As the introduction states, “About the genius of Milt Gross, too much can’t be said,” and by story’s end, readers are more likely to agree with this. He Done Her Wrong is a forerunner - or rather a grandfather - of the American graphic novel. Just as Will Eisner, one of the most popular and influential artists in the industry, was just getting started with his series “The Spirit,” Gross had published this graphic novel. Though his book was preceded by Lynd Ward’s God’s Man in 1929, the 1930 release of He Done Her Wrong was met mostly with great guffaws from those who read it.
This claims to be “The Great American Novel,” but readers get no farther before being met with the statement, “(with no words),” leaving one to wonder: can the artist render a story through all 256 pages. Without actual dialogue or narrative text, how long can a story go on before frustration or boredom sets in upon the reader? Gross answers that question by providing a book in which neither happens. Indeed, Gross’s drawings pull the reader in and keep him through the entire story, providing laughs and excitement with each panel.
The plot follows typical melodramatic format. Early on, we meet the hero, the villain and the damsel. The damsel performs at some bar in a mill or fur-trading town in the north. The villain seeks to win the damsel over, and if he can’t, well, he appears inclined to take her by force. But of course, our hero arrives in time to thwart his advances. The cunning villain tricks the hero into helping him create a fur-trading business and then skips town with the damsel and all the money they’ve made. They land in New York, where the villain squanders his fortune on a gumball machine that won’t give him his fair due. The damsel, who now has two children by the villain, must find employment and some way to sustain herself. Meanwhile, the hero realizes that he has been swindled and follows suit after the villain.
Filled with the usual elements (and the occasional dues ex machine), the story itself isn’t anything new, but the content proves impressive. Gross loads many of his panels with extra gags that one needs to pay close attention to pick up on. In addition, he provides several running gags, one of which goes on for over twenty-five pages, and reaching the punchline makes the entire sequence that much funnier. Probably the most amazing aspect of Gross’s work is the sound. No, this graphic novel doesn’t produce its own sound, but Gross’s drawings push the reader’s mind to produce a range of sounds to accompany each panel—it’s inevitable.
In addition to the story, Craig Yoe provides a detailed introduction that puts Gross’s work into historical and comic context. Also within this introduction, readers see previous works and panels of Gross, a brief biography and a picture of him with some of his contemporaries. The afterword by Paul Karasik provides further insight and deconstruction of the story itself, highlighting particular passages and panels that the reader might want to go back over.
“Classic” only mildly contains what He Done Her Wrong is. It could easily compete with some of today’s graphic novels despite its simplistic plot. In reproducing this text, Fantagraphics Books have done a justice to fans in giving them access to something to which they would not have had opportunity to see and appreciate.