Cartoonist and comic book historian extraordinaire Craig Yoe sent me a copy of his latest book, Milt Gross: Comic Books and Life Story. Most people probably don't know who Milt Gross is, but in the 1920s and 1930s he was a cartoonist beloved by millions for his zany, frenetic comic strips and was hailed as "America's Great Yiddish Humorist." It's safe to say that without Milt Gross, Harvey Kurtzman and Robert Crumb would have turned out to be very different kinds of artists.
The 354-page monster of a book includes a 38-page biography, which tells the story of how Gross went to work with Charlie Chaplin and Joan Crawford, and how he created his famous (at the time) characters and comic strips such as Nize Baby, Izzy Human, Babbling Brooks, Frenchy, Kinney B. Alive, Amateur Night, Sportograms, In the Movies They Do It, Dave's Delicatessen, Looy Dot Dope, Count Screwloose of Tooloose, Joe Runt, Banana Oil, Otto & Blotto, That's My Pop!, and Then the Fun Began.
The remaining 300-plus pages are devoted to full color reprints from extremely rare 1940s Gross comic book stories, which are still funny in the same way that I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and The Flintstones are.
Here's an excerpt from Yoe's biography of Gross:
Gross perfected a unique comic Yinglish, a linguistic marriage of Yiddish and English. It permeated his work, particularly in his written and illustrated newspaper column Gross Exaggerations and its resulting compilation book, Nize Baby. Gross explained that this slanguage was "a literal translation of the Anglicized Russian Jew. At least I try and 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."
Max Shulman, the creator of the Dobie Gillis stories and television show, said of Gross, "He is far and away the best Yiddish dialect humorist that ever practiced. His ear is tuned with radar-like delicacy to the locutions of first-generation American Jews. He captures not only the mispronunciations, but also the misconstructions–the subjects scorning predicates, the gerunds peering around corners, the tenses blithely commingling, the participles without visible means of support. The effect in his skilled hands is not caricature, but hilarious accuracy." Shulman added, "You will find a warming absence of spikes, barbs, and jagged edges. Only good nature is here, and light heart. You get a feeling that Mr. Gross wants you to laugh because he likes you. It's a nice feeling."
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