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A Graphic Novel About Love and Acrobats — From 1930

The radical cartoonist and social realist painter William Gropper (1897-1977) may be best remembered for the satirical drawings he regularly contributed to the Yiddish press and the Sunday edition of The Daily Worker. But Gropper, a child of Lower East Side garment workers who made his first drawings with chalk on the sidewalk and was taught by Robert Henri of the Ashcan School, also produced in 1930 a wordless picture-narrative, “Alay-Oop,” now out in a new edition from New York Review Comics.

This was a snappy American rejoinder to the solemn “woodcut novels” then popular in Europe. Titled with a riff on the French acrobat’s cry “allez-hop!” (up you go), Gropper’s book is redolent of popular jazz and Hollywood movies, part backstage melodrama, part tenement fable, drawn in a post-Cubist style at once gritty and insouciant.

The three characters — a male acrobat, his female partner and a male singer — all perform in what appears to be the same Broadway theater. The story traces the lady acrobat from glamorous stage performer to slum drudge and then (allez-hop!) a last-page return. Gropper’s main influences were fellow satirists like George Grosz, but, with its curves and filigrees, the figure drawing in “Alay-Oop” also has traces of Lautrec and Degas. His line is loose and fluid; his humor is sly; his designs are strikingly economical.

Gropper went on to paint murals for government buildings and the downtown jazz club Café Society. In 1940, the radical magazine New Masses declared him “the master of revolutionary painting in America”; 13 years later he was hauled before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee. Gropper subsequently wrote several children’s books but he never produced another graphic novel. “Alay-Oop” was the road not taken.

J. Hoberman writes on old movies for The Times. His latest book, “Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan,” was published in July.

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