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Comments (28) Posted 03.04.08 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Steven Heller

Swastika Humor?

Sam Gross, cartoon from We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons, 2008

The swastika is not intrinsically funny. Yet, for some, anything can be made into a joke, including this Nazi logo. Nonetheless, there is considerable peril in making this mark of criminality into the butt of jest and doing so raises the larger question whether the time is right now, or ever, to do so. Sam Gross is an acerbic and funny cartoonist whose work appears frequently in The New Yorker — and whose hilarious cartoon of an amputated frog on one of those wheeled conveyances seen leaving a French restaurant with the sign, “Special: Frogs Legs”, which ran in the National Lampoon in the 1980s, is etched onto my memory. He has taken a calculated risk with a new collection of swastika cartoons titled, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons.

Arguably this risk is not worth the reward.

Sam Gross, cartoon from We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons, 2008

“These drawings emerged from my involuntary reaction to a swastika shown on the news,” Gross writes in a brief afterword. “Awareness came next and then the need to exorcise the reaction, which in my case happened to be anger.” He went on to argue that his initial intent was to allay his anger by reducing it to something humorous: “If something is humorous, you can’t get angry at it; nor can it inspire fear.” Yet, in truth, if Gross’s intent was to somehow neuter the ancient hooked cross by removing the criminal onus the Nazis put on the mark, or even extend the ongoing debate over whether the swastika should be reviled or revived, he has accomplished little more than exploit emotions that for many people are still raw. Gross has done no more than produce sight gags, many of which are so lame (like a Nazi feeding a goose-stepping goose) and contrived (like a man pulling out a sofa-bed with a mattress shaped like a swastika), they are the visual equivalent of chalk on the blackboard.

Which is not to say that the swastika — or for that matter the Nazi era in general — is above satiric reflection (i.e. Mel Brooks’s The Producers). In 1946, Saul Steinberg’s cartoon showing Hitler attempting to draw different iterations of the swastika on a wall spoke volumes about the failure of the Third Reich and its leadership. An earlier acerbic collection of graphic swastika satires published in Life Magazine in the early 1940s, penned by Boris Artzybasheff, made vividly clear that by transforming the sign into tools of torture the Nazis were unabashedly evil. His imagery was darkly witty in conveying a strident message. Conversely, Gross’s cartoons randomly poke fun at Nazis (a Nazi wearing an armband having breakfast while looking at a milk cartoon with Hitler’s picture under the title “Missing”) or the shape of the swastika (a goose-stepping, arm-raised mouse entering a swastika maze) without any seeming high ground.

Sam Gross, cartoon from We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons, 2008

His cartoons fail to ask important questions about the nature of signs and symbols, which is inherently part of the swastika debate, and questions whether or not to rehabilitate this originally benign sign before it was thoroughly transformed into the manifestation of terror.

Whatever side of the debate one is on, all this is worth considering. After all, at least one swastika iteration can be found on each of the world’s continents and date back eons. Historians have never traced its true origins but it belongs to many religions and cultures. When Hitler introduced it as the logo of the Nazi Party in 1921 he accepted it only as a nineteenth-century German racist/nationalist symbol that stood for Aryan superiority and anti-Semitism. Despite the swastika’s widespread use throughout Asia, Africa and India, from the moment it became associated with the Nazis the meaning forever changed. In recent years, an organization called Friends of the Swastika has advocated the swastika's return as a symbol of good fortune, and has made it their mission to reclaim its benign meaning.

None of this history is reflected in Gross’s work, which admittedly, is a lot to ask of a cartoon. But neither is the gag showing a Nazi eating a sausage wearing a swastika or a dog with its butt in the shape of a swastika provoking anything other than a cheap snicker. Trivializing the swastika is not a crime, but it can be dangerous, particularly since it continues to be used as a weapon of hate. Perhaps this book would have best been titled, “We Have Ways of Making You Wince.”
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Comments (28)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

The few examples shared here (and your analysis) frees me from any need to investigate this one further.

The sleeper-couch one seems particularly strained, trying to force the use of the shape/symbol. I can only imagine this spread over 120 similar . . .'cartoons'. Arrggghhhh..!!

03.04.08 at 02:43

Your right, we should STOP AND THINK.
Trivializing the swastika is not a crime, but it can be dangerous, particularly since it continues to be used as a weapon of hate.

Carl W. Smith
03.04.08 at 03:34

...the need to exorcise the reaction, which in my case happened to be anger.”

I can't say I haven't had this same response to the propaganda of hate and intolerance, but I've accepted this as a personal moment, my anger and the knee-jerk bounce to humor or ridicule has always seemed self indulgent, and not a particularly good example of my best material (gags, that is).
A barometric reading of this audience yields very little support for the work -and I concur, I will say that while this is not so hot, I'm a HUGE fan of The Producers (film) Springtime for Hitler and Blazing Saddles Klu Klux Klan references and have no issues with the comedic genius of Mel Brooks.
When it's funny. It is. There is no accounting for taste.
Rick Griffith
03.04.08 at 04:12

Imagine a similar series lampooning Hitler -- an equally potent and iconic symbol of Nazi "values" -- instead of the swastika. I can't figure out exactly why, but I feel people would be much less offended by that.

In any case, I laughed at the first two, and think it may be somewhat unfair to expect such purposefully dry and understated cartoons to "ask important questions about the nature of signs and symbols."
03.04.08 at 05:30

A Sort of a Song
by William Carlos Williams

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
-- through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.
m. kingsley
03.04.08 at 05:50

The swastika as a symbol is used all through out the world. Japan for example uses it on maps to mark the location of a temple. The maps are covered with them. The first time I saw this I was a little shocked but quickly realized that they weren't concentration camps. The original meaning of the symbol is only forgotten because we choose to let Hitler's crimes speak through it. The meaning of the symbol changed once and we can change it again if we make the effort to do so.
Jim Killian
03.04.08 at 08:03

Interesting Swastika Tid-Bit:
Several years ago a small electrical fire at my church, a now 86 year old Roman Catholic Church (founded by local German immigrants) required the replacement of carpeting in the entryway. Underneath was revealed a floor tiled in - guess what?
To think– all of the church's pius patrons walked over a bunch of swastikas on entering church every Sunday for decades.
The thought of our pastor's face when the tiles were uncovered... now that's funny.

Apparently a short enough time ago that they could be included in the church building, but a long enough time ago to have been forgotten about, the swastika was regarded as something acceptable enough for even our uptight Catholic church to embrace (or at least accept enough not to rip the tiles up. Just hide them under carpeting). That alone makes me believe there is hope for the symbol yet! After all- it's really a Greek cross (as well as other ancient things) the NSDAP probably just used to associate Germany with the golden age of civilation as well as its previous use as a symbol of National Socialist ideaology.
Though it's had MANY more years with a sterling repuation than it has had a horrible one.

But yeah- I agree, either way, it's association with the Nazi party shouldn't be trivialized.
03.04.08 at 09:17

The funny part is, the SWASTIKA symbolises the circle of life in Hinduism. Personally, it feels like the Germans didn't have an ounce of originality to create a logo of their own but to steal something so symbolic off someone else. If Westerners can wrap their heads around the fact that it also means something so powerfully good, then half our battle is won.
03.05.08 at 09:15

I'm particularly put off by the use of the word 'funny' in the title of the book, as if the reader's opinion isn't even necessary. It's like calling your book My Excellent Prose or A Heartbreaking Work of... Staggering... Oh. Hang on. Been done. Never mind.
03.05.08 at 10:08

No surprise where New York Jews are going to weigh in on this loaded dog (notice, dog lacks mustard, is poorly drawn).

When I was 12 (in Texas mind you) I thought it would be fun to paint a picture on the wall in our garage with some left over paint. I chose Martin Luther King, Jr in the famous "hand on chin" thinker pose. It was damn good. When my father and Charles (one of his oil company redneck buddies) strolled in from a long day of golf. I heard Charles mutter: "what'r you doing paintin a coon up on yer wall fer?" I looked at my father bewildered. Then looked over his shoulder in the distance, my best friend Victor (black).

I didn't find the humor in it. And every time I see MLK in that pose it reminds me of what I deem not so funny.

Kinda like Rush Limbaugh endorsing Clinton a day before the TX primary. Hillary-ious.
felix sockwell
03.05.08 at 11:05

Eric asks us to imagine cartoons lampooning Hitler, suggesting the response would be less offensive. I think he is right. However,

If the cartoons above and the descriptions are any indication, these aren't funny at all, they are simply integrating the swastika into daily life. The equivalent would be cartoons showing Hitler showering, making a sandwich, driving a car or tipping his hat. "Ho ho, now we have defused the situation." But not really. For,

Unlike organizations trying to reclaim the swastika as a signifier, these cartoons aren't normalizing the general signifier, they are normalizing the Nazi emblem (i.e. the signified), which is dangerous.

Good post, Steven.
03.05.08 at 01:47

Ralphy: perhaps a bit like this "sitcom" (youtube link to full episode), "Heil Honey I'm Home", staring Hitler and Eva Braun going about their live in domestic bliss until one day a Jewish couple moves in next door and Hitler just can't get along with them?

Wikipedia article here.
03.05.08 at 07:11

I think this is just another example of people trying to laugh at everything in order to desensitize themselves for... god knows reason.

May be to strengthen their masculinity, may be to differentiate themselves from the emotive mass audience. It's kinda pathetic, but some people do that in desperation... most likely the working city people who had "seen it all" and the teenage male all around the world who would love nothing but to claim they have "seen it all".

Let me explain.

The clearest example is children getting hurt or killed in movies. I am one of the only teenager back in my high school who hates children getting hurt or die in movie. If it is part of story telling I can understand. But monster movie these days have children die in "cool" and gory scene (Mimic, Pitch Black), as if there is a classic-ness to it. Not only do my friends say things like "oh yeah, stupid kid getting stampede by horse in gladiator cuz he thought his dad was coming home. This movie is awesome" Just recently Alien vs. predator 2 has a scene where a 10 year old boy was killed by alien exploded out of his chest, and despite its very stupid storyline, a lot of people wrote on IMDB message board thanking the director for having scenes where pregnant woman and elementary school age children die a gruesome death. Apparently they waited for a movie director with that kind of courage all their lives.

People think the ability to make fun of everything from swastika to massacre make them unaffected by those things and make them stronger, more masculine. And for us to tell them that making fun of "so and so" is dangerous, well then suddenly we are part of the establishments.

I don't want this to be a society where people don't want to admit they are uncomfortable with anything, just because the modern society compare uncomfortable-ness with being a sissy or pro-censorship.
Panasit Ch
03.05.08 at 09:25

That's nothing.
03.06.08 at 02:40

Great stuff James, Panasit, and Graham, for all sorts of reasons.

I don't want this to be a society where people don't want to admit they are uncomfortable with anything, just because the modern society compare uncomfortable-ness with being a sissy or pro-censorship. Very incisive.

Surely there are instances where a swastika would be functional. I am thinking of linkage mechanisms, or circuit boards, or larger structures for living. Have designers had to work around an instrumentally-optimal solution because of this? Are there elements which we shy away from not because they don't work but because they are so culturally loaded? Think also of anything which strongly connotes the phallic.
03.06.08 at 02:57

Surely there are instances where a swastika would be functional. I am thinking of linkage mechanisms, or circuit boards, or larger structures for living.

The question here seems to be how would the swastika occupy a structurally objective space and maintain it's presence as a symbol?
03.06.08 at 03:33

I'm Home", staring Hitler and Eva Braun going about their live in domestic bliss until one day a Jewish couple moves in next door and Hitler just can't get along with them?
03.06.08 at 04:32

As much as I am for the freedom of expression,I cannot condone the use of the swastika in any other way,if not to remind the logo of the atrocities it symbolizes.
I feel with great intensity an objection against that image.I am a daughter of Holocaust survivors.
A cartoonist and artist.
It is trully painful to see that as funny.
marguerita bornstein
03.07.08 at 07:34

The question here seems to be how would the swastika occupy a structurally objective space and maintain it's presence as a symbol?

I don't see how they are mutually exclusive. If I had fan blades as a swastika, they would fulfill both categories.
03.08.08 at 10:51

Why say "acerbic" when "harsh" is equally effective?
03.08.08 at 01:24

As always from Steven, this is a nicely challenging post. And if anyone knows about the history and overview of the swastika, it is Mr. Heller (see his book on it, "The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?").

In general, I am a proponent of de-sensitizing words with loaded connotations. For the most part, I applaud the black community's attempt at taking back the word nigger/nigga (with sometimes admittedly mixed results). However, I do have to agree with Marguerita Bornstein that the absolute horror of the swastika makes it almost untouchable. Which is a shame, because before Hitler absconded it, the swastika was a symbol of beauty and peace. Of course, some might argue that was part of Hitler's insane genius... taking something that so many identified as such good. I mean, who could believe that the Nazis would be bad if they had such a friendly symbol?

I have to believe that if the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur had equally noticeable and identifiable "logos", they would also be reviled.
Greg Hay
03.08.08 at 11:47

The Times (Saturday issue, March 8th, p. 13) featured an article on military uniforms in public space in the UK. The content outlined the topic as a sensitive one but lacked the sensitiveness in illustrating it.
A cartoon showed a man in uniform with a swastika armband leaving his house commented by a woman: "I do wish Hans wouldn’t wear his uniform in public."
03.09.08 at 07:24

To say it's a "modern" and "macho" thing to use humor or laughter to defuse an uncomfortable or painful moment is just ridiculous and shortsighted (perhaps as shortsighted as saying the swastika for the rest of all time can never ever ever be reclaimed?) Humor has been used by humans for probably all of our existence to make hard things easier to get through.

Sure, Panasit is correct in pointing out humor in the face of abhorrent situations is done in a mostly crass manner in the larger culture, but being able to laugh in the face of tragedy and bad times has gotten myself and everyone in my life through times of economic destitution and near bankruptcy, through my mother's cancer, through being shot at by gun-toting teenagers, and through the death of loved ones. Humor heals.

And backtracking a bit to my parentheses at the top: I'm sure there are symbols of hate from past cultures we all know nothing of now. Even things from not that long ago are easily forgotten, especially by the young people today who have no sense of history and their lives are built on a culture of constant turnover. Consider that we all overlook things like the ignorant nationalism in 3M's "Scotch" Tape. (I know some here don't think so, but wikipedia is useful, and I can't link to a book on my shelf)

I don't think it's a bad thing to try to use humor, reappropriation, and other methods to take the power away from symbols of hate. Are these cartoons doing the best job of it? It doesn't appear so, but it also doesn't seem like this article and discussion is bringing anything new to the table either.
03.10.08 at 07:50

Erin, I'm Scottish, and I find no offense in the origin of Scotch tape (whether true or not).
03.11.08 at 07:21

The only thing about today's culture is that it is quite desensitized. Gross's work might be so safe that it could be harmful in normalcy.

This is similar, but on a popular TV show of skits.
Whitest Kids - Hitler Rap
By Whitest Kids
Dan Au
03.13.08 at 12:42

The swastika is also a Buddhist symbol of peace.
03.16.08 at 01:51

One joke about the swastika, not funny.
120 jokes about the swastika, hilarious.
Dave Butters
03.19.08 at 10:54

Mr. Butters makes a very good point. But similarly, Dr. Goebbels asserted that a lie repeatedly told becomes truth.
steve heller
03.20.08 at 06:46

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Steven Heller is the co-chair (with Lita Talarico) of the School of Visual Arts MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program and the SVA Masters Workshop in Rome. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review, a weekly column for The Atlantic online and The Daily Heller.

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