John Kricfalusi on the art of Milt Gross

I interviewed the great animator John Kricfalusi of Spumco Studios last night about stylized animation of the 1950s, and he told me about one of his favorite cartoonists of all time, Milt Gross. John K's knowledge about cartoons goes broader and deeper than anyone I've ever met. I'm blown away every time I talk to him. (See his reel here.)
200511151627John K: "The greatest guy even in that style is Milt Gross -- the greatest comic strip artist of all time and he does a style that's very similar to Gerald McBoingBoing except it's funny. It's funny and it's human. He'd draw a crowd scene and every character looks completely different, and you can tell instantly by looking at the character what kind of a person it is. He is amazing. And he has great drawing principles behind his work. A lot of people will look at his work, a lot of accomplished artists today and they would say he draws primitively. He doesn't at all. He has fantastic composition; the best composition of any cartoonist I've ever seen in my life."
200511151644(Click on thumbnail for enlargement) There's not much on the web about Gross. He was born in 1895, in the Bronx, and worked for papers, comics, and cartoon studios. He was quite well known for a time. He died in 1953.

Here's an article about Gross from Indy magazine. Bud Plant has a short Gross bio here. There are some nice images in Shane Glines' Cartoon Retro (A terrific website for anyone interested in cartoons and illustrations. It costs $5 a month for a subscription using Paypal. I subscribe and consider it a bargain).

Reader comment: Coop says: "You should also mention that Fantagraphics is reprinting Gross' dialog-free classic He Done Her Wrong."

Reader comment: Will Finn says:

Thanks for your link about John K and Milt Gross. Milt is the greatest unsung God of comic strip art ever.  I became aware of him when I was a teen in the 70’s via an otherwise weary nostalgia magazine called GOOD OLD DAYS, which always included a few pages of old Sunday comics. Occasionally they would reprint a KRAZY KAT, so I was always checking it out and the first time I saw a Milt Gross strip my jaw dropped. Right away I was arrested by the fluid and crisp style of a strip called COUNT SCREWLOOSE OF TOO-LOOSE. What stunned me even more was to see copyright dates for this modern masterpiece being done somewhere in the late teens. Gross had a style similar to Harvey Kurtzman’s HEY LOOK and he had it more than three decades before anyone else!!! His graphics are more succinctly designed and more cleanly rendered, (while also remaining loose and wild) than ANY of his contemporaries. Cliff Sterrett, came close, but even his work sometimes suffers from cluttered shading and awkward angular poses. Gross’ characters never repeat poses or expressions, they are off the charts in every panel. He also managed to maintained a character’s visual integrity, while at the same time pushing their facial features willy nilly around to suit whatever mood he was going for. The same went for anatomy—which is one of the things that makes him beloved by all cartoonists who hate boringly safe graphics. He also wrote humor columns for Hearst newspapers, usually in thick and hilarious Yiddish dialect. These garnered him a long parallel career on radio.  

I became friends with Joe Grant, one of the (late) great Disney artists, whose father also worked with the Hearst papers and Joe told me Milt was an old family friend. Not surprisingly, he remembered him as a mild-mannered personality who was a tad prudish and somewhat introverted. He died of a heart attack in the early 50’s (right around the time that the rest of cartoon art was beginning to catch up with him) on while on a holiday cruise. One of his last projects was a 15 minute TV pilot called PETE THE PUP, stories about a puppy that Milt would illustrate free-hand in real time to the narration.  

For a very short time he was running the MGM short cartoon department and is responsible for directing three astoundingly zany shorts in the late 30’s. One is a CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS Christmas short and the other two are Gross originals (one I saw only once was about an a talent show). Joe Barbera makes oblique references to this era in his biography but his impression of Milt is vague and he is somewhat dismissive of the cartoons. (All three are b & w and as such not on video).  

Some notable books collected his artwork and dialect prose and often turn up on alibris:

His comic strips (many titles) are sadly not available in any collections, but I would snap them up in a second if they were. I have a few books that collected some of his great Sunday pages and they are really masterpieces of broad comedy and brilliant artwork.