Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Milt Gross comics, drawing with every principle EXCEPT construction

I think Milt Gross is the most naturally gifted cartoonist in history.
On the surface, if you are just looking at his work for the first time, you might be shocked. It's so loose and cartoony and doesn't use strict construction. Not all the details wrap perfectly strictly around the forms. (They DO wrap around the shapes and compositions.)

BUT Milt had absolutely great natural control over a ton of principles and skills, he had a natural observant eye for the way things really looked, a gift for caricaturing them and a beautiful ornate style that had humor as its first element.

His graphic style is hard to peghole. It doesn't fit into any school of cartooning. It's neither 2 dimensional nor 3 dimensional. It has elements of both at the same time, but perfectly controlled. I guess it's 4 dimensional. He bends space to allow you to see what he thinks is important in the scenes.

He also had a very rare gift that few cartoonists have-the gift of life. His every panel and character seem alive and bustling and full of inner motivation. I don't even know if that can be taught. Some artists never get it, no matter how many principles they learn.

This panel below has:
Great page layout design - every panel is a different and organic shape, yet all the panels are composed to look good together.
Every Pose is different and fun.
Every Pose has a clear silhouette and line of action.

A funny observant take on dog anatomy- Milt takes the stiffness of a dog's limbs and bends them into human actions and situations. This is not like Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry, who are merely built of pears and tubes. Their poses are comfortable in human attitudes. Pooch here is struggling with his own canine anatomy, but is not at all deterred despite the awkwardness- genius!

Original Cartoony designs inspired by but not hampered by reality
Look at these hilarious designs of ferocious animal heads! They aren't stock Disney animals or stock anybody's animals. Milt needed to make a story point and did it as extreme and precise as his wild creativity let him.

Great backgrounds

These BGs are not only shown from very difficult angles-they are also very specific.
The characters are in a Craftsman house.

Gross must have done tons of drawings of real things. He must have looked at all different kinds of houses, trees, landscapes, cities, furniture etc.

He was interested in how everything looked and he thought everything looked funny so that's how he drew it.

He didn't draw the "stock cartoon house" or the stock Nelvana tree with the Sheridan college bark that looks the same as the texture on every object in the Sheridan college universe.

I think Milt does the best cartoon backgrounds ever.

Crazy Ideas and Funny execution of them
Compare these pages to the great Harvey Eisenberg pages in the post below. While Harvey's are technically great, they aren't particularly funny and the story is just stock comic book cartoon story fare.

The idea of a mutt wanting to be glamorous, so he cuts up a fox fur and glues it to himself in patches is funny by itself, but the drawings show the hilarious incongruity of how matted up and nasty the dog looks, yet he is prouder than a peacock.

Genius Page Layout

Great Compositions
Varied and contrasted character designs
Look how each character is made up of different shapes. The lady has a diamond shaped head with a pointy nose.
The man has a large forehead and a skinny protruding jaw. The little character has an upside down triangle head and an upturned bulbous nose.
The man is organic and the woman is more angular.

Many animated cartoons recycle the same basic shapes for their designs and just change the ears to denote what animal you're looking at.
In a Jack Kirby comic, almost every man has the same square head design.
It's very rare for a cartoonist to have a lot of different custom designed characters.
Milt Gross seemed to never run out of them.

Wild Action
Milt's comics seem more animated than most animation-especially today's.

Control of details-look how in the middle panel, the lady with the out of control vacuum cleaner and the horse all fly in an overall arc...the seemingly chaotic situation is carefully controlled to make it funny and easy to read and beautiful.

Funny Poses- no stock poses for Milt. Look at the pose in the second panel of the man with bent knee supporting the stretched right side of his body.

Amazing design, composition and control of where to put details to make this mansion look huge and magnificent.
Note the trees in the foreground are different kinds of trees than the ones in the background.

Dynamic Angles!
Comic Story Pacing
The angles get progressively more extreme which helps build the pace of the action.

Opposing Poses

The poses of the characters contrast and react to each other. They don't just stand there straight up and down. They are alive and thinking.

The best animal Designs
This bulldog kills me. He isn't your stock Preston Blair bulldog that you see many variations of in old cartoons. This one is totally original. Actually, maybe it's a boxer, but look at what an asshole he is!

Extreme Cartooniness
These pages are just pure brilliant cartooniness. Milt is obviously totally into his story and having a lot of fun drawing it and that fun translates to us.

Cartoons are supposed to be fun, aren't they?

UPA really missed the boat on this point. Graphically, the UPA (and Disney's "UPA Style cartoons) cartoons are similar to Gross'. They are both "designy", yet the UPA and Disney cartoons are missing the element of fun and exuberance for life that leaps off of Milt Gross' pages.
Great Crowd Control

I always wonder what Clampett would have done had he stayed in cartoons through the graphic 50s. He loved Milt Gross and his cartoons were always very alive. I imagine they would have looked something like this only with that great animation you only see in Clampett cartoons.

Designy cartoons don't have to be flat or boring.

These pages are works of fine art and should be hanging in a museum somewhere.

A 15-page Pete the Pooch comic is reprinted in ART OUT OF TIME!

Discover more Milt Gross and lots of other great cartoon art at Shane's wonderful site!

NEXT! .....The Rise and Fall of Construction in Cartoons, an inspiring and sad story.


Josh Lieberman said...

Wow those are great
I had never really seen any of his work before your blog. There are definetly a lot of things I think I could steal from him

Diana said...

Do you have any recommendations for books or websites which are good resources for learning perspective?

Chloe Cumming said...


Thanks so much for this John, I hadn't even HEARD of Milt Gross before your blog, I'm ashamed to say, but I'm totally in love with this stuff! It's hard to put across the intensity of my enthusiasm without beginning to sound like a mental.

They do belong in a museum. It's like the unpretentious fulfilment of cubism or something.

There is something totally addictive about that '4-dimensional' quality you mentioned... revelatory stuff. It may change my drawing forever, if I ever get a good grasp on it. Not to mention the sheer concentrated funfunnyness, which is totally self-justifying in its aceness. Brill! (using dated English child-slang, a homage your willy-hanging-out 'tude-bashing analogies the other day)

I studied printouts of Gross stuff over Christmas and my family thought I'd gone bonkers. I was actually measuring the angles with a protractor. Which might have been missing the point slightly, but it demonstrates how urgently I wanted to understand how he did it.

Actually I guess I did that because the angles looked varied and unpredictable, and they were. Also even lines that looked straight had a subtle intuitive bendy life to them. And even though the whole thing looks wild, there's a masterful equilibrium about it. I think it's easy to get into habits of using certain angles and certain graphic formulas. I'd noticed I'd done it, and any visual lessons in how to break out of boring habits are very welcome.

In summary: this made me very happy.

JohnK said...

>>There are definetly a lot of things I think I could steal from him<<'re gonna steal knowledge and skill? Over the weekend?

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

Great post John! I myself discoverd Gross in the Smithsonian bok of Comic strips when I was a kid and immediatly loved it, only to abandon it iwhen I was older in favor of more "polished" cartoonists. Thanks to Shane's sight, my interest in Gross was re-kindled. YOur analysis of what makes him great is inspiring and invaluable. Thanks!

Christopher said...

Hiya John,

Big fan of your stuff. Been reading your blog for awhile and felt like I got to know ya a little better watching your commentary for the Lost Ren and Stimpy episodes.

Thought you might enjoy this link from Milk and Cookies.

Apparently, its an employee manual for new artists working at the Disney Studio cira 1943 called "The Ropes at Disney.

"Gals ain't allowed in the Penthouse Club, personal phone calls will be charged to you, and if you need to leave the studio, you cannot do so without an "Off the Lot Pass". Oh, and "Any violation of the U. S. Espionage Act" will get you discharged."

Franky said...

I see his influence on you right away. The dog in Big House Blues that tells Ren about the big sleep looks a lot like Milt Gross' dog.

JohnK said...

In Big House Blues Jasper is stolen from Pooch The Pup, and the mom at the end is from a character in one Milt Gross comic.

Benjamin said...

Cool post! I have to say, though, that sometimes I feel certain lines in his faces are confusing and make it unclear at first sight.

Btw, what do you think of Franquin?

Diego! said...

hey john, i know this is nothing to do with your post, but... watch this...

Anonymous said...

Are Milt's cartoons collected in a book that I could purchase somewhere? I've saved all the ones from Cartoon Retro onto my Mac, but it'd be nice to have a real book.

NARTHAX said...

Did Milt Gross influence Jim Tyer's full blown Terrytoons style? Pooch bears some resemblance to what Tyer did later.

FrankenBarry said...

Hi John,

I'v been a big fan since The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, and for the last couple of years, through your DVD commentaries and blog,
a student of the John K. School of Cartoony Cartooning. I'm one of your old-geezer students, and may be beyond help, but I'm thoroughly enjoying studying all of the principles, theory, and history you present on All Kinds of Stuff.

This Milt Gross post is fantastic... thanks for turning us on to him! I think Milt has just replaced Kurtzman at the top of my all-time-favorite cartoonist list.

Thanks for all the years of great cartoons, and for being so generous with your time. You've given us the coolest, most informative cartoon site on the web!

NineInchNachos said...

The best blogs are those that make you smarter when you read em. i.e. I learn shit from this one and I find that ultra-attractive... Boon!

Peggy said...

Gross' stuff is cannily-observed and just bursting with life. It's also got a lot of early-cartooning rawness; it's barely-controlled, sometimes out of control in my eyes.

I'm never quite sure if I like his stuff or not; there are some things that I love, and some things that just bug the hell out of me, on every page.

When you have lots of life in your drawings without thinking about it, it's hard to learn construction: obsessing over all those tubes and boxes tends to kill what starts as a lively drawing, and when you're still struggling with construction, you'll have an unnsatisfying drawing that you know is badly-constructed staring up at you. This makes it all too easy to abandon construction and go back to what "works".

Or at least that's how it was for me. Eventually I managed to beat enough construction into my head that I can draw most things I want to pretty spontaneously, so they keep that breath of life.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Milt Gross really is the king of funny comic artists. In addition to everything you mentioned he has imagination, a good heart, and an infectious love of families and street life.

Freckled Derelict said...

Thanks for posting these John!
Even though his characters do extreme action they always feel so real.

Anonymous said...

Milt's BGs are clearly masterfully done. I've been studying BGs in other comics and cartoons. From Hanna/Barbera's early years, UPA's Mr. Magoo, Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle, Your Shows, and others.

UPA's goal (What I could make of it.) was to bring you into the world of Mr. Magoo and how he saw everything, blurry and out of context.

But, Their other works like (Dick Tracy Show) had the same style of BGs. Very confusing.

Anonymous said...

Hey John! Turner network is in trouble about a bomb scare in Boston.

Cartoon Network was trying to promote one of their audlt swim shows and it back fired, causing a bomb scare.

Some people will get the ax. You could step in and take over! And be a Big Shot Cartoon Friendly Executive. With your record of making shows people like to watch, you could do it.

mike f. said...

This guy's stuff is just magic - as you once said yourself, John. Thanks for taking the time to analyze the elements that make him so special - and not in a way that takes all the fun out of it, either.

Personally, I could never like anyone who doesn't like Milt Gross, and I doubt if I could ever love anyone who doesn't love him, so perfectly does he encapsulate everything that's good and funny and unique about cartooning (and about humans, animals, vehicles, backgrounds, inanimate objects, etc, etc...)

The greatest humorists are the ones whose work makes a comment about human nature - but Gross actually goes one better: His best work is a comment about life.
Woody Allen once said the Marx Bros movie DUCK SOUP was "life-affirming", and, for me, the same can be said about Gross' cartoons.

For anyone who doesn't own it already, Gross' great book HE DONE HER WRONG is back in print.
Here's the Amazon link, (and make sure you read my review while you're there!)

Gabriel said...

i'm not such a big fan of Milt Gross, but your blog is making me acquire the taste, everytime you post about him i find something cool about his work that i hadn't noticed before. that bulldog is really spiffy.

Oh, out of topic: the simpsons being funny.

Bill Breneisen said...

Hey John,
You did a post a little while back on George Nicholas that I thought was great. I was wandering around my college (Edinboro University, PA) and I found his desk from his Disney days in the 1940's sitting in a basement closet!!! I guess he taught here before he died.

I'll have to take a picture.

Sorry, this has nothing to do with this post.

The Jerk said...

wow, the first time you posted stuff by Milt Gross, i was somewhat baffled as to what you saw in it, but these examples are enlightening. He really does have a good sense of staging, and also used angles and perspective very effectively.

Paul B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul B said...

Hi John!!!

another great post!!! as usual!!!

thanks for show us the correct path!!



Your biggest fan Paul!

akira said...

i wish someone would reprint all of his magnificent art! in the meantime thanks for posting pages now and again on your blog. that one with the stuffed trophy heads is so awesome! you really are right he was so great at every little thing! design, bg, layout, pacing, but especially the toughest one, humor! he makes it so easy to read that you can get through his stories lightning fast, it just makes you wish there was more and more!

Sean Worsham said...

Wow, now I know where the influence for the dog designs in "Big House Blues" came from! :D

Anonymous said...

Brilliance!!! Sheeer genius! Words can't describe!

It looks like he drew this stuff really fast, too, to preserve life and spontaneity.That must mean it was all from either instinct or years of training, that he could draw really fast as ideas raced into his mind and still make it look so good. A lesser cartoonist who drew really fast would probably get drawings with spontaniety, but no principles at all since they probably wouldn't be ingrained in their heads.

Thank for the tip about his book-length comic book, Mike!

Jack Ruttan said...

It seems like a lot of cartoons in the 30s were sketchy and fun. Then modernism took over in the 1940s, and everything every after had to be graphic and clean-lined.

I like the scratchy, slightly wild stuff, but am working on construction, too.

William said...

I knew about Gross before I found this blog, but never gave him a thought as so...significant. Then you had an entry about copying people's characters in order to understand their mind (which honestly was somewhat of a revolution to me), so I gave Milt a try. You're right, they are completely, utterly, outside any box. There's no school, there's just the artist.

They're just happy. Textured and simple. Uninhibited but focused in principle.

I eagerly await your blog on construction as I struggle with all the mixtures of rigid mechanics and organic life in my own art.

Rodrigo said...

I love that shot of the stairs where the camera is slightly skewed. Talk about motion.

Also, I got a boner thinking about the upcoming post.

yoejunque said...

My first "Arf" book, "Modern Arf" (Fantagraphics) has a great Milt Gross Pete the Pooch AND a whole chapter written and illustrated by Gross on "Modernism". It's hilarious and, I think, his wildest and craziest work! The fourth Arf book will feature an amazing painting by Gross as the cover. You can get a preview of the Arf books at

Jennifer said...

Those comics are BEAUTIFUL! Chloe's right - these are museum-quality works.

I am waiting with bated breath on your next post re: the rise and fall of cartoons...

lastangelman said...

Milt Gross's talent is unique - the best one can do is just show and try and explain what he did. His work reflects and echoes the style and feelings of many contemporaries like George Herriman, Segar, Windsor McKay, Rudolph and John Dirks (pere et fils) yet remains identifiable as his own. There'll never be another like him, and perhaps that may be a good thing, else we would have a lot of third rate Milt Gross imitators, though I'm sure the argument could be made that third rate Milt Gross imitators is a lot better than many of the current crop of cartoonists and animators. One can merely hope than another unique artist in the comic and or animation field will crop up and perhaps serve as a shining torch for those willing to down the road.

Te-Xuan-Ze said...

Go to
and see my art and my work...

Robert Hume said...

Yeah I've been meaning to buy a collection of Milt's work ever sense you first exposed us too it! Amazingly artful stuff!

Marsha said...

For those interested in more Gross, here's a link to his masterpiece wordless graphic novel, "He Done Her Wrong". I wrote the Afterword to this reprint, but don't let that you stop you.

Ms. Jane D'oh said...

fantastic old comics. 'sheridan college bark' ! lol.