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He Done Her Wrong The Great American Novel (With No Words) Milt Gross Fantagraphics Books: 256 pp., $16.95

May 21, 2006|Charles Solomon | Charles Solomon is the author of many books, including "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation," and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio's "Day to Day."

MILT GROSS was popular as a cartoonist and writer during the 1920s and '30s, but he hasn't retained a following among modern readers the way his contemporaries George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie) and Don Marquis (Archy, Mehitabel) have. Gross created a number of syndicated comic strips such as "Banana Oil," "Count Screwloose of Toloose" and "Dave's Delicatessen," and the columns he wrote and illustrated for the Sunday New York World were collected in such popular anthologies as "Nize Baby." Gross also worked in animation and contributed to live-action scripts including, reportedly, Charlie Chaplin's "The Circus."

During the '20s, Gross was best known for his absurd-dialect pieces, especially his evocations of Eastern European Yiddish accents. His spoof of Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" begins:

On de shurrs from Geetchy Goony,

Stoot a tipee witt a weegwom

Frontage feefty fitt it mashered

Hopen fireplaze -- izzy payments

That kind of ethnic humor is no longer politically correct and hasn't been for some time (compare Barbra Streisand's rendition of "Second Hand Rose" in "Funny Girl" with Fanny Brice's original). But it was an integral part of the Jazz Age, when Herriman, Marquis et al. were playing quirky fugues with language to the delight of Gilbert Seldes and other critics.

Given Gross' love of wordplay, it seems a little odd, even for his febrile imagination, that he chose in 1930 to publish a wordless American graphic novel, "He Done Her Wrong," now reissued by Fantagraphics Books. Belgian woodcut artist Frans Masereel had published the first wordless novel, "Mon Livre d'Heures," in 1919 (translated as "Passionate Journey: A Novel in 165 Woodcuts"). That book chronicled a young man's immersion in a confusing and confused post-World War I urban world. American illustrator Lynd Ward followed Masereel's example with the largely autobiographical "Gods' Man: A Novel in Woodcuts" in 1929. Maybe Gross intended his novel as at least a partial send-up of those socially conscious artists.

A spoof of Victorian "mellerdramas" and silent movie serials, "He Done Her Wrong" depicts the woes of an innocent blond chanteuse from a Yukon-like saloon who falls for a handsome, if dim, woodsman in a coonskin cap. A city slicker with waxed mustachios tricks the woodsman and lures the blond to his posh New York apartment.

But the slicker becomes obsessed with a recalcitrant El station gum machine and goes broke feeding change into it. Abandoned, the blond works at menial jobs to support the children she had with the slicker. The woodsman makes his way to the city to find her. After many, many complications and fights, virtue triumphs. The slicker is put to work under the watchful eyes of the many women he's wronged; the long-suffering blond finds well-earned bliss with the woodsman, who turns out to be a timber baron's long-lost heir.

Gross drew in a loose, loopy pen-and-ink style. His cross-eyed characters sport pickle noses and rubbery limbs that bend every which way. The heroic woodsman has no chin: His lower lip joins his neck in one unbroken line. A wealthy widow and her nasty Pekingese are more carefully rendered than the major players.

The artist's sense of composition is as erratic as his characters' anatomy. When the woodsman arrives in New York, Gross attempts to depict the skyscrapers in perspective to increase the sense of drama. When the blond scrubs the floor of a department store or opens a window in a hospital, crosshatched shadows create a somber mood. Other panels are cluttered with unnecessary elements. As the directors of the department store squabble over whether to hire the blond, the simply drawn painting on the boardroom wall pulls the viewer's eye away from the cartoony executives. Some of the images of the woodsman and the slicker fighting are little more than doodles.

In an appreciation, comics creator Paul Karasik writes that the story "does not contain a word of Yiddish and the lead characters are clearly gentiles, yet it reeks from knishes and chicken fat." There's also a distinct aroma of bathtub gin. The story careens across the pages with a zany energy that recalls the manic comedies of the silent era. The reissued version restores a short gag sequence involving African American caricatures that was dropped from other editions.

Karasik's appreciation and comics anthology editor Craig Yoe's equally enthusiastic introduction fail to link "He Done Her Wrong" to the work of contemporary graphic novelists. Will Eisner was reinventing a form, rather than inventing one, when he created in 1978 "A Contract With God," which has often been called the first graphic novel. Gross continued to work in comic strips and comic books until his death in 1953. Eisner would certainly have known Gross' work, but did he know about "He Done Her Wrong"? (Eisner was only 13 when it was published.) Neither Karasik nor Yoe offers any clues.

In recent years, artists and critics have been debating the origins of the graphic novel. Proponents of various theories have cited examples as varied as Egyptian wall paintings, carved panels on the facades of Gothic churches and William Hogarth's 18th century engravings of "The Rake's Progress" as proto-graphic novels. Could the form have originated in the work of Masereel, Ward and Gross? The question becomes one of definition and preference: You pays your money and reads your cartoons. *

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