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.”