Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Milt Gross/Will Elder

This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2006.
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Humor is a particular area of interest for me as a writer, and that's especially true for comics. Indeed, though the medium is capable of addressing any style or genre (as I hope I've showed in this column), the very name of the medium is indebted to its humorous roots. Despite (or perhaps because of) this fact, humorous comics don't often earn a lot of critical attention. I think this is in part because of the subjective nature of humor, but also because most audiences are subjected to the very bland humor found on the daily comics pages. Of course, those strips are handicapped by the tiny space they're given on the page, forcing them all to get by mostly by the force of the verbal nature of their jokes rather than the visuals. These comics are stripped of their energy, of their kinetic power. That energy was later claimed by super-hero comics; at their best, they make the reader fly from panel-to-panel as the story whips the eye through the story.

It wasn't always so. Milt Gross was an early comic strip star, known best for the "Yiddishisms" in his comics. In 1930, he did a book called He Done Her Wrong. At the time, there had been some books published that can only be called the earliest graphic novels. Lynd Ward's God's Man was one of them--a silent, woodcut-looking comic about very Serious Matters. Gross sent up the trend with his own wordless comic book, subtitled "The Great American Novel (With No Words)". Gross uses the book format to burst out of the constraints of the strip. There are full splash pages, images that are free of panels, images that dance around central panels and multiple images on a page when Gross wants to speed up the action. But everything in the story is in motion. The very first page has a still image, of a bar in a small snowy town somewhere, with dozens of footprints leading up to that. The next page sees the action explode, with men and women dancing, drinking and smooching.

Gross is far from a master draftsman. For his purposes, however, that's not important. His sometimes-sketchy, sometimes-rubbery "bigfoot" style is perfect for the tone of the story and the way he leads the reader along. If images seem to bend a bit weirdly as they fly across the page, it's only to create that illusion of movement. His greatest skill as an artist is his awesome compositional sense. The way he arranges every page for dramatic or comedic effect, his use of light and shadow, and how he chooses to speed up or slow down the action is masterful, and is the key to the success of his gags.

The jokes themselves aren't exactly what I'd call sophisticated, but they are clever. He makes use of familiar stereotypes as a shortcut for getting across information quickly and without words. The tall noble hero, the willowy love interest, and the curly-cue moustachioed villain all tip off the reader quickly as to what's-what. There's a later blackface joke that's clever in its execution but that's certainly uncomfortable to read now. There are also later caricatures of native americans and asians that form another clever joke. Overall, I'd say the use of the caricatures is not especially malicious, especially given the more virulent strips of the time, and the fact that Gross made a career of exploring those Yiddishisms. And of course, they're not the root of the humor here; they're as much a shorthand as any of the other familiar images he uses to quickly impart information.

The story is simple: a rugged hunter type in the great white north is lured into operating with a slimy businessman. Said villain manages to trick the singer girlfriend of our hero into thinking her beau is dead, and gets her to come to New York with him. The bulk of the book is concerned with the misadventures of that trio, specifically the Hunter's attempt to reconnect with his girl.

Along the way, Gross packs powerful image after powerful image into his pages. Even visuals not central to the gag are worth looking at. He also imparts drama and pathos into the book. There's an amazing page done almost entirely in black where the singer is waiting for her man to come back. We only see her silhouette in a doorway. At the top left of the page, we see that shadow waiting expectantly; time has passed in the second panel as her posture slumps a bit; in the third panel at the bottom right, we see her arms at her sides and her head down. It's a wonderfully striking page that serves both as emotionally powerful on its own and as a parody of "serious" comics.

A big part of the humor is tied to fighting and action. There's another amazing image of the hunter crashing through a church window, knife in hand, readt to attack his nemesis. The chase scene they have is hilarious, tearing the reader through the city. Another great sequence sees the mighty hunter entering New York. Immediately upon entering the city from a canoe, the triumphant hunter gets a can of paint dumped on him, whacked by a car, stepped on by a horse and kicked by a cop. In a wonderful bit of visual humor, he walks right by his girlfriend, with a big sign advertising a broadway play called "Fate" getting in-between them!
Another great sequence features the singer, abandoned by the villain and destitute in the city. She pleads her case at an office building, begging for a job. The man she pleads to has to plead her case to a higher-up, who repeats the story to another higher-up, who repeats the story to the board of directors, who then call her in to repeat her story to them. After waiting, she gets a yes...to scrubbing floors. Repetition builds the gag up, with him using that technique again of starting at the top left, using a central image, and then concluding in the bottom right hand corner. It makes it easy for the eye to follow and helps the reader tear through the pages, giving the sequence momentum. That momentum is almost musical, as the reader scales down a series of descending notes.

The story continues to build, with a wild climax where the villain literally has the hero tied to a conveyor belt on a sawmill, ready to cut him in half. Goodness prevails, and the villain gets his come-uppance, and everyone lives happily ever after. What's interesting to me about the book is its eventual impact. Gross was not the first "bigfoot" cartoonist, but it's clear that the visual vocabulary he helped to create had a huge impact on others. Jack Cole (creator of Plastic Man) was clearly influenced by a lot of these pages. Kyle Baker's You Are Here is almost a modern update of He Done Her Wrong. His dictum of putting a pretty girl, a chase scene or a fight on nearly every page is exactly the formula that Gross follows, and the use of New York as almost another character mirrors Gross as well.

Of course, the most immediate descendents of this early, manic comic strip humor were the creators of MAD. Harvey Kurtzman's satire was much more sophisticated than anything seen in comics up to that point, but it was up to his collaborators to provide a visual impact for his layouts. The greatest of these collaborators, to my eyes, is Will Elder. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that Elder was one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century. Fantagraphics put out a magnificent coffee table book on his career called Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art that reprints a bunch of classic strips, but there's a slim companion book that's been released called Chicken Fat, which is also worthy of one's attention. In some ways, Chicken Fat reveals even more of Elder's genius than the big book. It consists of "drawings, sketches, cartoons and doodles". The tossed-off nature of them is remarkable, considering how fully-formed they are.

A few things become quickly evident after examining the book: Elder can draw absolutely anything, in any style, with enormous skill. And he has been doing so for 70+ years, with little diminishment in either his ability or inspiration. It's like he's been hooked up to some cosmic art tap that comes bursting relentlessly out of his pencil and brush. The compulsion to draw is what made Elder so good so soon, along with a grasp of anatomy that's second to none. Not only can Elder draw anything from life, he can mimic any style of artist. A hilarious Norman Rockwell parody in Mad Playboy may be the single funniest image I've ever seen: There's a mind-boggling drawing of Popeye & Olive Oyl getting married (complete with the whole supporting cast) that looks like Elzie Segar rose from the dead to draw it. He also draws carcicatures every bit as lively and clever as a master like Al Hirschfeld. The fact that Elder can draw with so much technical skill is what allowed him to break the rules when he needed to--things still "looked" right no matter how exaggerated his drawings got.

Elder's own style is very much influenced by Gross. It's frenetic and in constant motion. And in the pages of MAD, Elder couldn't help but throw in little background drawings and jokes in addition to advancing the story as Kurtzman saw it. Those marginalia came to be called "chicken fat" by Elder. As Elder says, "Chicken fat is the part of the soup that's bad for you, yet gives the soup its delicious flavor". That marginalia was not central to the story, but it's a big reason why Elder stood out even among amazing artists like Wally Wood in the early issues of MAD.

Chicken Fat was compiled by his son-in-law, Gary VandenBergh. The book reads very much like a love letter to his father-in-law and a family affair in general. One can sense that there is no differentation between Elder the comic artist and Elder the person--he's always funny, always warm, and always a jokester. While sharply witty, his work doesn't have the viciousness or bitterness that marks a number of jokesters. The book features some early drawings (his mechanical drawings particularly stand out since that was a skill he rarely used in his stories), rejected gags from various magazines, sketch sheets and comic strip ideas that didn't quite make it.

My favorite bit was a strip called "Adverse Anthony" that he pitched to the Saturday Evening Post. While brilliant, it was way too demented for a conservative publication like that, which is a shame. Every one of the gags he had in the book for this feature were fantastic, and I'd happily read a whole volume of them. The title character was a killjoy dressed all in black, standing out against the lighter linework of the other characters--all of whom are not shaded. That draws the eye straight to A.A. and whatever grim or weird thing he happens to be doing. My favorite gag was an image of a ticker-tape parade. We see A.A. dumping paper from his office window to the parade below. Then we notice that it's from "Anthony Shoe Co.", his own business. Then we see that he's dumping paper from the suggestion box!

Fans of Elder will find a lot of wonderful surprises. There's a 1950 sketch sheet done at the height of his prowess as an artist, featuring a number of familiar-looking EC characeters. A proposed comic strip called "The Inspector" borrows a lot from Gross, especially in terms of its Yiddishisms. There's a series of lurid pulp-cover parodies in various states of readiness, the most striking being "Fearsome Future Fiction", with a naked girl under glass about to be devoured by giant crustaceans at a dinner table, wearing bibs! Seeing him work out problems of anatomy for a strip show what a tireless worker he is; while he may have a ton of talent, it's his relentless work ethic that made him great. Even Elder's recent, tossed-off doodles are wonderful to look at--gags in search of a venue.

There's plenty in this book for those not familiar with Elder, but I'd steer those readers to Mad Playboy first. A lot of the strips here feature some dated humor, especially those submitted for magazines like Playboy. This book is a behind-the-scenes look at Elder and his creative process and as such doesn't always feature his best material. That said, even Elder's most dated or flattest gags are still worth examining just for the sheer proficiency of their design and execution.

Looking at the half-finished drawings is not quite the same thing as a fully-realized Elder strip, because there's a weight that's accrued as you read one. Between the foreground gag and the numerous background gags, the amount of humor that Elder piles on has a cumulative effect on the reader. Any one gag may not be brilliant on its own, but that rapid-fire technique (used by Mel Brooks and the Zucker Brothers in films) allows the reader to retain the gags that they find funniest while forgetting the others. The trick is that Elder was able to do this while still making his pages a smooth reading experience. You could safely ignore all of the background jokes if you wanted to and just read the story, or you could read the background gags by themselves, or you could integrate the panel as a reader and do both--and it was easy to do any of these things. Like Gross, Elder is a master of composition and how the eye tracks across a page. There's no confusion for the reader in following the action on a page, which is crucial for a story that's trying to be funny. This style has been widely imitated, with modern cartoonists like Evan Dorkin being a prime example but with plenty of lesser artists trying it as well. Not everyone does it as well as Elder, and fewer still could produce at a rate like Elder did in his prime. If I was an aspiring cartoonist, Elder's work (in MAD, Playboy, and other Kurtzman collaborations like Goodman Beaver) would be my textbook, a model of how to translate one's personal comedic muse onto the page. The lessons are all there: draw from life, be versatile, be clear, force the reader into reacting how you want them to without them knowing it, and above all else: keep drawing.

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