Saturday, December 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #347: Hearts of Gold by Milt Gross

Milt Gross was a great cartoonist of the early 20th century, known today primarily for coining the phrase "Banana oil" and for making a lot of jokes out of cracked Yiddish-English dialect. He never had one big comic strip that became a huge hit, but he had a lot of popular books and regular strips over the interwar period. And his loose, zany cartooning is still fun and energetic enough to be regularly reprinted and entertain modern audiences, which is pretty darn good for a guy dead for sixty years.

Most folks think his masterwork is He Done Her Wrong, a wordless novel -- all cartooned, with a two sentence introduction and a number of signs and other words in the panels, but essentially pantomime, like a silent movie on the page -- that appeared in 1930. It's one part homage to The Perils of Pauline and similar serials, and one part parody of Lynd Ward's very serious God's Man, an equally wordless book of woodcut cartooning from the year before.

But I didn't read He Done Her Wrong. I read Hearts of Gold, a 1983 reprint. I thought it was the same thing -- the copyright page says it's an "unabridged, unaltered republication" -- though I've learned in preparing this post that it actually was censored in some way, having to do with some racial stereotypes. (Not sure which ones -- some Injuns show up briefly who I could see being offensive in a larger dose, but the smart money is always on some manner of blackface character.)

(I read He Done Her Wrong a few years back, and noted it here -- everything I said then is true for this version as well, and I see I didn't notice any racism then. I won't claim that means there wasn't any; white guys are often painfully obtuse, including me.)

He Done Her Wrong is the preferred title, and the book was in print more recently under that title in a good Fantagraphics edition. It's a madcap, headlong rush of a book, showing that slapstick humor can work on the comics page, and it has the pacing and energy of a Republic serial, all one damn thing after another.

It's the story of a triangle: a he-man outdoors type from the far northern woods, the gorgeous young woman he loves, and the sneaky, tricky creep who abuses the good nature of the former and runs away with the latter. The frontiersman eventually follows, to New York, where most of the action takes place. Most of that action is ridiculous, and some of it now requires footnotes these days -- the scoundrel loses his fortune to a street gum-vending machine, which no one under the age of eighty will recognize -- but it's all as gripping and goofy as anyone could hope.

But, if you happen to come across Hearts of Gold in a used bookstore somewhere, as I did, hold out: you want the other version.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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