Milt Gross: Banana Oil and the First Graphic Novel?

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

 

In 1932, Gross settled permanently in Hollywood, where he resumed writing scenarios for movies. Yoe’s essay covers Gross’s movie career more completely than anything anywhere else. And, as Yoe relates, Gross began taking time off to explore the visual fine arts: “In paint and charcoal, he portrayed traditional figures and landscapes, and also strong, sometimes dark scenes of dilapidated barns and houses in ghost towns in Nevada…. A review of Gross’s fine art observed: ‘He has a distinctly impressionistic style of painting which shows that he still manages to maintain the freshness and ingenuity of approach… characteristic of the unforgettable Nize Baby cartoons.'”

Screenwriting soon became “an anathema to him,” Yoe says. “He wrote to [his life-long friend Ernie “Nancy” Bushmiller] that he had ‘a hell of a lot of fun painting and sketching.’ He contrasted that with his work for the Hollywood film industry: ‘The whoring had me vomiting. I mean writing those stinking B musicals. I don’t like screenwriting enough and maybe never would be able to make a career of it.'”

In 1934, Gross was briefly back in New York at the Mirror, for which he created the short-lived comic strip Otto and Blotto. Then it was back to California. For a few “painful weeks” in 1938, Yoe says, Gross worked at MGM’s Cartoon Department, directing three cartoons. Later, in 1944, he worked at Disney Studios where he enjoyed happier times on “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.” In addition to screenplays, he also wrote magazine articles and more humorous books in Yiddish dialect — Dear Dollink in 1944 and I Shoulda Ate the Eclair in 1946. He was a frequent guest on radio programs and often served as master of ceremonies at formal occasions.

“Milt was a font of quotes,” said Bob Dunn. “He had a favorite way of introducing a quasi-celebrity which is now in every emcee’s gag file. Namely: ‘Artist, author, big game hunter and notary public —'”

In an issue of Cartoonist PROfiles, to which he regularly contributed a column, Dunn remembered: “No cartoonist had the meteoric rise that Milt had in the middle ’20s. By the late 1930s, his star was fading. Milt’s wild slapstick style was not as popular as the continuity strips as exemplified by Ham Fisher’s feature, Joe Palooka. One day I found Milt studying Joe Palooka. ‘I’m trying to figure out what makes Fisher so successful,’ he said. I tried to snap Milt out of his funk blue: ‘You wouldn’t want to be like Ham. He’s crazy,’ I opined. Milt produced a quotable rejoinder: ‘If I knew what made him crazy I’d get a syringeful and shove it up my behind.’

In 1945, Gross suffered a heart attack and subsequently reduced his activity, which for the prolific Gross apparently meant creating comic books. Says Yoe: “The comic-book medium was perfect for him: bright colors, no-holds barred layouts, and usually a complete lack of editorial restriction, certainly for a celebrity like Milt Gross.”

Gross reportedly did his first comic-book work, Picture News, while lying in a hospital bed, recuperating from his heart attack: one pagers, “reviews of the news” and satirical comment on trends and topics. Issues #1-4, cover dated January through April 1946, appear in Yoe’s compilation.

When he got out of the hospital, Gross went back to painting, but in the spring of 1947, he returned to comic books, entering into an arrangement with the American Comics Group (ACG) to produce Milt Gross Funnies. It was a first, Yoe says: “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 first issue is cover-dated August 1947; the second, September 1947; the third was never completed except for Gross’s cover art, which Yoe publishes herein.

The interior pages of the comic books pulse with Gross’s madcap cartoon antics, for which he revived the features most associated with him — That’s My Pop!, Banana Oil, and Count Screwloose — and added a new comedic contrivance, a daft dog, Pete the Pooch. Later, Gross developed a children’s TV series based upon the crazed canine. Two episodes were completed, Yoe says, and a third was in the works; but “the show never aired because on Nov. 28, 1953, a fatal heart attack claimed Gross” on board ship while he was returning to his California home from a Hawaiian vacation with his wife.

The stories Gross tells in his comic books are distinguished more by their sprawling, unhinged plots and the catastrophes that the characters bring on themselves than by any inspirational heroics. The first issue of Milt Gross Funnies is devoted entirely to “That’s My Pop!” a 48-page whopper. Gaylord Ginch, the inestimable Pop of the Gross ouevre, wakes up in the morning, cheerfully determined to make a fortune with a “big luggage transfer deal” — that is, he plans to hire himself out to carry people’s luggage/suitcases from the train station to their homes. To this purpose, he follows a prospective “client,” muttering to himself all the while that “laboring” (i.e., “working”) is no disgrace. But he ain’t laboring: he doesn’t offer to carry the bag until the client gets home; and so the so-called client boots Pop off his front porch into the horizon. “See what I mean?” Pop concludes. “It doesn’t pay to offer to work.”

The incident establishes Pop’s overweening indolence as well as his inflated good opinion of himself, both characteristics essential to the rest of the story. He next tries out an invention of his, a contraption that combines lawn mower and vacuum. Tearing up the lawn, it explodes and blows Pop to a nearby rooftop. He then retires to bed, saying his “full day’s work done” has earned him a rest.

Pop’s nemesis, his mother-in-law, rightfully has a low opinion of Pop’s “inventions,” none of which actually function. “No invention of his will every work — including himself,” she snorts.

But Gross’s story has just begun. Gaylord gets a phone call from a friend, Doc, who reminds him of the forthcoming picnic, for which he’ll need $5 to gain admittance. Then Gaylord’s son tells him he needs $5 to buy a uniform for the baseball team he’s on. Pop quickly decides to forfeit a good time at the picnic in favor of his son’s uniform, but when he goes to retrieve the five bucks he’d hidden in the cushion of a rocking chair on the porch, he learns that his mother-in-law sold the rocker just the day before.

Gaylord and Doc go looking for the rocker, and they learn that it’s been sold and bought over and over again, so they chase after one previous owner to the next. The last reported owner is a rich family. To gain access to the rocker, Gaylord and Doc hire on as butlers for a party being thrown that day by the family. Then it develops that Gaylord and his family are invited to the festivities that evening.

Meanwhile, Gaylord and Doc find the rocker, at present occupied by the guest for the evening, a singer of majestic diva proportions. When Gaylord tries to extract the $5 in the chair’s cushion, he awakens the diva, whose violent reaction breaks the chair, and she goes tumbling down the stairs into the ballroom. Adding to the ire this development arouses in the grand-dame hostess of the event is her discovery that the Ginch family, mother-in-law, wife and son, are related to the faux butler; exasperated, she calls the juvenile Ginch a guttersnipe. Pop, incensed, avenges this slight to his heir by throwing a pie in her face. Her impressively mustachioed husband, somewhat less overstuffed than his spouse, confides that he’s been wanting to do just that for the past 30 years and in a magnanimous gesture of appreciation and gratitude gives Gaylord five bucks.

The kid gets his uniform and he and Pop go the baseball game where Pop, watching his son run the bases, yells, “That’s my boy who hit that homerun!” and the kid says, predictably, “That’s my Pop!”

 


Click image for larger version.

 

In the Count Screwloose story in the second issue, we get more of the same loopy plotline. The Count escapes from the Balmycrest Boobyhatch and gets a job selling ladies’ hats, door-to-door. When his first customer thinks the hat makes her look fat, she goes door-to-door, asking her neighbors what they think. None of them think, because they’re too busy fighting or bathing their pet horse; but when one neighbor, at last, says she does, indeed, look fat in her new hat, the hatted woman hauls off and hits the candid one. But she elects to buy the hat anyhow — because, she explains, she has decided that her candid neighbor was envious of the beauteous chapeau. That’s too much for the Count, who jumps on the freshly bathed horse and absconds for Balmycrest.

 

 

For his comic-book ventures, Gross created another new character, the only young attractive woman in the Gross ensemble as far as I know, Moronica, “the nation’s nitwit,” who, in the two stories Gross produced, fails idiotically at the things we suppose women do well, cooking and knitting. In the first of these tales, our heroine learns that her father’s boss, Mr. Willoughby, is coming to dinner, so she undertakes to prepare the repast because her mother is exhausted. Moronica finds a recipe she’d clipped out of a magazine: “Let’s see, is that cloves or chives? Oh, well, I’ll use beets until we get simplified spelling.” As she mixes the ingredients, she muses about her boyfriend Jerry who spends money on her but she decides just wants to marry her for his money.

When the dish she cooks doesn’t turn out as anticipated, she just throws it into the garbage can and launches into another menu, namely, a beef roast. During dinner with the boss, the neighbor lady comes by to reclaim the dog food she left there earlier, and we surmise, that’s what Moronica used for the roast. Then the dog shows up — a giant ravenous monster, who attacks the hapless Willoughby, looking for its dinner. The dog chases him into a tree out back, and Moronica decides to deliver the roast to the tree, but when she sees the salivating dog, she feeds the roast to the vicious animal in order to distract it, and while the dog is occupied, eating the roast, Mr. Willoughby escapes from the tree, and thanks Moronica, who he decides is not only beautiful but brave.

Gross’s tales may be frail, but they are enlivened and therefore redeemed by his maniacal pictures, rendered in a frantic, sputtering explosive manner, crammed with daffy hurtling action. The Gross populace is infested with small hyperactive personages always in motion or protagonists of diminished capacities who must overwhelm chesty society matrons of heroic proportions. All of them (except Moronica) are cross-eyed and their tongues hang out.

 

 

 

 


Click image for larger version.

 


Click image for larger version.

 

After the expiration of Milt Gross Funnies, the cartoonist continued to do short stories and one-pagers for ACG comic books, Cookie, The Kilroys and Giggle — all of which are collected in The Complete Milt Gross. The stories herein are reproduced by scanning the pages of the comics in which they initially appeared, so the compilation looks like its original publication, bright colors muted by the off-white of newsprint paper not garish as in so many reprint tomes in which the art is reconstructed and re-colored. And while bleed-throughs and other such blemishes have been happily eliminated, the pictures are only as good as the source, and the source, the original comic books, was often the victim of slapdash printing. Color is sometimes out-of-register, just as it is in many antique funnybooks, and the linework is sometimes blotchy, having fattened up on the porous newsprint paper. But Gross in his slaphappy best survives his treatment here, as undiminished as he was unfettered. We can’t find as much Gross comedy anywhere else between the covers of a single publication, and because Milt Gross was so prolific and so highly regarded by cartoonists and humorists of his vintage, the book is, perforce, a hoard to be treasured, even if its images are sometimes flawed.

Drawing in a wacky style that exemplified “cartooning,” Gross was nonetheless an original, a talent without predecessor or successful imitator. Becker reports that he was a man “who combined a brilliant career with absolute honesty and generosity to all men. No ego, no tantrums, no feuds. Just Milt Gross.” Gross was wholly unlike his manic cartoon creations. He was mild mannered, laid back, “a tad prudish,” “unaffectedly real and friendly” according to testimony Yoe collected from those who knew him. Sports cartoonist and writer Murray Olderman, whom Yoe interviewed, said: “He was the nicest man imaginable. He was a very gentle, kind man, and very affectionate with his sons. He was a father who actually kissed his sons! He was just a nice guy.” When the National Cartoonists Society established a fund for the relief of indigent cartoonists, Bob Dunn and Ernie Bushmiller lobbied to have it named for their friend, and so it was, as a mark of the profession’s enduring regard.

 


 

Bibliography: Until Yoe’s book, Milt Gross’s life and career received fullest treatment in Stephan Becker’s Comic Art in America (1959), pp.366-374. Other books in which Gross receives more than token treatment are A History of American Graphic Humor, 1865-1938, Vol. 2, by William C. Murrell (1967), Comics and Their Creators by Martin Sheridan (1944) and The Encyclopedia of American Comics by Ron Goulart (1990). Two Gross enterprises not mentioned in the foregoing are What’s This? (1936) and Margaret Linden’s Pasha the Persian (1936), which Gross illustrated.

 

Be Sociable, Share!

Pages: 1 2

Tags: ,

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: http://www.amazon.com/Diss-System-Goldstein-Goren-American-History/dp/0814748236/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1289400014&sr=1-3

    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.