“Milt Gross’ loosey-goosey style followed the three Rs: Rebellion, Raucousness, and slightly Ribald on a few occasions…”
– Craig Yoe, “Laughs by the Gross!” (from the book reviewed herein, pg. 17)
One-man comics tome cottage industry Craig Yoe (of Arf! fame, who launched his career in the 1970s editing/self-publishing fanzines, one of which I contributed art to) has gifted cartoonists, comics lovers and anyone who loves to laugh with the incredible The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story (2010, IDW Publishing). In an era of abundant comicbook and comic strip reprint volumes, this handsome hardcover is worthy of special attention and celebration, offering a eye-popping treasury of high-octane hilarity from the one and only Milt Gross.
Milt Gross (1895 – 1953) was a cartoonist’s cartoonist in his day, a dynamo of frenetic energy whose every line was alive and in-and-of-itself funny. His work was omnipresent and everywhere from the Roarin’ Twenties on, as were the many loopy non-sequiters he introduced into our culture via his comics: “Banana Oil!” (or, as a mouse razzes it in Nize Baby, “Benena Hoil!!”), “That’s My Pop!” “Dunt Esk!” and “Nize Baby” (among countless other catchphrases) were all coined by Gross, fêted throughout his lifetime as one of America’s most beloved (and prolific) cartoonists. In his heyday, Gross seemed to do it all — single-panel gag comics, comic strips, comic books, pioneer wordless graphic novels (He Done Her Wrong, 1930, a savage parody of Lynd Ward’s sober ‘wordless woodcut novels’), movie title card art, gag writing, animation, advertising, etc. — providing inspiration for generations of cartoonists who followed, including Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, Jules Feiffer, Sergio Aragones, Sam Henderson, and countless others.
The Schulz Library shelves are already peppered with venerable Gross classics, all of which are highly recommended. The titles alone lift the soul: Nize Baby, Deark Dollink, Dunt Esk!!, Banana Oil, De Night in de Front from Christmas, I Shoulda Ate the Eclair, etc.
My personal all-time favorite remains Hiawatta Witt No Odder Poems, reprinted complete in Thomas Craven’s marvelous book Cartoon Calvalcade (1944), which was inexplicably on my mother’s bookshelves and always in reach. I used to read Hiawatta aloud at a tender age. I had to read it aloud to divine its meaning — it was scribed in Gross’s patented phonetically-rendered urban Jewish near-gibberish (well, to me it was almost gibberish), completely disemboweling Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, a model of trochaic tetrameter. Gross’s exquisite pen-and-ink illustrations reduced me to tears laughing, and they kept tempting me back into my rereading Hiawatta until I’d finally decoded it, which took years (hey, whatdyawant? I was a backwoods kid). I’d practically memorized it by the age of six — which is more than I can say for the original Longfellow poem.
I thus inadvertantly divined my first mega-dose of Jewish humor in a surprisingly unadulterated form, though I was a Duxbury, VT lad growing up far, far from the Bronx neighborhoods Gross grew up in (Hiawatta also prepared me for Mad and Harvey Kurtzman’s brand of cartooning and satire, which I was exposed to soon after first laying eyes on Hiawatta in Craven’s book).
With The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story, editor/author Yoe offers an ideal intro to Gross’s life, times and career. Though the Al Jaffee introduction and Herb Gross (son of Milt, natch) foreword are models of economy, Yoe’s lavishly illustrated biographical essay is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself. Punctuated with many never-before-published Gross cartoons and comics pages, Yoe’s overview provides a snapshot of the cartoonist and his personal life. The whole is rich in anecdotes and candid about the health issues that plagued Gross in his latter days without succumbing to morbidity; the reader’s spirits remain as spry and high as Gross’s gags throughout.
What Craig Yoe showcases herein is not just a stellar, comprehensive introduction to Gross’s best-known works, but a sterling and truly all-inclusive showcase for the complete uber-rare ACG (American Comics Group) comicbook series Milt Gross Funnies (1947), which only ran two issues.
It’s an unusual chapter in Gross’s career and in comics history, and in its way a Holy Grail of sorts for Gross aficionados. As Yoe notes, “there were no other comics named after their creator, unless you count Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, which didn’t have one line drawn by Disney in them.”
The particulars of the deal between Gross and ACG has always been tough to define. ACG expert Michael Vance once wrote, “These books were printed in Canada by Milt Gross Publications (both deviations from standard ACG procedures) and may have been only produced and distributed by the [Benjamin W.] Sangor Shop. Whether this title should be listed as an ACG book remains unresolved… Gross’s final work in comics would appear for several years in random ACG titles, including Giggle and Moon Mullins…” (Vance, Forbidden Adventures: The History of the American Comics Group, Greenwood Press, 1996, pg. 30).
How Milt Gross Funnies emerged from the usually staid ACG lineup remains a bit of a mystery. Yoe goes further in his own research, connecting and contextualizing Milt Gross Funnies with the various ACG humor titles packaged under the guidance of vet animator Jim Davis (of Fox and Crow comics fame, not the Garfield creator of today) and offering insights from ACG business manager Frederick Iger from Yoe’s own interviews with the industry vet. Iger recalls Gross working from his hospital bed at times during his brief fling with ACG and Milt Gross Funnies, which makes the unflagging vim and vigor of the work bubbling off these pages even more remarkable.
Yoe also publishes (for the first time anywhere) Gross’s cover for the planned third issue, along with a plethora of four-color stories, gags and comic pages from Giggle Comics, The Kilroys, Moon Mullins (all 1948), and more — all in all, over 300 full-color pages of antic Gross comics, long unseen and unread save by the lucky collectors of such vintage rarities.
Despite the familiarity of the silly Gross slapschtick for seasoned devotees, it’s a hoot to drink it all in illuminated with color (all my childhood Gross exposures were black-and-white only), and the procession of beloved characters and tropes — from “That’s My Pop!” to Count Screwloose and more — only fuels the fun.
Whether you’re a geezer like me tapping old veins or a neophyte new to Gross, these pages are percolating with pleasures few 21st Century comics even approach. Give it a gander — or, as Gross himself would have put it, “At Last You May Gaze!”
– Stephen R. Bissette, CCS Faculty since 2005;
May 4, 2009, Mountains of Madness, VT