Monday, September 3, 2012

A Spectacular Milt Gross Back to School Screwball Comic (Count Screwloose 1931)

Here's a terrific Milt Gross screwball comic from 1931, scanned from my collection, and featuring a classic panoramic panel of college craziness.

As my son Reid and my girlfriend's daughter, Olivia, are among the millions gearing up to return to school in a few daze, this Count Screwloose about college lept out and grabbed me by the textbooks. As I'm sure readers are aware, American university fraternities have long been a rich vein of wild and wacky behavior. The big joke in the strip below is that the town planners feel a college would add dignity to their community, only to find the antics of college frat boys are anything but dignified!

The topper comic on this page is Babbling Brooks, which refers to the main character - a well-meaning goofus who always manages to say the wrong thing. Even the topper on this page ends with a mad crowd-scene spectacle -- Gross must have been feeling ambitious when he drew this page. Gross did a Babbling Brooks daily early in his career, from October,  1922 to February 1923, and then returned to the character nine years later in his Sunday topper version, from October, 1930 to May, 1931.

Milt Gross' ode to college craziness from April 5, 1931

The structure of this comic is slightly different than many of the Milt Gross Sunday pages from the late 20s and early 30s we've been studying. Instead of a steady escalation of a situation beyond all reasonable expectations, today's comic offers two tiers of a calm, quiet set-up, followed by an abrupt explosion of zaniness. The structure in this comic is not escalation so much as it is an explosion. The first 5 panels are the slow hissing burn of a fuse, and the final, spectacular panel offers a fireworks display of screwball comedy.

Here's the panel, in a large format, so you can appreciate it in all its screwball glory!

In appropriately reverse fashion, let's now take a closer look at the first panel of the Count Screwloose above. Gross has created a vastly over-complex and downright silly mechanism that allows The Count his escape from Nuttycrest. This is undoubtedly a tribute to the great Rube Goldberg, who is famous for his chain-reaction invention cartoons.

Even the final panel of Gross' Count Screwloose cleverly echoes Goldberg's dailies of the time, which were sometimes panoramic one-panels with a tiny panel inset in the lower right (usually a Benny Sent Me).

I don't know yet the exact nature of the connection between Milt Gross and Rube Goldberg. The only mention of Gross in Peter Marzio's excellent 1973 biography, Rube Goldberg His Life and Work, occurs on page 103, where he describes the fantastic 500-guest-large New Year's Eve parties Rube and his wife Irma hosted in 1925-30. Gross was among the many cartoonists there, including Winsor McCay, George McManus, Peter Arno, Billy DeBeck, and many others who all drew cartoons on huge sheets of paper hung on the walls of Rube's home near Central Park. (Oh, to have those sheets!)

Whatever their personal connection might have been, it's clear from studying the work of both cartoonists that Milt Gross was Rube Goldberg's cartoon heir. He carried on Goldberg's approach to comics and humor in cartoon form, right down to building entire series around human foibles such as the difference between what we say and do. The other major screwball cartoonists to notably further this tradition -- including the grand panoramic Hogarthian-style spectacle as seen in the above Count Screwloose -- are Mad's Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder (who mostly worked together as a team), in the generation after Gross. In this sense, you could say that Milt Gross -- most active in the 1920s and 30s -- is the artistic/screwball link between the work of Rube Goldberg (active 1904-1962) and Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder (active 1940s-early 1990s).

However, Harvey Kurtzman grew up with the comics of Rube Goldberg, too. His fiorst comics were chalk drawing son New York city streets titled Ikey and Mike (after Goldberg's Mike and Ike They Look Alike).

That's all for now. I have to go steal the Big Boy statue and place him on top of the Space Needle to get my frat pin...

Creator of blogs nice 'n' roomy,
I'm the guy - Paul Tumey


  1. That last panel is so awesome! And I love the Rube Goldberg homage in the first panel, too. I wish there was a book collecting all Milt's color newspaper comics, but at least there's the internet and wonderful blogs like this one. Thank you!

  2. This is such a fabulous page. Love it!