March 27, 2008
Veteran cartoonist Sam Gross must have known that his new collection, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh (Simon & Schuster), would raise eyebrows and ire.
So far, the book of more than 100 single-panel cartoons depicting the swastika has been generally panned by reviewers. “Trivializing [it] is not a crime, but it can be dangerous, particularly since it continues to be used as a weapon of hate,” wrote Steven Heller on DesignObserver.com. “Perhaps this book would have best been titled We Have Ways of Making You Wince.”
In reaction to the book, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and himself a Holocaust survivor, complained in a published article about the “trivialization of the Shoah and of Shoah symbols.”
But Gross — a former cartoon editor for National Lampoon and Parents magazine whose work has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Harvard Business Review, and Esquire, among others — still believes the hostility over his latest collection is misplaced.
In the “word balloon” for one of his drawings, a woman asks a swastika-scrawling graffiti artist, “Gosh! Where do you get your ideas?”
A reporter asks Gross the same question.
“We’re exposed to this and see it in various forms and you don’t give it too much thought,” Gross said in a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News. “I was watching the evening news and the lead story was about someone who was drawing swastikas on doors in Mamaroneck. There are all sorts of [other] things happening, why is this the lead story?
“We hold it in some sort of awe and fear, so I thought, let me run with this and see what I can do with it.”
Gross drew hundreds of swastikas: alone, with people or animals, in bizarre circumstances. Like repeating a word over and over again, he thought, creating so many variations would diminish the diabolic meaning of the icon. But despite his expectation, he said, the initial reaction to the concept was predictable.
“My wife thought I was crazy. People were appalled — publishers, agents.” He shopped his project around, even going to international book companies until it was eventually bought by Simon & Schuster.
Amid all the complaints, Gross said, “the only people who ‘got it’ were friends who were Holocaust survivors. They were close enough to it to experience it.”
In the book’s afterword, Gross writes, “These drawings emerged from my involuntary reaction to a swastika shown on the news. Awareness came next and then the need to exorcise the reaction, which in my case happened to be anger. What other people’s are, I can only offer conjecture.
“My initial intent was to allay my anger by portraying things happening to and around the swastika so as to reduce it to something humorous. If something is humorous, you can’t get angry at it; nor can it inspire fear.”
Gross agreed to present his philosophy this way — following his drawings rather than preceding them — after consulting with the publisher’s staff. “Some members of the project’s team…didn’t want readers to get a ‘preconceived notion,’” Gross said. He suggested a foreword and an afterword, but the idea was denied for “logistical reasons.”
All the tumult hasn’t bothered the artist, who still works for The New Yorker. “This seems to be an old man’s profession,” said the 74-year-old Gross. “It’s conducive to hanging around. A lot of my work is better than a few years ago, which was better than a few years before that.
“I’m aware of the potential reaction, but I’m not concerned,” Gross said, excusing himself to get back to the drawing board.
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