Milt Gross at his drawing board.


Born: 1895 : : : Died: 1953
Job Description: Cartoonist
Worked in: Newspaper comics
Noted for: He Done Her Wrong, Count Screwloose of Tooloose, Nize Baby, and much more
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Most great cartoonists work on a variety of features, but become best known for one. George Herriman, for …

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… example, was responsible for Baron Bean, a lot of cartoons in Judge magazine, and the illustrations to Don Marquis's archy and mehitabel, but his Krazy Kat outshone it all. Rube Goldberg did Lala Palooza, Boob McNutt and award-winning editorial cartoons, but is best remembered for his crazy inventions. Elzie Segar did O.G. Wotasnozzle, Barry the Boob and a comic strip chronicling the licensed adventures of Charlie Chaplin, but his Thimble Theatre, where the star was Popeye, is where he made his mark.

But Milt Gross created Dave's Delicatessen, Looy Dot Dope, That's My Pop, and a great deal more, and is remembered, pretty much equally, for all of them. He never tied himself down to a single feature. That, plus the fact that most of his work has been out of print for decades, probably explains his lack of name recognition to the general public today, which certainly can't have anything to do with a lack of ability to entertain.

Milt Gross was born in 1895, and was working as assistant to T.A. Dorgan (another who doesn't have much name recognition anymore except among comics historians, but was one of the top cartoonists of his day) when still in his teens. At age 20, he launched his first comic strip, Phool Phan Phables, about a rabid sports fan, in The New York Journal (a Hearst paper). Two years later, The Ups & Downs of Mr. Phool Phan was produced as an animated cartoon, which Gross wrote and directed, and he had his first screen credits. A dozen more followed during the silent era — Useless Hints by Fuller Prunes, Izzy Able the Detective, How My Vacation Spent Me … These were mostly done for the studio of John R. Bray, which also introduced Bobby Bumps, Col. Heeza Liar and other pioneering animation stars.

These cartoons, plus a little more minor newspaper work (along with a tour of duty in World War I), brought him into the 1920s, when he branched out first into illustrated newspaper columns (Gross Exaggerations, which appeared in The New York World, which belonged to Hearst's arch-rival, Joseph Pulitzer), then into what we now call graphic novels. His first book was Nize Baby, a collection of his columns, published in 1926. (Nize Baby became a newspaper Sunday page the following year.) The same year saw the publication of Hiawatta witt No Odder Poems, a send-up of Longfellow's classic. Both columns and books made extensive use of Yiddish dialect, pioneered in the comics by Harry Hershfield's Abie the Agent.

He continued to produce both comics (Count Screwloose of Tooloose, Banana Oil, etc.) and books (De Night in de Front from Creesmus, Famous Fimmales Witt Odder Ewents From Heestory and more) throughout the 1920s. Perhaps his most enduring work was He Done Her Wrong: The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It — No Music, Too, which was originally published in 1930. In this graphic novel, Gross cheated a couple of times by putting words on signs and suchlike, and came very close to verbal language when he had a character, claiming to have personally witnessed events he'd just described, utter a word balloon containing a picture of an eye and a picture of a saw. Still, it was a remarkable achievement, very funny, and was reprinted in 1963 by Dell Books (a corporate sibling of Dell Comics), in 1971 by Dover Books (Buster Brown, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend), in 1983, under the title Hearts of Gold, by Abbeville Press (Uncle Scrooge, Silly Symphonies), and in 2005, with its title restored, by Fantagraphics Books (Usagi Yojimbo, Prince Valiant).

In 1931, he went back to work for the Hearst organization, and during the following decade or so produced a succession of comic strips for King Features Syndicate. His titles during this period included Dave's Delicatessen, Otto & Blotto, That's My Pop (which also became a radio show, which Gross wrote) and eventually, the syndicate bowing to the anarchic range of his creativity, Milt Gross Cartoons. (By that time, his name carried enough weight to sell the feature without the necessity of recognizable characters.)

In 1939, he revived the Count Screwloose character in a pair of cartoons he directed for MGM, Jitterbug Follies (released Feb. 25 of that year) and Wanted: No Master (March 18). Mel Blanc did the Count's voice, but didn't take screen credit because of his contract with Warner Bros. But Gross's zany style of humor clashed with the would-be dignified approach of studio boss Fred Quimby (who is alleged to have had no sense of humor at all), so he didn't stay with the studio long enough to produce a third.

Gross suffered a heart attack in 1945, and thereafter went into semi-retirement. After that, he did a comic book, Picture News, for a small outfit called Lafayette Street Corp., which is remembered for little else. This lasted ten issues, from January, 1946 to February, 1947. Later in 1947, he did two issues of Milt Gross Funnies for ACG (Commander Battle, Herbie).

He had a second heart attack in 1953, and died November 28 of that year.


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Text ©2005-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Milt Gross estate.