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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘MAUS’

Is It Kosher To Laugh At Swastikas?

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

 


We Have Ways of Making You Laugh:


120 Funny Swastika Cartoons


By Sam Gross


Simon & Schuster, 2008, 128 pages, $20


http://www.simonsays.com/


 


 


Swastikas have been popping up lately in the most unusual places. The Wesley Acres Methodist retirement home in Alabama recently remodeled to try masking its swastika-shaped building. A restaurant in India called Hitlers’ Cross, which bore a swastika logo, came under fire in 2006 and was pressured to change its name to Cross Café. The Dubai-based Conqueror Real Estate appeared in the news a few months ago for using the catchphrase, “The world is yours,” beside an image of Hitler.

 

Yet when Europe tried to ban swastikas in 2005, Hindu groups balked at the proposition, reminding the world that swastikas derive from ancient symbols for peace. Indeed the swastika appears beside the cross, the Star of David, and the crescent moon on the facade of the Baha’i Temple in Chicago.

 

When considering Sam Gross’s new book of cartoons, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons, it is important to consider this larger narrative surrounding the symbol, which has come to epitomize anti-Semitism. No doubt the notion of a funny swastika will horrify many of this column’s readers. How can one even consider laughing at a Holocaust joke, thereby disrespecting the memories of its many victims? Surely some topics must be off-limits to jokes.

 

The press release from Simon & Schuster anticipates this sort of criticism. The book, it explains, “shrewdly hijacks comedy in its aim to strip the super-charged swastika of its stature – and its power.” Gross, who has published cartoons in The New Yorker for nearly 40 years (including a particularly iconic one about frog legs), initially conceived of the book in 1997, when he saw a television report of a person who drew swastikas. “When there’s a news item about the swastika, the media seem to approach the symbol with a combination of fear and awe,” Gross writes. “I decided on an opposite approach, with no idea where it would take me.”

 

 


[Goose-stepping] Cover shot. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

 

 

It took him on a path to 500 cartoons containing swastikas, including one that depicts a man finishing his third spray-painted swastika on a wall, as an impressed woman clasps her arms to her chest and asks, “Gosh! Where do you get your ideas?” In another, a waiter shows a wine bottle to a patron sitting alone at a table. “It’s an obedient wine,” he declares of the bottle, which has a swastika on the label. A third image shows two unhappy men dressed in suits staring at a hole in the bottom of a wall, with a Nazi banner hanging above it. “We have white mice,” one says.

 

Several drawings mock the Nazi-adopted “goose-step.” A Nazi on a park bench offers food to a goose, another with sunglasses is led by a Seeing Eye goose, a third is teased by a snail goose-stepping behind him, and a fourth is rebuked by his officer, “You goose-step like a girl!” Another man, dressed with a boater hat, baton and tuxedo evocative of a barbershop quartet, instructs a goose-stepping Nazi, “No! This is how you do the cakewalk.” And another illustration shows a woman wearing a hat and a Nazi armband riding a goose. She holds the reins in both hands and tells a bird flying behind, “Mother Goose is a different person. I’m Mother Goose-step.”

 

Having to collapse a cartoon to mere text is somewhat akin to explaining a joke, so this synopsis surely does not do justice to Gross’ cartoons. But if one inspects most of the reviews the book is getting, one gets the impression the reviewers do not think the book deserves justice. Steven Heller, writing on the blog Design Observer, argues there is a precedent for Holocaust funnies, like Saul Steinberg’s 1946 cartoon of “Hitler attempting to draw different iterations of the swastika on a wall,” which “spoke volumes about the failure of the Third Reich and its leadership.” Still, Heller argued Gross “has accomplished little more than exploit emotions that for many people are still raw.”

 

Most viciously, Doree Lewak observes in The Huffington Post that the book arrives coterminously with Israel’s 60th birthday, and its very name is “a nod to the enduring Nazi ethos.” Gross is “misguided,” and “There’s tacky and then there’s poor taste. The category for this book fits several pegs below the latter.”

 

Lewak declares herself unsurprised that the 74-year-old cartoonist is Jewish and an American, who was “spared the horrors of the Holocaust, and obviously the good sense to know when to draw – or rather in this case, not draw – the line.” In Lewak’s estimation, it is still about 100 years too soon for Holocaust jokes, “Like it’s not spraypainted everywhere it shouldn’t be, now it’s spraypainted in our literature too?” She adds, “To ask the public to accept its return backed by a retooled PR pitch is too much to ask. And it shouldn’t be asked of us. We have a name for that sort of thing: shanda, Mr. Gross. Not the right book, not the right time.”

 

It is very important for critics to voice this sort of criticism. The works were created to lead to discussion, and Gross can hardly be unpleased with the responses it is receiving. But there may be something to be said for the post-modern notion of “owning” a symbol or a text. During the Holocaust, Nazis owned the symbol and its interpretation; Gross is trying to steal it back. I am not a survivor, and indeed am not nearly old enough to be confused with one, so Lewak might extend her same criticism to me, but I wonder if Gross is not directing his works at my generation more than his own.

 

If approached from an art perspective, rather than a politics or sociological one (though of course they cannot be split as easily as orange sections), the works in Gross’ book are not unlike Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “MAUS,” which tells the animated version of the Holocaust using a menagerie of mice, cats, dogs and pigs. Spiegelman’s book was controversial at first, but has now been mostly canonized as a serious interrogation of the Holocaust. Whether Gross’ book is headed down that path is debatable, but like “MAUS,” it offers a different perspective on World War II.

 

Surely, Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” is not the only way to approach Holocaust memory. When we are seeking history and documentary, we can turn to any of the many wonderful projects and organizations devoted to preserving the facts of the Holocaust. But art, and particularly humorous art, which should never be confused with history, offers another avenue that helps some of us, who did not endure the horrors of the war, find a way to talk about and relate to them.

 

Surely this is not for everyone, but instead of attacking Sam Gross and all but accusing him of being a self-hating Jew, we should give him the benefit of the doubt and recognize the his cartoons’ potential to do good.

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC. 

Painting 9/11 With Whiskers And A Tail (and a Cigarette): Art Spiegelman’s ‘In The Shadow Of No Towers’

Wednesday, November 17th, 2004

Perhaps far more important than the question of “why paint tragedy?” is the question of how to paint it. The importance of remembering and commemorating calamity dictates monumental art, but this realization yields no technical vocabulary on how best to accomplish this in a considerate, respectful manner without veering to the trite or the patronizing and offensive.

Previously in this column, in an essay on MAUS, Richard McBee cited Elie Wiesel’s questioning of the inherent stuff from which monuments derive. He argued that certain holocausts are simply too horrific for aesthetic investigation. James E. Young has presented a similar critique of memorials, though he distinguishes between the literal sort and a more post-modern ilk that crumbles in an act that depicts the catastrophe, rather than creating a mimetic structure that merely impersonates it.

Art Spiegelman is no stranger to these provocative discussions. In “MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History,” Spiegelman drew a comic of the Holocaust with rodents for protagonists, and in “MAUS II: Here My Troubles Began” he did it again. His new graphic novel, “In the Shadow Of No Towers” is a pictorial study of the events of September 11, 2001, told with falling shoes and boots, and characters who wake up in the middle of the night yelling, “The sky is falling!” The mice from MAUS are back, and the main character is Mr. Spiegelman himself, always with a cigarette in his mouth.

The pages of The Shadow are big, thick slabs of cardboard, suggesting a children’s book configuration, but even a cursory read reveals a very complicated meditation on storytelling, trauma and disorientation that demands a sophisticated readership.

Not only does The Shadow insist on politically perceptive readers, it also assumes that readers are literate in classical, comic book forms. In a series of seven plates at the end, Spiegelman reproduces old comic books pages from George Herriman’s provocative 1913 comic Krazy Kat to Gustave Verbeek’s 1904 cartoons in the Sunday New York Herald called Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo. Spiegelman offers little in the way of comprehensive guide for comic book amateurs; his two page manifesto which seeks to explain the history of comic books while standing on one foot will help jog the memory of experts, but will prove fairly useless to the beginner.

The move of insisting on familiarity with the vocabulary of comic books in general and certain characters from MAUS in particular is one associated with much of post-modern and creative non-fiction literature. In Moby Dick, Melville delivered a text that simultaneously explored a fictive narrative and a scientific meditation on whales and whaling that embedded entire chapters of encyclopedic trivia about marine biology.

Joyce’s Ulysses rallied a similar strategy, and it necessitated absolute familiarity with all of Joyce’s books: the character Stephen returns from a funeral in Ulysses that he has set out for in Dubliners. This Melvillian and Joycean mode of reading proliferated in the literary scene in the middle and late part of the century, and it is very much at play in Spiegelman’s novel.

In his introduction to The Shadow – which interestingly enough was serialized in the Forward and the German newspaper Die Zeit – Spiegelman records his predisposition to allegations that the sky is falling and general conspiracy theories, but then he writes, “Only when I heard paranoid Arab Americans blaming it all on the Jews did I reel myself back in, deciding it wasn’t essential to know precisely how much my “leaders” knew about the hijackings in advance. It was sufficient that they immediately instrumentalized the attack for their own agenda.”

Spiegelman told Alana Newhouse at the Forward that, “I grew up being told by my [Holocaust] survivor parents that the world is an incredibly dangerous place, and that I should always be prepared to flee.” In his mind, September 11 came as less of a surprise than “the hijacking of September 11 the Bush cabal that reduced it all to a war recruitment poster.” Spiegelman says, “I never wanted to be a political cartoonist. I work too slowly to respond to transient events while they are happening.. Besides, nothing has a shorter shelf-life than angry caricatures of politicians.”

Incidentally, Honore Daumier’s and Thomas Nast’s political caricatures have lasted quite long on their shelf in the comic book pantheon, and I think David Levine’s will join them, as will Spiegelman’s, and here is why.

Spiegelman’s book is very political. It throws difficult images in the viewer’s face, and bombards the reader from page to page, without providing much time for catching one’s breath. It is deep and heavy, and it tells you wide-eyed that the sky is falling. It asks the questions: who gets to tell a story, how much leeway does s/he have to tell it, and what does it mean to “own” a story? This meditation on trauma and narrative finds its voice in visual form.

Page four features a cartoon wherein a Bush figure and a Rumsfeld figure ride a flying eagle that sports a red, white and blue striped Uncle Sam hat. Rumsfeld has cut the eagle’s neck with his box cutter, while Bush offers, “Let’s Roll!” in a manner that suggests a derivation of “giddy-up!” The eagle asks, “Why do they hate us? Why?” This image floats atop a picture in the left margin of a shimmering, stippled tower – resembling a Seurat or Pissarro painting in temperament – that crumbles into a sea of red, blue, purple and ochre dots. A parenthetical statement offers, “(Amazing how time flies while it stands still.)”

As if that is not enough information, Spiegelman manages to cram in the Two Towers personified as crying infants with towers for hats, and a rescue mission to save his daughter Nadja. At the bottom of the page, Spiegelman tells his wife, “Y’know how I’ve called myself a rootless cosmopolitan, equally homeless anywhere on the planet? I was wrong… I finally understand why some Jews didn’t leave Berlin right after Kristallnacht!” He then passes a painter working on a picture of the burning towers: “They passed some guy on Canal Street painting the towers. Glancing south, they could only see the billowing toxic smoke. The model had moved.”

I quote at length to show both the author’s tremendous style and mood, and also to underscore a new narratorial voice from MAUS. Here is Spiegelman thinking of 9/11 in Holocaust terms, finding himself so attached to a place (he lives in the Village mere blocks from Ground Zero) and a culture – while so resistant to wearing I Love NY tee shirts – that he can relate to German Jews who couldn’t run, but also could not hide. He is disoriented, and every attempt to draw himself out of it recalls a baseball player who simply cannot drag himself out of a slump.

And ultimately, that is why Spiegelman gets to tell the story. He has no answers, and he can barely keep the questions at bay. He takes the confusion and the paralysis and casts it as mice and shoes and ostriches. They are entirely tasteful and deep meditations that convey an almost un-conveyable sense of raw emotion. In that world, like that of Steinbeck, the boundary between mice and men slowly dissipates.

 


Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/painting-911-with-whiskers-and-a-tail-and-a-cigarette-art-spiegelmans-in-the-shadow-of-no-towers/2004/11/17/

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