Review by Win Wiacek
The power of comics comes not just from wedding text to image but also in the power of illustration. You can have comics without words, but if you leave the letters and subtract the pictures what you have is just a book.
Milt Gross was a trailblazing pioneer in both cartooning and the wider arena of popular comedy, specialising in vernacular while refining and popularising Yiddish folk humour and slang into a certified American export to world culture: “Yinglish”. You should really look him up.
Gross was also an early adept in the animation field, bringing his cartoon characters to silent life in numerous short filler features. He left his mark in comics too, working for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper chain on numerous syndicated strips. Far too few of his many books are in print now, but happily, this astounding landmark is one of them and is even available in assorted eBook formats.
He Done Her Wrong (The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It – No Music, Too) was released in 1930, lampooning and cashing in on a notable trend of those troubled times in wordless novels. These woodcut-crafted parables derived from the German Expressionist art movement, and offered (generally left-leaning) pictorial epigrams and studies addressing social injustice. The first was Belgian Frans Masereel’s 25 Images of a Man’s Passion in 1918, and eleven years later American Lynd Ward followed suit with Gods’ Man. Among the many emulatory efforts it inspired was this broad spoof of silent movie thrillers such as The Perils of Pauline, pitched perfectly for pathos, bathos and hilarity.
This facsimile edition is a complete unabridged restoration – which means the re-inclusion of some images, depictions and scenes that might appear a little controversial to modern sensibilities. It also offers a fascinating picture-packed introduction by Craig Yoe (devoted friend and patron of all comics vintage and fabulous) and closing appreciation by eminent cartoonist, writer and editor Paul Karasik.
What lies between those essays is a stunning masterclass in comedy staging, gag timing, magnificent caricaturing and timeless melodrama, delivered as a succession of silent pantomimic pages. It all begins after a hearty trustworthy young woodsman, trapper and prospector falls in love with a virtuous barroom singer. True love is thwarted by a dirty villain who swindles the hero and absconds to New York with his heartbroken, abandoned ingenue.
As hero and victim both fall foul of the lures of the big bad city, and vice mounts unstoppably in the woman’s benighted life, the hero overcomes every obstacle to find his lover, battling his way from the wilderness into truly savage civilisation where he will set things right no matter what the cost.
It all works out in the end, of course, but only after an astoundingly convoluted course of action, buckets of tears, some vengeance and forgiveness, and plenty of near-misses and lethally close calls. That sounds like a great thriller – and it is – but Gross played it strictly for laughs, and made a tale to rank with the best of his closest contemporary comedy peers: Charley Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
He Done Her Wrong is a superb yarn and perfect picture into a world that only seems simpler and less complicated than today, and if you love classic stories you should just buy it.