Friday, May 25, 2012

Why Don't He Twitt? An Insane 1928 Milt Gross Nize Baby

Here's another close-up appreciation/dissection of a gorgeously wacky Nize Baby Sunday page (a paper scan by me from my own collection) by that master of screwball masters: Milt Gross! Every image on this page is a funny drawing in itself -- beautifully composed and perfectly rendered. As if that weren't enuff, the writing is devastatingly funny - why don't he twitt? Indeed -- the tribulations of making the twitt toy twitt, getting the gimcrack do the thing it's supposed to do, but which it mysteriously won't. It's an existential dilemma to which we can all relate.

When you consider the hex-quizz-it visual screwballism of Milt Gross' Sunday comic, Nize Baby (9/12/26 - 2/10/29), it's surprising to learn that it developed from a written column. There's an organic flow to Milt's work. One creative output naturally leads to another, and they are all part of an entire dingbat universe.

In the mid 20's Milt Gross wrote a syndicated column called Gross Exaggerations, sprinkled with his cartoon illustrations. These were included as part of a Sunday supplement magazine that had humor pieces by Ring Lardner, celebrity gossip, and so on.

The columns were filled with the conversations of New Yawk City Jewish mothers leaning out of their tenement windows to chat in hilarious American-Jewish dialect. Often, Gross divided his columns into what was being said on the various floors.

Milt Gross was as accomplished a writer as he was a cartoonist.
His first book, Nize Baby, evolved from this newspaper column.  (Nov. 15, 1925)

In short order, the mother with the "nize baby" on the fourth floor began to dominate the columns with her Yidd-English versions of classic children's stories. It's a little hard to read the muddy microfilm scan above, so here's a transcription of the first few sentences:

"Fourth Floor: Oohoo, nize baby it opp all de Pust Tustizz, so momma'll gonna tell you a Ferry Tale from Bloobidd. Wance oppon a time was leeving a nobbleman in a cestle wot is was by heem blue de wheeskers. So all the keeds from de neighborhoot dey gave heem a neekname, "Bloobidd." (Nize baby, take anodder spoon Pust Tustizz)" (From Gross Exaggerations, November 15, 1925 by Milt Gross)
It works best to read Milt's prose out loud, and I imagine many folks cracked each odder up at the the time, doing that just that. The above tale of Bluebeard the pirate makes mention of "Pust Tustizz," the breakfast cereal called Post Toasties.

So that was Sundays. Then, during the week, Gross Exaggerations was a daily comic strip, mostly visual humor! Here's an example from around the same time as the column above:

Gross Exaggerations by Milt Gross -  November 23, 1925

Milt said he got the idea for Nize Baby from his wife: "I went home... and found that one of my children was misbehaving and wouldn't eat his supper. My wife was striving to comfort him with a recitation of 'Sing a song of sixpence,' but he wasn't to be comforted that way. So, suddenly on the wings of inspiration... I broke into a recitation of the same verse in Jewish dialect, 'Seenk a sunk from seex pants,' with the result that Mrs. gross burst into a pal of laughter and the child was diverted, too. Afterwards, at my wife's suggestion, I worked the thing up into the form of a mother telling a fairy tale to her infant and called it Gross Exaggerations." (Success Magazine interview, 1926)

The popular column was collected into Nize Baby, a book published by George Doran in 1926 -- Milt's first book. Here's what the first edition looks like. (You can buy this copy for a mere $550 from here).

This book (in a later edition, minus dustjacket) was my very first introduction to Milt Gross. Kevin Lacke, my college chum and fellow "bookie" at Bill's Bookstore in Tallahassee, Florida produced this book one drunken evening at his apartment. Kevin, a talented actor, adored the book and proceeded to perform a few of the pages for me in a perfect recitation of Gross' anglicized Russian-Jewish dialect, to my great delight. Somehow, in time, I managed to persuade Kevin to sell his copy of Nize Baby to me. I still have it!

Starting in 1926, on September 12, Nize Baby became a full color Sunday comic, topped by the single tier Banana Oil comic. So there's your hee story lesson. Now, for the fun!

Here's a delightful Nize Baby Sunday from August 26, 1928 that shows off both the visual and the verbal joys of Milt's screwball talent. If the page looks familiar, it's because it was included on page 289 of Bill Blackbeard's and Martin Williams' The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (1977).  Printing technology being what is was 34 years ago, the reproduction of the page is pretty muddy. Even so, this page was, for me, a standout in an amazing collection, and made me a lifelong Milt Gross fan. I recently was fortunate enough to acquire the actual page myself, and can now provide a creesp scan for you!

As with the previous Milt Gross Sunday page I've shared, I'll provide nice large versions of each panel that you can scroll through. However, to get started, here's the entire page, in a large paper scan from my own collection:

A paper scan from my own collection - Nize Baby by Milt Gross (August 26, 1928)

We have 14 panels in four tiers. The first two tiers are composed of three panels each. This allows Milt to work in a couple of "double-wide" panels that establish the living room scene. The bottom two tiers have more panels, with quicker beats, reflecting Pop Feitelbaum's escalation from amusement to annoyance to enraged insanity.

A word about Milt Gross and escalation. Many of his Sunday pages and later comic book stories are built around escalation. If you diagrammed the level of emotional intensity in these pieces, it would almost always be a sharp curve upward. This is mirrored by an ever-increasing series of calamitous events. Gross always pushes the joke out to the borders -- into screwball territory. It's been said that, when Chaplin came up with the idea of the tramp pretending he can walk a tightrope in The Circus, Gross (working for Chaplin as a writer at the time) was the guy who came up with the additional wrinkle of a circus monkey dropping a banana peel onto the wire in the tramp's path. Escalation.

Milt Gross wrote for Charlie Chaplin on The Circus.
The monkeys on the tightrope climax were  partially his work

In panel one, the squeaky toy is introduced. Don't you just love the goofy design of the toy?

In panel two, one toy is left for the nize baby (who's name happens to be Ignatz -- perhaps a tip of the hat to Herriman). When characters move in a Milt Gross comic, they almost always produce a perfect little dust cloud.

Pop has drunk the Kool-aid. He now has the expectation the toy will give a twitt and delight baby. We know different from the first time we read the comic. 

Gross' writing is all about phonetics and timing. He could have written so much more here-- but the 'Hm!' is all that's needed. Check out the composition here, too. The way the couch arm fills the space between the stretched tail and Pop, helping us really feel that stretch of the toy.

There's something beautifully funny about pronouncing "tweet" as "twitt" when the toy is broken. Pop's question is a an archetypal moment every person in the modern world asks - when the car won't start, when the email you just typed vanishes, when the computer won't start, when the DVD won't play. Imagine what Milt Gross could have done with today's car alarms and forever ringing cell phones. Somehow, Screwball comics are inextricably tied to our struggles with technology. 

The wide panel emphaisizes the streeeeeeetttttch. Pop is a resourceful guy -- he always a has solution...

... and it usually backfires -- in this case, literally so.

Poor Isidore. Izzy is often the recipient of a spanking when things go wrong. I don't spank my kid, but I do identify with Pop. So many times, I've done something stupid, or something was knocked over or broken and I have (I blush to admit) turned to my son and blamed him! Such is human nature! (I apologize to him when I get my cool back). Maw is totally unconcerned about the spanking...

Pop to twitt toy: You realize this means war.

Even using an old fashioned hearing trumpet... no twitt. This is exactly the same sort of thing I go through when the furshlugginer computer suddenly acts weird -- you try one crazy thing after another.

Definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

But hark! A twit appears on the scene, twitting! Look at how Milt lets his line scrawl on Pop... his fury has distorted his form.

The pay-off... an incredible back-flip plop take, caused only by a little tweeting toy.

And Maggie's dishes, Ignatz's brick, Jerry's body are hurled once again.... the end.

Whew! Great stuff! These comics grossing on you? Wanna see more? Lemme know! Crickets are chirping on this blog, tumbleweeds rolling through....


For more Gross Exaggerations and hilarious rare early comics by Milt Gross, be sure to check this post at Ger Apeldoorn's Fabulous Fifties blog.

And see my earlier post for more Nize Baby:
Have a Gross Sunday -The Apex of Loose-Scrawl Cartooning


Wanna see what sort of comics a guy who studies screwball comics makes? Then click here.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Modern Screwballism: Steve Willis

Screwball Sunday

An in-depth screwball comics essay by Paul Tumey on the occasional Sunday!

The 1980s to present-day comics of New Wave cartoonist Steve Willis are high-octane wackiness that embrace many elements of screwballism. They are surreal, funny, exaggerated, crazy, playful, and subersive, (not to mention Steve is another loose-scrawl screwballist). Plus, Steve can draw funny. Check out that great cat drawing on the left.

You get the sense reading his twisting, winding, totally unpredictable stories that Steve is totally in the moment as he makes these -- they are barely channeled explosions of the chaos of creativity. Instead of directly working in a tradition of screwball comics,  which Steve may or not have absorbed into his psyche, I think he probably taps into the same sources that served many of the older screwball artists and thus his work is related. It's a sort of "pure" screwballism. The ever-shifting, dreamlike, cosmic-absurdist world of Morty the Dog is a neighboring county to Gene Ahern's Foozland and Bill Holman's nonsensical fire station.

Steve came along in the small press explosion of the 1980s. He was one of the most accomplished auteur-cartoonists who published their comics in photocopied pamphlets sold and traded through the mails. In fact, back in the day, Steve and I traded our comics several times. he was kind and encouraging to me, and an inspiration.
This guy likes to draw!
Steve Willis at a S.P.A.C.E. (Small Press Alternative Comics Expo)
Photo courtesy of S.P.A.C.E. site - visit here for more on Willis!

A lot of cartoonists who published their work on photocopiers worked in what is known as the mini-comics format. This is a standard size (8.5" x 11") sheet of paper, copied on two sides, cut in half and then folded and stapled together to make a small 8 page pamphlet. The form was a way for broke cartoonists to afford to self-publish, since it only cost about a quarter to make a copy. The form was also a way to put some helpful limitations around making comics. In some ways, mini-comics are to comics what the short story is to literature. At the recent Univeristy of Chicago symposium Comics: Philosophy and Practice, Art Spiegelman praised the short from of comics, calling our attention to this in an age dominated by graphic novels. The mini-comic is a short form that, unlike a one- or two-page story, allows for covers, a centerspread and page turning, so it's a slightly different sandbox. Here's a link to one of my extremely humble mini-comics traded with Steve (also a 24-hour comic) from 1989, The World Seen Through Mr. Foster's Glasses.

Steve lives in McCleary, Washington, an area that gave us Kurt Cobain and Robert Motherwell. On May 26, 2012, Steve will host his second annual Mini-Comics Day. Here's a flyer for the event:

In celebration of this upcoming event, I decided to share a few of Steve's comics with you.To find some rare Willis, I've excavated my small stack of browning and foxed Seattle Stars. These were small, semi-regular newspapers published in the late 1980's by Michael Dowers (Starhead Comics, Brownfield Press) with paid ads that were distributed for free in the Seattle area.

I bought my set of Stars directly from Michael when I lived in Boston. The issues are filled with great work by seminal cartoonists including Lynda Barry, Michael Dougan, Peter Bagge, Robert Armstrong, and Steve Willis. Here's the back cover to Seattle Star #2 (December 1985):

Modern screwballism: Steve Willis tears the fabric of reality
(Seattle Star #2, Dec. 1985)

Steve's comics go places few others ever have, including multiple levels of liberating meta-awareness. In the 1987 comic below, he plays with the very idea of comics being lines on paper:

Steve also plays with the other aspect of comics, words, as in the Seussian Queasy Quandry or Quantum Quibble? reproduced below:

Steve Willis - Seattle Star 17 Summer, 1988

Even when he's philosophical and truth-telling, as many screwballists from Rube Goldberg on are, Steve is also wacky and funny, as we see in his 1988 comic, Martyr City, U.S.A.

Steve Willis - Seattle Star 17 Summer, 1988

Lastly, here's one of my favorite Willis stories, How Cats Got That Way, a mind-bending extended narrative by Steve from Seattle Star 15 (1988), featuring his main character, Morty the Dog. This is a great example of how dreamlike and marvelously weird Steve's longer narratives tend to be. It's also a comic that anyone who's had a cat in their life will appreciate.

So far, Steve Willis has created 2,538 individual, unique issues of Morty Comix.  He distributes the single paper version in interesting ways, leaving them in someone's papers in a local cafe, slipping  in a street-side newspaper box, and so on.

Steve Willis Publications - A Linked Directory

Note: Steve has posted many of his comics on his great Morty the Blog, but they are a little hard to find on the blog. Below is a partial list of his published work and, whenever I could find the work republished online at Steve's blog, I've created a link to it. The comix were originally self-published (in the best New Wave tradition), unless otherwise indicated. Enjoy!

McCleary Museum Newsletter, Selected Issues
Morty The Dog #nothing (Starhead Comix, 1987)
Morty the Dog. #1 (Starhead Comix, 1987)
Morty The Dog #2 Dogbits (Starhead Comix, 1990)

Kindle Editions of Four of Steve's Comics

You can read here about how I and a group of friends traveled to McCleary, Washington on May 26, 2012 and made mini-comics with Steve Willis.

Be sure and visit Steve's Morty the Dog blog (which Steve calls Morty the Blog) where you can learn more about his beautiful, screwy comics and his art.

And, if you are in Washington, I hope you'll consider attending Mini-Comics day -- come join Steve and make a comic!

You can hear an interesting audio interview with Steve Willis at Jim Gill's wonderful blog, Trick Coin.

Paul Tumey

From Seattle Star #15

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Have A Gross Sunday! The Apex of Loose-Scrawl Screwball Comics

Here's a particularly gelastic Milt Gross 1928 Nize Baby Sunday page, scanned from my own collection and, as far as I can tell, previously unshared on the Web.

Folks, it's high time we featured the work of this undisputed master of screwball masters. Milt -- if you don't already know -- is the goods. His comics are interchangeable with the definition of screwball: odd. zany, eccentric, and impulsively whimsical. His very line is screwy -- eccentric, spontaneous strokes that somehow create hilarious little drawings. A fellow screwball fan who knows his stuff recently coined the term "loose-scrawl cartooning" as a possible common element in screwball comics. I love that term, and certainly the comics of Milt Gross represent the apex of loose-scrawl cartooning.

And yet, there's nothing slap-dash about his work. Nothing is phoned in. Gross was known to be a perfectionist and was truly, madly, deeply committed to his creativity. In fact, he was probably one of the hardest-working cartoonists and humorists of his generation. Gross not only made a continuous string of highly original Sunday and daily comics for over 30 years, but he also wrote very successful books, wrote and directed films and cartoons (well, just a couple but they are great), had a hit play, and turned out scores of articles and stories for various publications. He even wrote for Charlie Chaplin (The Circus). When he hit upon the idea of writing in Yiddish-drenched Jewish-American dialect, he created a whole new sub-type of comedy.

Reading Gross's text is an experience unto itself. He was double trouble as a cartoonist because both his drawings AND his dialogue are priceless. For example, he once transformed the song lyric "sing a song of sixpence" into "seenk a sunk from seex pants."

The example to share it today with you is from very leetle tacking. Ooops! I slipped into Grossspeak. That is, the example I have to share with you today is interesting because it's an example of Gross working with almost no dialogue, and instead relying mostly on his visual humor. The guy could draw funny, and this comic certainly shows that.

The set up: Mr. Feitelbaum, the head of the family that is largely the subject of Gross' Nize Baby comic (and book of the same name), encounters a scale that will refund his coin if he guesses his weight correctly. I remember there was a scale like this in my childhood hometown, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I understand Mr. Feitelbaum's attraction to the wager. In the first panel, Gross draws a hilarious little dust cloud, a symbol from the cartooning lexicon meaning swift movement. His cloud is a lively scrawl. Even his drawing of the coin-op scale is funny, with the perspective as goofy as his character's speech and thinking. It's as if the visuals we see are all influenced by the nuttiness of the cross-eyed characters.

Mr. F makes his guess...

...and he's a little off (you can say THAT again).

(It's silly, but I love the bottom right corner of the panel above, how it's ruled so casually). Now, at this point, any sane person would step off the scale and go on about their business. The scale would swallow the coin and reset for the next sucker -- unh -- CUSTomer. Feitelbaum, however, has a different reaction. Here's where the screwballism sets in. What follows is a visual smorgasbord of funny cartooning.

Gross draws faster beats as Feitelbaum speeds up to work off the extra poundage...

These drawings look like the freeze-frames you get when you press the pause button on your DVD player.

He checks his weight, quivering and sweating from the exertion...

A Feitelbaum is not to be defeated.

Still not there. Gross magically finds ways to keep escalating the screwiness. And ya gotta love comics, pull out a giant magnifying glass (from where, we won't speculate) and the sun appears in the sky.

Eureka! Ah, the sweet clink of success.

And, finally, back home, the adventure is proudly recounted to the family, who are ridiculously proud and happy for Pop Feitelbaum's victory.

I broke this page into the large squares above to take advantage of the vertical scroll effect to slow down the reading of it and present the panels as large as possible in this blog page layout, so you can savor the artful loose-scrawl cartooning of one of Screwballdom's great masters.

Here's the entire comic in a 300 dpi scan, 1150 pixels wide. Note how expertly Gross sizes his panels to create pitch-perfect comedic timing. He also changes the "camera angle" to help convey Feitelbaum's frantic movements.

Nize Baby by Milt Gross - June 17, 1928

A big thanks to Adriano, my pal Carl and to the fellow screwball fan who gave us the term "loose-scrawl cartooning." Couldn't do it without you guys!

I hope you enjoyed this Milt Gross delight and that it was worth the weight (cough cough). Stay tuned to this blog! Much more Gross stuff to come. 

Note: You can enter your email address in the field at right to receive new posts as I publish them in your email. I don't see your email, and it's protected against spammers. It's safe. 

Nizely Yours,
Paul Christley Tumey, Esq. Sb.A. (Screwball Archeologist)

Milt Gross, who was often said to
resemble Charlie Chaplin,
with whom  he worked.