I want to like Milt Gross. I really do. I want to think he’s a cartooning genius, the kind of guy that makes you shake your head and break all your pencils because you’ll never be as good as he is. The kind of cartoonist whose work inspires you to pore over every detail. Most of all, someone who makes you laugh and think, sometimes all at once.
Knowing that I was supposed to like him, I picked up a copy of the Complete Milt Gross Comics and Life Story at Half Price Books. I had seen some of his work on John K’s website and thought it was ok. Lots of people were talking about his genius. I picked up the book, thinking finally I would figure out what it was all about. Kind of like the time I picked up Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” hoping to understand everyone’s love for Bob Dylan.
So I liked Gross’s stuff fine, but I still am not enthralled with it. I’ve come to realize it’s just a matter of taste, I suppose. I like the concepts behind the stories: a dog who gets into all kinds a trouble, a lazy dad who somehow works his way into gainful employment, and a nutball who escapes from the looney bin only to return when he finds out that the real world makes even less sense than the sanitorium.
But I’m just not a big fan of the artwork. I’m surprised that John K likes him as much as he does, given that he’s such a big fan of the Preston Blair school of construction. Gross’s illustrations to me look kind of like doodles, very rushed and “good enough.” It’s obvious, though from the book looking at his earlier illustrations that Gross was a capable draftsman who chose to draw that way.
Ultimately the frenetic illustration style gives me ADD. It hurries me across the page, not lingering over anything in particular. I don’t find myself pausing to look at anything, perhaps because it doesn’t seem all that labored over. I know that cartooning is difficult from experience, but Gross’s style just looks ugly to me. I know he probably spent a lot of time working on this stuff but it just doesn’t seem like it. It always seemed to me like Walt Kelly could have spent hours working on a single panel. It was evident that the hard work was there. This image just gives me a headache.
It’s obvious that Gross knows the rules of perspective and is choosing to ignore them. Or is it? I’m reminded of free jazz players like Ornette Coleman who knew the rules and chose to ignore them. Some players thought that they didn’t know the rules and could play whatever they wanted to and make music. This wasn’t the case, but to an awful lot of people it all sounded like noise no matter if you knew what you were doing or not.
So I still don’t get “Blonde on Blonde” and I still don’t get Gross either, although I do appreciate his peculiar brand of zany fun more than I did. I have found out that I seem to appreciate the more conventional styles of guys like Kelly and Barks and others more than this schizophrenic style.