversive wit and imaginative drawing style found its ultimate and best expression in gloriously wacky text and pictures on the printed page.

[This is the fourth entry in Academy Award-winning animator John Canemaker’s exclusive monthly column for printmag.com entitled “John Canemaker’s Animated Eye.” His upcoming book, Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant and Joe Ranft, will be published by Disney Editions in August.]
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