The Great American Novel (GAN) is a term often used to describe breakthrough literary works that are thought to embody the essence of America. These are novels that are considered by many to be the best of the best! In some way, shape, or form these works deal with American’s national character throughout the ages, covering controversial and sometimes contradictory topics. Some include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), and many, many more! However, you might notice that all these works have something in common: they are literary novels. Literary being the key word, since these are all novels that contain chapter upon chapter of wordy descriptions and whatnot. But what if I told you there was a wordless novel that claims this title as well?
Milt Gross’ He Done Her Wrong (1930) holds the eponymous title of “The Great American Novel,” with a cheeky addon in parentheses telling the audience about the novel’s true, wordless nature. Taking inspiration from other wordless novels by more popular artists, including Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, Gross sought to criticize the high-artistic style and ambiguous narrative by illustrating a dramatic story in his own cartoonish style. Gross’ version of the wordless novel is regarded as one of the most important pieces in the development of comics, in terms of simple artistic style, length, and action.
Where other wordless novels narrated storylines full of artistic finery and detail, Gross proved it was possible to create a story that was just as engaging with less attention to detail. His cartoonish style allowed his audience to easily recognize characters, good and bad, while portraying a range of emotions. Gross’ novel also is longer than most wordless novels of the time, coming in around three-hundred pages in length. For an early graphic novel, that is an impressive length! Gross also managed to break up the sequence by portraying action throughout his novel. There are several story arcs within the novel that make up the overarching story, much like modern comic issues. So in many ways, Gross created one of the first modern comics without words.
The story in Gross’ novel is a traditional narrative about love, separation, and reunion. He Done Her Wrong tells the story of the protagonist, a country man, who won a ballroom singer’s heart. The two soon fall in love and are happy with each other. However, another man, the antagonist, lurks in the background seeking to take the woman for himself. He devises a plan to separate the two, killing the protagonist, and comforting the woman before sweeping her off her feet himself and taking her away to the city. In a twist, the protagonist is revealed to have survived and begins searching for his love. After several humorous, slapstick-like occurrences, the two are reunited. In the process the protagonist discovers he is the son of a rich industrial baron, and the two live happily ever after. Meanwhile the antagonist is driven to a life of unhappiness when it is revealed that he has a history of fathering children with women and leaving them along. He is rightly hunted by the fathers of these women, and the story ends with good prevailing and evil living in misery.
The image above showcases the moment right before disaster in He Done Her Wrong. Here the protagonist and antagonist make a deal, while the ballroom singer stands off to the side. Gross’ cartoonish style actuates the character’s sides and motives. The antagonist is obviously the villain in this piece, being depicted in a stereotypical fashion. He wears darker clothes, has a million watt smile, appears to always be hunched over in some way. Meanwhile the protagonist wears simpler clothes and is seen wearing lighter clothes and always stand up straight. The characters facial expressions are very telling as well. While the antagonist has a very business forward grin on his face, the protagonist appears to be suspicious. I especially like the inclusion of the overhead light in this particular image. It appears the protagonist is looking up at it, hinting the light may have turned on when they shook hands. That in itself hints that this scene is meant to represent a Faustian bargain, which obviously does not work out well for either party.
Overall, I believe Milt Gross made a very interesting contribution to the evolution of wordless novels and comics. Even though there are not words to describe the events happening, the imagery is very straight forward and tells a fascinating story that appears to embody the spirit of America. I also believe this wordless novel represents a step forward into modern comics, because the cartoonish style and action packed moments are very reminiscent of what we see in comics today. It is because of this that I believe it is deserving of the self-described epithet Gross likely gave to this novel in jest. If anything, He Done Her Wrong is definitely The Great American Graphic Novel.
Beronä, David A. Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels. New York: Abrams, 2008.
Gross, Milt. “He Done Her Wrong.” Comic Extra, 1930. https://www.comicextra.com/he-done-her-wrong/issue-tpb-part-1/full.