Some cartoonists, like Gary Larson, become household names and see their drawings reproduced on T-shirts and coffee mugs and pinned to cubicle walls. Sam Gross, who died this month at the age of 89, wasn’t famous but was, in his way, just as influential. With a line as loose and unfussy as the sloping “S. Gross” he scrawled in the corner of every drawing, Gross was a cartoonist’s cartoonist, as beloved by his peers as by any other audience. That was probably not only because they admired his economy of style and facility in constructing a gag, but also because he selflessly mentored up-and-comers and fought to secure cartoonists’ rights and remuneration.
Gross, who drew tens of thousands of cartoons over the course of his career and published regularly in the New Yorker and the National Lampoon, was notorious for his fearless – some would say tasteless – sense of humor; some of his cartoons didn’t skirt the edge of appropriateness so much as they barrelled right past it. Not for nothing was he influenced by the genteel grotesqueries of Charles Addams.
Gross’s edginess places him out-of-step with contemporary sensitivities, but oddly his work hasn’t dated as poorly as coarser comic voices have. That may be because, unlike some ostensibly transgressive comedians, he doesn’t come off as self-congratulatory or superior; he isn’t assuming the calculated persona of a naughty schoolboy snickering at his own button-pushing cruelty. It rarely feels like he’s punching down. Instead, it feels like he’s reporting from among the hapless victims of fate in his drawings – his isn’t a distant voice of mockery but a dispatch from the trenches. Gross’s expressive artwork conveys a deadpan empathy for his lovelorn snails and luckless frogs, and if he’s judging them, he judges himself right along with them.
That said, his sensibility isn’t for everybody, and his contributions to these anthologies in particular push a few envelopes. Proceed accordingly with caution.