We Have Ways of Making You Laugh:
120 Funny Swastika Cartoons
By Sam Gross
Simon & Schuster, 2008, 128 pages, $20
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.