And they lived happily ever after. Artist: Milt Gross.

HE DONE HER WRONG

Medium: Graphic novel
Published by: Doubleday
First Appeared: 1930
Creator: Milt Gross
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Most of today's comic book readers think of graphic novels as a modern phenomenon, an example of the great strides comics have made relatively recently (ignoring the fact that anyone who thinks of them as a "great stride" hasn't read most graphic novels). They tend to credit Will Eisner (The Spirit, How to Avoid Death & Taxes) with the invention of the form, which they trace as far back …

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… as Eisner's A Contract with God (1978) — which not only wasn't the first graphic novel, it wasn't even Eisner's first. (In fact, it wasn't a novel at all, but a short story collection.)

But even those who manage to trace them back as far as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck have only found the probable beginning of the form on a single continent. Taking into account the engravings of William Hogarth (1697-1764) doesn't pinpoint their origin either.

In any case, graphic novels had been around a long time when cartoonist Milt Gross (Looy Dot Dope, Count Screwloose of Tooloose) created He Done Her Wrong (originally subtitled "The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It — No Music, Too") in 1930. In style it may be hopelessly old-fashioned and in cultural context it may be hopelessly dated, but by any reasonable criterion, it's a graphic novel.

It's also extremely funny, even if it doesn't quite live up to its subtitle. Several panels, while silent, depict signs with words, including one that contains no less than nine distinct ones. Also, a claim of having witnessed certain pictured events, illustrated by a word balloon containing pictures of an eye and a saw, may technically count as not having any words, but that eye and that saw were still intended to evoke the words and not the things themselves.

This book owes as much to silent movie serials like The Perils of Pauline (little relation) as it does to the wordless work of Lynd Ward (God's Man, Madman's Drum). It concern's a stalwart frontiersman's pursuit of his one true love, opposed by a dastardly villain who wants her for himself, and puts one obstacle after another between them. All are of course, unnamed, tho it's easy for anyone with eyes to see, to figure out what's going on. In the end, it's probably not a surprise that the first two live happily ever after, while the last winds up in a life of unrelenting misery.

The 256-page story was originally published in 1930 by Doubleday (Fagin the Jew, Shutterbug Follies). It had a paperback edition in 1964 from Dell Books (a corporate sibling of Dell Comics), which modified its subtitle to "The Great American Novel Told without Words". A 1983 edition from Abbeville Press (Uncle Scrooge, Silly Symphonies), retitled Hearts of Gold for unexplained reasons, was subjected to censorship on grounds of alleged racism (such as that seen in the reluctance of Warner Bros. to allow modern viewers to see Coal Black & de Sebben Dwarfs). Fantagraphics Books Prince Valiant, Red Barry) put the uncensored version, with its subtitle restored, back in print in 2006.

Milt Gross was a very popular cartoonist, with several books to his credit, including Hiawatta wit No Odder Poems and De Night in De Front From Chreesmas; and many comics, including Nize Baby and Dave's Delicatessen. But this graphic novel has proven to be his most enduring work.

— DDM

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Text ©2009-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Milt Gross Estate.