We live in an age of binge. Like pet rocks, the macarena or stuffing undergraduates in telephone booths, binging has become a craze. Folks brag that they’ve taken in as much of ________ as possible in one sitting. This is done with material that was intended to be consumed one unit at a time.
To make a pharmacological analogy, the dosage of popular culture was once measured and consistent. One comic strip per day; one TV show per week; one record that rose and fell on the Billboard charts. This austerity fostered anticipation, enjoyment and appreciation. If you liked X, seeing today’s episode, or waiting for next week’s show was a welcome ritual. It gave shape to the week and set a rhythm to each day.
That division of pop culture has become redundant. With streaming, YouTube, physical media, mp3s and playlists, we are free to self-medicate anyplace, anytime, anywhere. And it becomes evident that some things weren’t meant to be devoured in huge swaths. Milt Gross’ comics are a prime example, and Sunday Press’ wonderful Gross Exaggerations demands that the reader apportion its contents.
That said—and I’ll return to this point—this book is the first time the works of Milt Gross have been presented with concordance and real care. Earlier anthologies made do with pre-digital limitations and smaller reproduction sizes. They made a case for the caffeinated, limb-flailing chaos of the cartoonists’ work and left the reader hungry for more.
Properly dosed, Gross’ work is one long hysterical howl. His cartooning makes you want to draw. The life in those lines! Those wild, broad scribbles and scrawls that our eyes, determined to make sense out of the abstract, turn into figures, buildings, dogs, fire hydrants and belligerent policemen! The teeming, manic energy! Gross makes cartooning seem such breezy fun. Like George Herriman, Gross wasn’t troubled by the doom of perfection. So lettering is sloppy—so what? So a circle is arguably another, more complex geometric shape—who cares? The point is the point, and that’s what Milt Gross’ humor nails, page after page. In scenes of complete chaos, you know what’s happening, what to look for, and where to go next.
As Mark Newgarden notes in his superb introduction—the best piece of writing about this cartoonist to date—these comic strips are artifacts of the 20th century. As such, they arrive with baggage. Sensitive modern readers might want to call Child Protective Services after witnessing Nize Baby’s frustrated father Morris wailing on his son Isidore. Others may quail at Gross’ depiction of mental illness, and there are a few instances of racial and ethnic caricature. To Milt Gross, all these things were window dressing. The reason he blasted his loose scrawls on illustration board was to make us laugh. His is a timeless comedy of human folly—in particular, how man is his own worst enemy, due to hubris, stubbornness or bad temper.
In Gross’ world, the purchase of a gumball can escalate into a parade of fire engines, the collapse of skyscrapers and a rain of locusts. Gross delights in stacking a rickety house of cards then pulling out pieces and relishing the collapse. As his characters get themselves into madcap melees—and struggle to get free of same—they vibrate, jangle and skew. As Newgarden notes, Gross was an early adopter of varying panel sizes. If an action is funniest chopped into bits, his page might have 24 panels. If he wishes to underline the classic arc of a comedic situation, the events are vignettes contained by one mega-panel.
Gross was the Larry David of his day—the arbiter of a signature style of humor that drew on what had come before but twisted it into new, raw material. Like David, Gross was mega-popular for a while and then receded into the pop-culture past. As the 1930s rolled on, Gross seemed to lose interest in his newspaper strip and ceded it to the hands of mechanical mimics like Bob Dunn who could ape the style but not the flabbergasted heart of its creator. Gross turned to animation, hardcover books, comic books and painting; his was not a personality to sit still. His work became more stylized and angular in the 1940s, as his approach influenced successors to his comedic crown. The look of Fred “Tex” Avery’s classic M-G-M cartoons owes something to Gross’ spasmodic scrawl; Harvey Kurtzman’s humorous comic book work of the late 1940s offers a bebop approach to Gross’ zesty attack. And there’s something of Gross in the work of Johnny Ryan, Peter Bagge and Pat Moriarity, to name three modern cartoonists whose embrace of the ornately outrageous rivals Nize Baby or Count Screwloose on a good day.
Newgarden makes a case for Gross being worthy of a biography. His was a fascinating life and newspaper comics were one piece of this biographical mosaic. Gross Exaggerations gives us a comprehensive sense of what Milt Gross was about. We get 47 Nize Babys, 31 Count Screwloose of Toulouses and 44 Dave’s Delicatessens, cherry-picked from eight years of Sunday comics and reproduced larger than they’ve been seen since their original publication. We witness Gross’ humor and drawing becoming denser and more involved and glean his instinct for when to let go of a recurring catchphrase, punchline or set-up. Like other great artists, high and low, Gross loathed repetition, even as his comics’ set-ups seem to invite them. We know that Screwloose will return to Nuttycrest Asylum, eager for readmission after witnessing the casual (and causal) insanity of the “sane world;” ditto for Morris Feitelbaum’s shitfits and self-destructions. It’s how they get there that matters, and Gross was a whiz at serving infinite variations on a theme.
Dave’s Delicatessen is a game-changer for Gross; its street-level merchant has a more fluid relationship to his creator’s world of upended chaos. With its title character sometimes the victim, sometimes the master of comedic fate, Dave’s offered Gross a new smorgasbord of comedy potential. With an abbreviated Count Screwloose as its topper strip, and that character’s guest appearances in the body of the strip, Dave’s Delicatessen may be the most pleasant discovery of this large, handsome book. It is produced with the high level of TLC we expect from Sunday Press, with superb reproduction, fine paper quality and the right amount of back matter, which includes a survey of Gross’ work for the weekly humor magazines of his day.
I have resisted quoting from the strips because they’re so visual. Gross was a master of mangled dialect—an aspect of his work that obviously influenced John Stanley—and had a keen ear for catch-phrases. “Gentlemen, I assure you!” has already entered my lexicon.
As per my original point, now that we have access to so much popular culture—what was once only rarely glimpsed is now omnipresent—I believe we have a new responsibility as consumers. We must ration ourselves; we must take time to measure these megadoses. Buy this book but read three to five strips daily. Give yourself time to orb every scritch, jot and jiggle; roll the grammatical mish-mash around your palate. Marvel at the shifting, lumpen geometry of the cartoonist’s pen and brush; let these pages live and breathe. It’s the way Milt Gross would have wanted it. To wolf these strips down is (a) an injustice to the work and (b) likely to cause mental indigestion. Taken as prescribed, Gross Exaggerations will give you a few months’ worth of fine madness and keep your worldview suitably skewed as we scribble our way into 2021.