Swastika cartoon book &mdash neither hilarious nor hurtful

Veteran cartoonist Sam Gross’ latest book, “We Have Ways of Making You Laugh,” is emblazoned with the eye-catching subtitle: “120 Funny Swastika Cartoons.”

A more accurate subtitle would be “120 Mostly Droll Swastika Cartoons With a Handful of Brilliant Ones and More Than a Few Outright Stinkers.”

For Gross, it was the thought that counted. This is a book of swastika-related cartoons that was, at least, trying to be funny.

Gross, 74, is best known for his acerbic, minimalist cartoons in the New Yorker. And before you pick up the phone and dial the Anti-Defamation League in a tizzy, be assured that, yes, he is Jewish.

The cartoonist has reported that it was the disproportionate news coverage given to an instance of swastika graffiti that led him to draw these cartoons. It’s nothing new for victimized people to reappropriate oppressive symbols or language — you may recall Dick Gregory’s provocatively titled autobiography, “Nigger.” The comedian explained his choice with an aside a bit more clever than any of Gross’ swastika cartoons: “Dear Momma — Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”

In publishing this compilation, Gross has triggered ironic histrionics: Angered by hysterical media play accorded to vandals simply because they chose to draw swastikas, he has crafted a book that has received hysterical media play solely because he chose to draw swastikas.

Most notably, the New York novelist and law professor Thane Rosenbaum — who has established himself as the media’s go-to guy for alleged trivialization of the Holocaust — has railed against Gross’ book, referring to the cartoonist as “this putz.” ADL boss Abe Foxman has also complained.

Fair enough. And yet the idea that a book of swastika cartoons aimed at the New Yorker set will somehow dilute the pain and horror symbolized by the swastika is akin to stating that black people are no longer as sensitive to the word “nigger” due to Gregory’s book.

As for whether the world is ready to use Nazi imagery in order to portray Brownshirts as buffoons and play the Third Reich for laughs … I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought. Someone in the office is blasting the soundtrack to “The Producers.”

Let’s leave the ethical issues behind. There’s a more pertinent question: Are these cartoons any good? The answer: sort of.

More than a few of the 120 cartoons are laugh-out-loud funny. A Brownshirt spray-painting swastikas on a wall while an adoring fraulein looks on and coos, “Where do you get your ideas?” — that’s good. A giant swastika with a human face shouting at a witch “Very funny! Now turn me back into a restaurant critic” — that’s great too.

The majority of the cartoons, however, are mildly amusing at best — and the repetition of goose-stepping sight gags soon adds up.

In the end, despite Rosenbaum’s and Foxman’s castigation, Gross had every right to publish this book. His rationale is strong enough. His material is not.

“We Have Ways of Making You Laugh,” by Sam Gross (132 pages, Simon & Schuster, $20).

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.