He Done Her Wrong
by Milt Gross
(1930; Fantagraphics, 2006)

When movies were mostly silent, vaudeville was all the rage, radio was just coming of age and comic strips were golden, He Done Her Wrong.

Milt Gross, a newspaper cartoonist based in New York City, first published the book in 1930. It was reprinted in 1983, censored and retitled. Now, Fantagraphics has put the original, uncut book back on the shelves for anyone who wasn't around for its debut. And it's about time.

Possibly the first graphic novel and certainly one of his best works, He Done Her Wrong was inspired by cartoonist Gross's earlier creative marriage with silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin. They had worked together on Chaplin's feature The Circus (1928).

The "he" of the title is a powerful but ignorant frontiersman used by a dishonest businessman who steals his true love. This equally true hero follows them to New York City, where a wild cast of stereotypical vaudevillian players cast by Gross as citizens turn his quest into chaos. The result is like watching the Marx Brothers pursuing the Keystone Cops.

Don't expect originality in the story or characters. Every cliche in this boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back paper melodrama is at home here. Originality is not its purpose. Its purpose is K-RAZY!!

Dialogue is beyond criticism; there is none. None is needed. Nor should you expect complexity. Complexity is beyond the ability of silent films or silent strips. So why buy?

He Done Her Wrong is frantic and wildly creative in its style. Gross's barbwire art leaps off his paper stage with only a passing nod at perspective or anatomy because it's too busy running. It's also funny, although you won't laugh out loud. That seems somehow appropriate for a silent film on paper. And the book is a nostalgic trip back into a time when the world of slapstick and broad parody were king.

Gross would produce many comic strips in his life, but none was more visually creative and entertaining than He Done Her Wrong. It is highly recommended -- and kudos to Fantagraphics for bringing it back into the spotlight after so many years.

by Michael Vance
27 May 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.