“120 Funny Swastika Cartoons” certainly sounds like an oxymoron, but who knows better how to turn beets into borscht than the Jews? In We Have Ways of Making You Laugh, New Yorker cartoonist Sam Gross takes what is arguably the most reprehensible symbol in history and turns it on its head by making it silly and commonplace. The outcome? A woman performing oral sex on a swastika, a mermaid learning to goose step and white mice with a Nazi flag above their mousehole. Gross’ idea is that by making such a loaded image ridiculous, we strip it of its power. As he says in his afterword, “If something is humorous, you can’t get angry at it; nor can it inspire fear.”
Gross’ drawings run the gamut from goofy to bawdy to inscrutable in that way New Yorker cartoons can be. Some evoke spontaneous laughter while others just elicit a perplexed “huh?” But no matter your reaction to the drawings themselves, it’s hard to deny the effect of seeing them as a whole. As I viewed Gross' cartoons, the swastika lost its ability to turn my stomach and make the hairs on my arm stand up. Looking at a kitty cat with swastika-shaped whiskers really did somehow make it less terrifying.
Not everyone loves what Gross has done, of course. HuffPo's Doree Lewak says, "There's tacky and then there's poor taste. The category for this book fits several pegs below the latter." And the ADL's national director, Abraham Foxman, worries the book could be an affront to survivors (like him). The Jewish Week article about the book features both Foxman and a rabbi (the author of a book called Taking the Shoah on the Road) who thinks humor is necessary to healing. It's hard to fault those who find Gross' book offensive or think making fun of something as repugnant as the swastika is simply not something we should do — or worse, that trivializing it somehow puts us in harm's way. We can only hope that Gross is right — that our resilient laughter is far more powerful than the swastika could ever be.
Want to see more of the cartoons? Radar has a gallery.