Milt Gross: Banana Oil and the First Graphic Novel?

Posted by on November 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


With his characters’ ludicrously bug-eyed bulb-nosed physiognomy, sausage-fingered hands and flat feet, Milt Gross may be said in his drawing style to epitomize “cartooning.”



To cartoonist and comics chronicler Craig Yoe, “fun” is the “operative word” in Gross’s cartooning:

It was an outlandish, rollicking, out-of-control, five-alarm fire burning up the pages, a roaring, riotous pen-and-ink perversion of normalcy filling every panel. Every other comic artist, even the ones that had a genuine comical style, seemed quite, calm — even dull as dirt — in comparison to Gross’ visual insanity…. The artist’s frenzied froth of a style could have looked merely “rushed” by a lesser hand, but he was always on the mark. Cartoonist Bob Dunn, Gross’s friend and [long-time] assistant, told me that Gross was “always doodling on whatever was in his reach — stationary, matchbooks, even tablecloths.” These doodles could lead to ideas that “Milt was able to fast and furiously draw up.”

Dunn further testified to Gross’s “unique way of breaking in a pen nib,” as furious and frantic as his way of drawing: “He used a No. 296 Gillott, and when he replaced an old nib with a new one in the holder, he would hold the pen as if writing or drawing and then like a barber stops a razor, he would whip the pen back and forth on the bare wood of the drawing board. That’s how he got the juicy line he liked.”

In his life, Gross was creative profusion incarnate, producing not only a looney gaggle of comic strips but several risible prose works and, as the piece de resistance, a tome that some have dubbed the first so-called graphic novel. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was also an authentic celebrity, Yoe reports, a uproariously funny speaker who was sometimes compared to Will Rogers. Once, after being introduced by a particularly gushing master of ceremonies, Gross leaped to his feet and declared: “I am also a notary public!” He then went on in the same vein, claiming he had been invited to Atlantic City to address 6,000 envelopes.

Gross worked in animation, briefly, and, even more briefly, in comic books. Very little of his comic-strip oeuvre has been collected and preserved in book form, but now, thanks to Yoe Books, virtually all of Gross’s comic book output has been carefully harvested and stashed between the covers of a single voluminous tome (356 8.5×11-inch pages, color; IDW, $39.99). The Complete Milt Gross, Comic Books and Life Story is not only impressively compendious: with a battered-book cover design, it also presents itself as a long-lost treasure only recently discovered in a trunk in someone’s attic. And, indeed, some of it is almost exactly that.



For the book’s 40-page biographical introduction, Yoe had access to Gross’s papers, letters and career memorabilia in the custody of Gross’s son Herb and other members of the family. Culling from this trove, Yoe has enhanced the biographical value of his essay with rare visual artifacts, drawings and photographs and copies of newspaper clippings and magazine articles. Yoe also interviewed members of the Gross family and nearly a dozen of the people Gross worked with and/or for in his long career, making the Life Story part of the volume the most complete, accurate and insightful treatment Gross has received.

Gross was born March 4, 1895 in New York City, the son of Samuel Gross and Rose Spivak. He grew up in the Bronx and had one-and-a-half years of secondary schooling in Kearney, N.J., and some hours in life-drawing classes at the Art Students League in New York City before leaving formal education at the age of 16 to take a job as an office boy in the art department of William Randolph Hearst’s New York American. The bullpen denizens for whom young Gross did chores included Abie the Agent‘s Harry Hershfeld, Bringing Up Father‘s George McManus, Happy Hooligan‘s Frederick Opper, Krazy Kat‘s George Herriman, The Katzenjammer Kids‘ Rudolph Dirks, Sherlocko the Monk‘s Gus Mager, Jerry on the Job‘s Walter Hoban, Us Boys‘ Tom McNamara, Polly and Her Pals‘ Cliff Sterrett, Little Nemo‘s Winsor McCay, and Indoor Sports‘ Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who signed his cartoons “Tad” and who called Gross “Davenport” because the youth idolized the work of Hearst editorial cartoonist Homer Davenport.

On occasion, Yoe points out, Gross would recall the halcyon days of his office boyhood: “I remember it was predicted that I would either turn out to be something fairly good or end up a terrible bum. I guess I was a petty tough egg in those days, and it must have been a struggle for them not to kick me out of every place. I was a shiftless, irresponsible, wise-cracking kid in whom there was nothing worthwhile but the faint, distant glimmer of an idea, a dream.”

The dream involved drawing. Gross, who at an early age had demonstrated an artistic bent, was in his element, and he was often able to put his pen to good use: “I used to ghost for artists who were late with their assignments,” he told Martin Sheridan in Comics and Their Creators. Then in November 1912, he signed his own comic strip, his first, Jack Bull.

In 1913, Gross found a position as staff artist for the American Press Association. There, he created his next comic strip (usually cited as his first), Henry Peck, A Happy Married Man, which was eventually syndicated by Hearst’s King Features in 1917. By 1915, he was back in the Hearst works, this time at the Evening Journal. Like most newspaper staff cartoonists at the time, Gross contrived a variety of cartoon features for his paper, some of which lasted only a few installments before yielding their place to his next creation. For the sports section, he did a strip called Phool Phan Phables and, later, Sportograms. He also produced Izzy Human and Kinney B. Alive and And Then the Fun Began — each an instance of the typically short-lived genre of the day.

In 1917, after a salary dispute, Gross left Hearst and took up animation, working at the pioneering Bray Studio and at Barre-Bowers Studios, where Mutt and Jeff animated cartoons were produced. His animation career there was interrupted by service in the U.S. Expeditionary Force with the Seventh Division in France during World War I. After the war, Gross went back to animating at the Bray Studios, and on Dec, 14, 1920, he married Anna Abramson, whom he had met on a July Fourth picnic in 1919; they had three sons.

By 1922, Gross had returned to newspaper cartooning in the art department of the New York World, where he produced his most celebrated creations. Following the usual pattern, he again drew an assortment of features, most based upon catch-phrases. Some lasted longer than others: Bimbo started in June 1922 and lasted until September, after which, Gross replaced it with Babbling Brooks, which ran through February 1923 before being supplanted by Toy Town Tots from April until November.

During this period, he also began writing and illustrating a humor column called Gross Exaggerations. It came about almost accidentally, Yoe reveals, citing Gross’s recollection: “One day, Louis Weitzenkorn, the art editor of the Sunday World Magazine, said, ‘Here, Milt! Fill this space with something, will you? I don’t care whether it’s pictures or text.’ I had felt a little weariness at the vogue of the newspaper columnists, as, I dare say, many others have done, so it seemed to me to be a good idea to ‘kid’ some of their stuff in a satirical sort of way. I started to do it straight and then it suddenly occurred to me, for the sake of variety, to put it in dialect, which I did.

“I remember so well Louis Weitzenkorn’s peculiar snort of laughter when he read the stuff some time later. ‘This is very funny stuff,’ he told me. ‘In fact, it’s a scream. Do all of it like this.’ So that was how Nize Baby and Mrs. Feitlebaum and Looy Dot Dope came into existence, with just this exception. I went home that night after first doing the stuff and found that one of my children was misbehaving and wouldn’t eat his supper. My wife was striving to comfort him with a recitation of ‘Sing a song of sixpence,’ but he wasn’t to be comforted that way. So suddenly on the wings of inspiration and my day’s experience, I broke into recitation of the same verse in Jewish dialect. ‘Seenk a sunk from seex pants,’ with the result that Mrs. Gross burst into a peal of laughter and the child was diverted, too. Afterwards, at my wife’s suggestion, I worked the thing up into the form of a mother telling a fairy tale to her infant and called it Gross Exaggerations.”

Many of the column’s installments concerned the dilemmas of daily life in an imaginary Lower East Side apartment building where Mrs. Feitlebaum exchanges gossip with her neighbors. Written in Gross’s highly inventive Yiddish dialect, the conversations of the residents wander from sympathetic analysis of the husband next door (“sotch a hanpacked poison”) to discussions about the scion of another family who got caught in the “undertone” at “Coney Highland” or the unfortunate couple that bought a cottage with “sudden exposure.” In a fourth floor apartment is a “nize baby” who must be seduced into eating dinner by parents’ telling “ferry tails.” All of which Gross reported in exhaustive detail, complete with blundering grammar and hilarious malapropisms.

Yoe quotes Gross’s explanation of this lingo as “a literal translation of the Anglicized Russian Jew. At least, I try to make it so. It is the language of the people — conveyed at times in somewhat ludicrous character. But, so far as I know, it is never false, never out of register. I am too much of a nut on getting things right for that. Its only departure from the actual might, as I’ve said, lie at times in its ludicrous element. That’s necessary, of course, in the work itself.”

A collection of pieces from the column was published in 1926 as Nize Baby, and its enthusiastic reception was followed later that year by the publication of Hiawatta Witt No Odder Poems, Gross’s Yiddish dialect version of the Longfellow classic — a “parody which went beyond parody into the realm of jolting laughter,” according to Stephan Becker in Comic Art in America. It was “a poetic triumph,” Becker said, to which “the author’s inspired drawings added the final lunatic note.” Yoe adds: “It has been said that Gross’s version became more popular than the original.”

Nize Baby‘s success encouraged Gross to produce a Sunday comic strip with the same title. Starting Jan. 7, 1927, it had run its course by Feb. 1929, and Gross replaced it with his comic-strip masterpiece, Count Screwloose from Tooloose, a weekly morality play about the prevailing insanity of the world at large. Every Sunday, Count Screwloose escapes from the Nuttycrest asylum, observes humanity in action, and returns to Nuttycrest, which he now perceives as a safe — and sane — haven. In the last panel of every installment, the Count rejoices at his lucky reinstatement with a dog named Iggy (who thinks himself to be Napoleon): “Iggy, keep an eye on me,” the Count sings out gleefully.


Click top tiers and bottom tiers of image for larger versions.


Although the formula was trite (“the old joke about the escapee who returned voluntarily,” as Becker observes), Gross endowed its weekly repetition with the comic genius of his graphic imagination and made it “more than just a variation on a theme.” The Count is dapper but diminutive, less than half the size of the other characters, and in drawing his pint-sized protagonist, Gross crossed his goggle-eyed orbs, giving him the wildly comedic aspect that virtually defines “comic strip character.” The rest of the cast partakes of the same tradition, resulting in a strip of almost maniac ambiance, which Gross enhanced with fast-paced action and generous doses of slapstick. The cartoonist’s inventive prowess is further displayed in the variety of ways he engineered the Count’s weekly escape: an inmate raps a hammer on one end of a teeter-tottering plank and the Count, seated on the other end, is propelled over the wall; the Count traps the hot air of a visiting politician in a balloon and floats over the wall, clinging to the balloon.

At the top of the Count Screwloose Sunday page appeared another Gross concoction, Banana Oil, which took its title from the imprecation invariably shouted in the last panel as comic indictment of some minor fraud or misapprehension being perpetrated elsewhere in the strip; it became a popular expression, the equivalent of “baloney.” Yoe cites Gross’s explanation: “Banana Oil was more myself than anything else I’ve ever done. It contained all that I feel about life and the bunk that the world is so full of. I poured out my heart in it — strange though that may seem.”

In October 1930, on the eve of the World‘s collapse, Banana Oil was replaced by a revived Babbling Brooks, which continued into the next year. Count Screwloose continued until May 31, 1931, after which it was syndicated by King Features.

Gross continued to write books in the same vein as his 1926 volumes: in 1927, De Night in De Front from Chreesmas and Dunt Esk; in 1928, Famous Fimmales witt Odder Ewents from Heestory; and then in 1930, Gross produced what Becker calls his “graphic masterpiece” — He Done Her Wrong, a pictorial novel without words (perhaps, even, a “graphic novel”; maybe the first of the breed).


Click image for larger version.


Becker describes it as “a silent film transferred to paper.” In his method, Gross was perhaps inspired by the recent work of a wood-engraver named Lynd Ward, who, in 1929, had published God’s Man, a wordless novel-length cautionary tale. (Ward, in turn, had probably seen similar silent pictorial novels by a Belgian artist, Frans Masereel.) For his subject, however, Gross relied upon his experiences in the Hollywood film colony where he had lived much of the 1920s, working briefly with Charlie Chaplin on “The Circus” (released in 1928): the novel mocks the grand passions and stock situations of Hollywood adventure films and the stage melodramas of the 1890s with its numerous homicides and chases, not to mention its dastardly villain, brave hero, and pure heroine. Dover reprinted the book in 1963 and Abbeville in 1983, both, Paul Karasik tells us, with an “inexplicable” new title, Hearts of Gold. Both also excised a few politically incorrect pages involving an African-American — “a blackface gag,” Yoe calls it, which has been restored in the 2005 carefully wrought reprint from Fantagraphics with an Introduction by Yoe and an Appreciation by Karasik.

Bob Dunn remembered that Gross looked remarkably like Chaplin, and he idolized the famous actor. “Milt told me he ‘got’ what Chaplin was doing,” Dunn once wrote. “He understood the subtleties that the little tramp character used so effectively. Nize Baby, Milton’s book of wild Jewish dialect, was a literary blockbuster of 1926-27. The young author was invited out to Hollywood under contract to Carl Laemmle. On his first time alone, with no Laemmle press agent to steer him here or there, Milt went to a little table in the corner of the annex, behind a potted plant. On the other side of the rubber aspidistra was Charlie Chaplin with a party of six. Chaplin had his guest belly-laughing their head off. How? He was reading Nize Baby to them, giving the Bronx dialect a reading worthy of an Oscar. Milt said it was his ‘Life’s Greatest Moment.'”

The World merged with the New York Telegram in February 1931, and Gross joined Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, creating Dave’s Delicatessen, a daily and Sunday strip of comedic continuity about the family and business of a delicatessen owner. The strip often ended with an extraneous panel in which a small boy observes his father in the throes of some awkwardly attempted activity and proclaims joyfully: “That’s My Pop!” The youth’s pride is not at all affected by the obvious fact that his father is usually portrayed as wholly incompetent. This panel eventually became a stand-alone feature in about 1935; entitled Grossly Xaggerated, it was usually called by the expression that had become a catch-phrase: “That’s My Pop!” The feature inspired a radio program of the same name in the 1940s.


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2 Responses to “Milt Gross: Banana Oil and the First Graphic Novel?”

  1. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Any bibliography of Milt Gross criticism has to include Ari Kelman’s Is Dis A System (New York University Press, 2009), which includes a long introduction (50 pages or). Kelman is much better at placing Gross in a Yiddish context than any previous analyst. The Kelman and Yoe books compliment each other well and should be read together. See here:

    I’m surprised that the usually perspicacious Bob Harvey, who is usually on top of all such matters, doesn’t seem to know about Kelman’s book.

  2. R.C. Harvey says:

    Actually, Jeet, I do know about Kelman’s book. But I didn’t find out about it until I realized, as I worked on the above review, that I didn’t own a copy of Hiawatta; so I sent off for Kelman’s book, which includes Hiawatta. And when it arrived, I discovered his essay on the Yiddish context in which Gross thrived. I revamped the review to include Kelman’s comments when I posted the review in my online magazine, Rants & Raves, and you can find the whole thing integrated at Opus 269, just posted this week. I’m gratified that you think I’m usually on top of such matters, but this time, I wasn’t. Nearly. Maybe next time.