The Incomplete Milt Gross

Posted by on April 12th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Ed. Craig Yoe; IDW; 368 pp.; $39.99; Color; Hardcover

Part of the problem with the comics world is that it’s too damn small. If you go to one of the big conventions, you can basically meet everyone who is doing the same sort of work as you, and, of course, people always share overlapping publishers and projects. And even if you don’t have these social ties, any critical comment you make can be seen as having an ulterior motive. When Dan Nadel made some smart and sharp observations (link: ) on the shortcomings of Craig Yoe’s Boody Rogers book, Dan was accused of acting out of sour grapes and envy, because of his long-running interest in Boody Rogers.

What this means is that the best people to comment on a book are also often the worst people. Take Craig Yoe’s recent book The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story. In some ways, I’m the best person to review the book: I’ve researched cartoonists from the same period, know something of Gross’ life and hugely admire Gross’ cartooning.

In other ways, I’m the worst person to review the book: It was published by IDW, which also publishes the Complete Little Orphan Annie series I’m working on (although Dean Mullaney’s Library of American Comics series is completely separate from the Yoe Books series). And Yoe quotes me in his introduction and thanks me in the acknowledgements. (For the record, Yoe had sent out a request on a listserv for a rare Gross photo and I told him where it could be found.) Yoe has made a nod toward me in the past on other projects and he’s also sent material my way on my own research interests.

So when it comes to commenting on any of Yoe’s books, I’m in a pickle. If I write a positive review, it’ll be seen as logrolling while a negative review will be seen as motivated by jealousy.

Despite all these concerns, I can’t help but make a few comments on the Milt Gross book, though I’ll try to be as objective and factual as possible, so even readers suspicious of my motives can at least be better informed.

The stature of Milt Gross. The reprint boom of the last decade has led to a re-ordering of the comics pantheon, with some reputations now much higher than they were before: Frank King is now appreciated not just for his innovative Sunday pages but also for the warm humanity of the daily Gasoline Alley, Fletcher Hanks looms afresh as a major visionary of the early comic books, and John Stanley is emerging as a peer of Barks and Kurtzman. With the proper reprint project, Gross’ reputation could be resurrected in the same way.

Why Gross is underrated. Right now, Gross’ fame is the preserve of hardcore comic-strip fans, who categorize him in the goofball tradition of Rube Goldberg. For a variety of reasons, Gross has been forgotten by the larger public. He was too creatively fertile for his own good, working not just in comics but also in film, animation, radio and prose humor.  Unlike Segar or Herriman, he didn’t create a single character or strip that can stick in the public’s mind, but rather a host of colorful minor characters (Count Screwloose, Gaylord Ginch, etc.) who taken together form a world. Also, Gross’ frantic, sputtering style of humor, the precursor to Kurtzman’s Mad, is currently unfashionable. These days people want their comedy to be cool and understated. Finally, with the assimilation of American Jews, the Yiddishkeit tenement world that Gross depicted so affectionately, the milieu Irving Howe once described as The World of Our Fathers, is increasingly remote. Despite all these hurdles, Gross can and should be recuperated. In my experience, readers only need to spend a few minutes overcoming their initial shock at the alienness of Gross’ art to start appreciating how potent it is. His people are animated by a doodling vibrancy that hurtles them hurly-burley through the page and makes them permanently alive in our imagination.

The Ideal Book. Perhaps unfairly, I have an ideal Gross book in my head. The book would have a long biographical essay, say 50,000 words or so, done by a writer who had immersed himself or herself not just in the history of comics but also in the larger story of Jewish immigration to America, not to mention knowing something about radio, film, animation, early television and related fields. This introduction would recreate not just the bare bones of Gross’ life but also give us his world. Coupled with the introduction, would be substantial and carefully selected samples from all of Gross’ print work: the comic strips, the columns, the book illustrations, the painting and so on. The model for a book like this would be the 1986 Krazy Kat book done by Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell and Georgia Riley de Havenon, which still remains an outstanding example of how a rich cartooning life can be encapsulated in a single volume.

What Yoe’s Book Achieves. Yoe’s book is not the ideal book I had in mind. At best it’s an appetizer that will whet the public’s appetite till that ideal book comes along. Still, the book is nothing to sneeze at: It gives us more than 300 pages of Gross’ comic books, which is in and of itself a reason to cheer, and Yoe’s introduction, richly illustrated with photos and ephemera, is the most extensive essay I’ve ever seen on Gross’ life. Among other treasures, Yoe quotes from some extremely revealing personal letters Gross wrote to his friend Ernie Bushmiller. “The whoring had me vomiting,” Gross wrote to Bushmiller about his time as a Hollywood screenwriter. “I mean writing these stinking B musicals.” Is it too much to hope that one day all these letters will be published?

What’s Missing. Like the famous statue of Venus de Milo, Yoe’s books are often as notable for what they’re missing as what they give us. This book is called The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story but it is a far from complete. Mark Newgarden, who has been toiling long and hard in the Gross vineyards, informs me that the book is missing at least a dozen comic-book stories Gross produced during this era, including strips published in Picture News Vol 1. #5 #7 and #10 (all from 1946 and 1947). I’m not a fetishist of completeness. Like Kim Thompson, I think some cartoonists can benefit from choice selections of their work published. Still, if you say a book is complete, it should be complete.

Factual Problems. At first, I was please to see my name in Yoe’s introduction in a paragraph where he quotes various luminaries praising Gross, alongside Crumb, Spiegelman and Sergio Aragones. The quote Yoe attributed to me (Gross “made a career of prickling the pincushion of pomposity”) was a nice turn of phrase but didn’t sound like anything I remember writing, and a quick Google search revealed that this sentence was actually fathered by Paul Karasik. This is a minor matter, but telling. More serious is the observation Newgarden made to me that Yoe’s introduction has many other such errors that more directly impinge on Gross’ career. “Phool Phan Phables (1915) was NOT Gross’ first comic strip as Yoe states on page 10,” Newgarden notes. “Gross began Henry Peck and His Family Affairs (aka Mr. Henry Peck, A Happy Married Man) in 1913 (I’ve traced earliest strips to April) for American Press Association where he was on staff.” That’s just one example. In and of itself each such error is small, but taken together they undermine your ability to trust all the other facts presented.

The Indiana Jones Method. Here as elsewhere Yoe quotes Vice magazine’s flattering description of himself as “the Indiana Jones of comics historians.” I think the phrase actually captures what is wrong with Yoe’s whole approach to comics scholarship. Indiana Jones is a fine hero to have when you are 10 years old, but he’s not a model for doing real research. If Indiana Jones existed in the real world he would be stripped of tenure and jailed for 1) stealing numerous native artefacts (which is a legal and ethical offence) and 2) snatching these artifacts from their original place, thus preventing other scholars from seeing the context from which they emerged (a scholarly offence). For Indiana Jones, archaeology is a treasure hunt, all about beating the other guy to the punch with little regard for how the treasures are part of a larger historical and cultural context. This seems to be Yoe’s modus operandi as well. Other publishers — I’m thinking here of Fantagraphics  book on Herriman’s human comic strips — have been known to delay projects for many months in order to find the best and most complete source material. Indiana Jones wouldn’t have such scruples and neither, it seems, does Yoe.

A Word of Advice. Craig Yoe, mon semblable, mon frere, when you do future books on Gross or other cartoonist, take greater care and spend more time on the job. If you say a book is complete, make sure everything you need is on hand. Get a fact checker for your research. Scholarship is not a race and there is no prize for publishing the most books. Take your time.

That Ideal Book Again. The Gross book that I dream about could still be done. If it were published, it would be a revelation. I’m not sure whether Yoe’s book makes that ideal book more likely or not: Will it whet the public’s appetite for more Gross or exhaust people’s interest in the cartoonist. The comics collected in Yoe’s book are great, but they are only a small corner of a much larger career. If the ideal book is ever published, then we’ll have reason to cheer this book as an important stepping-stone in the recovery of Milt Gross as a living artist. But if that ideal book isn’t published, then The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story will seem like a missed opportunity, a case where slipshod editing reduces a major career by presenting it in a slapdash, ill-conceived manner.

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12 Responses to “The Incomplete Milt Gross”

  1. Ng Suat Tong says:

    This has to be the most negative extended piece of criticism from your keyboard I’ve read in the last 2 years. Surprising but it’s all useful information.

  2. Kent Worcester says:

    Jeet is absolutely right. Either Craig should have included every extant Milt Gross comic or he shouldn’t have called the book “The Complete Milt Gross.” On the other hand, I don’t know about calling the book an appetizer. It strikes me as a pretty substantial meal in its own right, with over 300 pages of cleanly reproduced, full-color comics. The book makes a convincing case for Milt Gross’s importance, and it’s not as if the missing stories would sway the undecided. I wonder if we haven’t become a little jaded from all of the great reprint projects out there. If this book had come out a decade ago we would all be floored.

    I certainly got a lot more out of Craig’s book than from the new “Milt Gross Comic Reader” that was published by NYU Press earlier this year. The NYU volume mostly focuses on Gross’ humorous prose stories, with a smattering of cartoons. All of the images are in black-and-white, which has the effect of taming Gross’s wacky drawings. The NYU book turns Milt Gross into someone we should study, while Craig’s volume makes Gross fun again.

    Obviously the publisher and author should fix any errors in future editions. But I’m not convinced that “The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story” is quite as “slap-dash, ill-conceived” as Jeet says. We can all point to books on comics that offer a better fit for that label.

  3. princeminski says:

    I guess it depends on your attitudes regarding scholarship. I was delighted to see this book and bought it instantly. On the other hand, a couple of comic books are hardly indicative of a vast body of work. I seriously doubt that Gross himself would want to be remembered solely on the basis of this material. He belonged to that old school of newspaper cartoonists who cranked out an enormous amount of material. Obviously it wasn’t all the best material, but everything I’ve seen (color or not) reflects that sheer delight in visual creation that has all but vanished from the comic page. Craig Yoe is to be commended for his numerous contributions to preserving the reputations of these old guys (and for his truly remarkable excavation of Joe Shuster’s lost work). But it would be extremely unfortunate if Mark Newgarden or Jeet Heer didn’t follow through with the kind of project Heer describes above.

  4. pkarasik says:

    Hmmm…so Yoe attributed my quote about Gross to Heer, eh?

    Well, occasionally quotes get unintentionally misattributed and sources can often be tough to track down. I, myself, spent an hour today trying to divine the date of a quote by Joseph Pulitzer (turned out to be 1911).

    My Gross quote, however, really should not have taken too much searching for Yoe to get correct. After all, it appeared in an Afterword Appreciation that I wrote for the Fantagraphics reprint of “He Done Her Wrong”… in which Yoe, himself, wrote the Introduction.

    Yup, same book!

    As much as I admire the prose of Mr. Heer, and am, to an extent, flattered, I am also upset, insulted, and now living proof as to the unreliability of the scholarship of Craig Yoe.

  5. Wesley says:

    I guess it depends on your attitudes regarding scholarship.

    What attitude could possibly excuse factual errors, misattributed quotes, or the label “complete” slapped on a book that just isn’t? Anti-intellectualism? Apathy?

    (Does apathy even count as an attitude?)

  6. […] Delicious nerd quote of the week, from my friend Jeet Heer, which is funnier out of context. “If Indiana Jones existed in the real world he would be stripped of tenure and jailed for 1) […]

  7. craig yoe says:

    hi jeet, great to hear there’s more milt gross comic book stories–like lost honeymooners episodes! my apologies to you and paul for the misquote. the genius and prolific milt did thousands of comics, numerous books, animation, etc. so there can be a gross of gross books–i certainly hope there’s many more. that’s likely, too, as many, many people are loving my 350+ page large format, fullcolor hardback “appetizer”, it’s enjoying both fantastic sales and glowing reviews!

  8. […] a new book about the cartoonist Milt Gross, a near forgotten master of Yiddishkeit culture. See here. Natalie Portman: she and Adorno could have had a […]

  9. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Hey Craig,
    I’m glad the Gross book is selling well, which will mean more Gross books in the future. My only proviso is that when dealing with someone as prolific as Gross it’s important to be selective. So I really want to see a book that is rigorously edited which zooms in on Gross’ peak work (to my mind that’s the comics he did from the late 1920s and early 1930s but I haven’t read everything yet). So, yes to more Gross, but let’s have some curatorial judgement as well.

  10. craig yoe says:

    I’m glad you’re glad, Jeet! Well, thankfully, there will–and certainly should be–more Gross books in the future. As you know, but apparently did not have room to mention in your review, your friend and co-blogger Dan Nadel and his friend Mark Newgarden (mentioned in your review) sent out a press release right after I announced that I was working on my book that they are doing a book on Gross to eventually be published by Fantagraphics, the publisher of your above review. It’s a small world after all! I’m sure their book will be wonderful! And maybe those talented folks and their great publisher will concentrate on the period you think best, and you can write a glowing review on the Comics Journal website! IMHO I think Milt’s best (and it’s ALL brilliant genius) is his comic book work when he summoned all his experience and comic power for one last great zany fling. That’s why in my curatorial judgment I zoomed in on that peak Gross work and present a hard cover large format full color book with over 300 pages of this amazing hilarious material. People can join the thousands of other buyers of my book by ordering here: Take care, Jeet, best, Banana Oil, et al–Your fan, Craig

  11. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Well, we can argue till we’re blue in the face (or as crazy as Count Screwloose) about what Gross’ peak work was, but I don’t want anything I’ve written above to discourage readers from picking up “The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books”. The comics in the book are worth cherishing for any number of reasons: 1) as I said in my original review, its more than 300 pages of Milt Gross, a major cartoonist whose work has been sadly ignored 2) historically the comics are interesting because, as Craig mentions in his introduction, Gross was the only major newspaper cartoonist who experimented in the then-new comic book format and 3) as Craig says above, the comics are among Gross’ last work, and do feel like “one last zany fling.” It’s funny, funny stuff: I laugh at the art before I even read a single word.

    And I’ll repeat that Craig’s introduction is the most substantive writing on Gross now available, enriched by lots of great original art, photos, and letters. Just as a physical object, this is the best-looking book Craig Yoe has ever done.

    I didn’t mention Dan and Mark’s Gross project because, even though its been announced, its still being worked on. In any case, I mentioned both Dan and Mark in the essay, so it’s not like I kept their existence or interest in Gross a secret (something that readers of “We All Die Alone” and “Art Out of Time” would be aware of, in any case).

    And for the record, I’ve been known to be critical of Fantagraphics projects — notably the 2004 book The Bush Junta, and the many anthologies Fanta has put out. If Dan and Mark seriously mess up their Gross book — if they make some big factual boo-boos — I’ll make sure I give them a spanking equal to the ones depicted by Joe Shuster, which can be seen in the Craig Yoe book “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster”.

  12. Matthias Wivel says:

    While I certainly applaud the fact that a bunch of comics by the great Milt Gross are being made available, I must admit that my heart sank when I learned that Craig Yoe was shepherding the present volume.

    The kind of sloppy editing and schlocky design that mars this otherwise great book is sadly characteristic of everything I’ve seen from Yoe’s hand. The latest, really egregious example is the Krazy Kat “Tiger Tea” collection from IDW, in which the delicacy of Herriman’s wonderful drawing is stifled by garish neon colours at the page heads and printed on terrible, faux-“authentic” stock with so many impurities that it makes the strips hard to read.

    My initial encounter with Yoe’s editing were the first two “Arf” books, which contain a lot of interesting material, but sadly are full of bad reproduction (including lots of black line art rendered in halftone, for example).

    I realise that it may be hard to come by quality material to reproduce from when one is working with such old, ephemeral material, but others — such as the people behind most of Fantagraphics reprints and IDWs other reprint projects — manage it as well as one could wish for. The impression one gets is a lack of care, not to mention understanding of graphic design.

    Knowing this, I hesitated to buy the second book, but did so because Yoe mentioned that it included a section of Picasso’s comics, on which I wished to read more at the time. It turned out that said section contained a couple of small, grubby reproductions and a text almost entirely lacking in solid information about the strips in question. Not exactly becoming of somebody calling himself a comics scholar.

    I admire your enthusiasm, Craig, applaud your productivity and wish you the best for your books, but a little more quality control would be wonderful in the future.