Friday, July 11, 2008

He Done Her Wrong

My comics reading as a kid was pretty much limited to an occasional Archie or Richie Rich comic that came my way, and a handful of old rack-size paperback re-issues of Mad stories (Son of Mad and Bedside Mad, in particular) that had been my dad's in the 1950s. Probably far more influential in my mind was Milt Gross's classic 1930 novel-in-pictures, He Done Her Wrong, which I also read in a paperback copy of my father's.

Still when I read it, I find there are laugh-out-loud moments. The plot involves a trapper and trader seemingly from the great north woods and the beautiful blonde singer he falls in love with. Before they can marry, of course, the trapper is hoodwinked by a scheming con-man who takes his money, tells the girl he's dead, and carries her off to New York. There, he wastes his new fortune, putting his wife and child on the streets. Soon enough, the trapper comes to the city, various encounters ensue, and (after a return to the Northwest) the hero is saved from a sawmill blade by a curious and quick-thinking moose. Turns out the hero is the long lost son of a wealthy timber man, and a happy ending quickly follows.

Published in 1930, it seems clear that Gross parodies both woodcut novels such as Lynd Ward's God's Man (1929), and silent films, especially of the melodrama type. The hero is heroic (though also a figure of fun as he arrives in the city as a newcomer unused to big city ways); the villain is nasty in a comic way; the heroine is beautiful and resourceful, but still needs to be saved. Gross's drawings are pleasingly and effectively varied in style (though with a recognizably thirties style), and the book even has touching moments. And it's practically without words.

He Done Her Wrong deserves some academic attention, and not merely for its place in comics history, but the writing that has been done about it hasn't always done it justice: David A Berona's "Pictures Speak in Comics without Words" (in Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons, eds, The Language of Comics: Word and Image [Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2001] 19-39, for example, describes the villain as having "spent all their money gambling" (25). But as my dad pointed out to me long ago, the machine that drives the villain and his family into poverty is not a gambling machine but as my dad described it, "a gum machine": a recalcitrant vending machine from which the villain cannot get any gum, no matter how many coins he puts into it. The point of the scene, it seems clear, is not the tragedy of a gambling addiction, but the obsession with a vending machine that takes your money. I point this out not so much to blame Berona, as to point out that the images in He Done Her Wrong do speak--but even sensitive modern readers can sometimes miss the jokes.

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