“What AMOS ‘N’ ANDY was to blacks, Milt Gross’ oeuvre was to Jews” explains comics legend Jim Steranko’s introduction to Milt Gross’ New York, a “lost graphic novel” that’s been recreated and packaged for only the most dedicated and diehard comics historians and collectors of vintage comics. That’s not a slight but a reality – in today’s world of bulked-up superheroes and splotchy autobiographical panels the legacy of Gross has largely – if not entirely – been forgotten.
In the same introduction Steranko comes dangerously close to apologism in his defense in the lack of finesse and, ahem, precision in Gross’ artwork. I wish he hadn’t; history only needs sexing up for those who aren’t really interested in history. Several generations removed the work of Gross and others like him may only be for the dedicated, but surely that’s more than enough.
Originally published by Bystander press (by all accounts an amateur outfit if there ever was one) with little (if any) promotion and designed to appeal to those visitors to the Big Apple in town to sample some of the 1939 New York World’s Fair’s more tantalizing treats. Having to go up against such obstacles – not to mention flashier action and underground porn comics – the book stood little chance for success, becoming the Holy Grail of Gross’ collections for many years.
Comics historian and editor Craig Yoe (who also wrote the definitive Gross bio in The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story) handles the show with aplomb, refusing to censor some of the original’s more controversial bits and even pens a thoughtful multi-page introduction (the book’s second) that helps put not just Milt Gross the Cartoonist in better context, but the cultural sandbox in which he played. More on this later…
But let’s not kid ourselves: even by today’s hoity–toity, hifalutin retconning efforts to ‘legitimize’ the comic book (i.e. comix, sequential art, etc) this isn’t a graphic novel, or even a ‘lost graphic novel’, if you believe the hype. There’s no binding narrative, no real storyline at play here, even forgetting the World’s Fair
But that’s OK! What we have here is a collection of single (as well as the odd two-page) comic panels starring Gross’ “Pop” character from his well-known “That’s My Pop!” comic strip. Heck, several “out-of-context paste-ups” are just unrelated reprints from the “Pop!” comic (and not even by Milt Gross himself but his assistant Bob Dunn, also “creator of the knock-knock joke”), presumably included to pad out empty space.
Other additions include not one, but two, warnings about cultural sensitivity and ‘stereotyping of minorities’ to help distance the publisher from its product in these “more enlightened times.” But such deniers of history needn’t worry; none of the original artwork has been altered, and neither warning is offensively patronizing, though it’s difficult to imagine this book and its handful of truly objectionable panels accidently finding its way to impressionable minds.
But even if it did – so what? It’s difficult to imagine anyone – Chinese readers especially – not laughing more at Gross’ lame attempt (by which I mean no attempt whatsoever) to render the Chinese characters seen in Chinatown than the stereotypical Chinese citizens who live there.
Less so, I’m afraid, are the dancing black children in Harlem as the enthusiastic Pop tries to keep pace while uptown onlookers watch in amazement. “Swing It, Pop!” Stuff like this gets certain Tintin books sent to the ‘Adult’ section at local libraries, and I’ve no doubt will have the same effect here if discovered.
Isn’t it a hoot the very generation of kids that were exposed to such ‘unenlightened’ fair as Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, and even – yes – Milt Gross would go on to help purge the evils of racial intolerance and prejudice from society, only to have their own children ‘protected’ from the very things they themselves enjoyed at every turn? You can’t make this stuff up, people.
So back to the actual comic reproductions then – how are they? Quite excellent, and owing to modern printing mechanics no doubt the best they’ve ever been. Color scans of original front and back covers look great, but the real treat are the black and white comics themselves. Single page panels fair best, as the generous page size lets you gaze and soak up Gross’ inky renders with pleasure, when his artwork allows it, anyway. There’s just something magical about early American comics, with their bold lines and large black spaces, that reproduce so well on quality paper.
Two-page reproductions fair worse, unfortunately, especially as there’s no proper spacing between pages, meaning some detail and clarity gets lost in the middle-binding. This isn’t a deal-killer by any means, but a more conscientious attempt at better layout would have made them more enjoyable – and legible. There’s only a handful of these two-pages, so consider my pointing this out more a nitpick than actual gripe.
But none of these issues keep Milt Gross’ New York from being an enjoyable, if extremely narrow, look at a long-lost work by one of comics’ unappreciated legends. Editor and Gross enthusiast Craig Yoe’s informative introduction and unapologetic reprints (thank you) help keep this from being just another illustrated museum piece, and for that alone we should all be grateful.