Sex, Race, and Frogs BY Richard Gehr Mar 6, I'm pretty sure I saw the first truly memorable cartoon of my young seven- or eight-year-old life in a copy of Argosy I was flipping through at the barbershop one Saturday afternoon several decades ago. Ah, the simple hilarity of sex and racism.
While he claims to draw for no one other than himself, Sam Gross's work in large part emerged from the men's magazine milieu of the fifties and sixties. The great thing about Gross, however, is that he can do just about anything in cartoons. Much of the time he's simply cute: A cat deposits a piece of garbage into a can marked "kitty litter"; a long dachshund chases a stretch limousine down the street, and so on.
His most famous cartoon, of course, depicts a frog amputee "Try our frogs' legs" reads the sign on the wall. And Gross's world is populated in large part by the handicapped, the homeless, and the slightly horrific, all of whom he humanizes with deft strokes and subtle halftones.
In person, however, Gross is a regular pussycat. He works in an Upper East Side apartment next door to a comics store he claims never to have entered. His doorbell sports an old family name because he doesn't want to be hassled by anyone who might have been offended by his book We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: Long may he offend.
What's your working process? How many cartoons do you generate per week? This week I got sixteen or seventeen drawings.
I number and date all my drawings. First they get photocopied on forty-four-pound stock paper. Then I punch three holes and they go into loose-leaf books like the black books back there and in the kitchen. And I think I got 27, cartoons now. What do you send to magazines, copies or originals? No ideas leave the studio because invariably something will get lost in the mail or during processing. I go into a panic whenever I lose an idea.
Many years ago this cartoonist, Jimmy Frankfort, was sitting very despondently at the Saturday Evening Post. And it made an indelible impression upon me. Do you do all your own business? Does your wife help you?
We've kept everything separate. She has her own bank account, I have my own bank account, etcetera. She has never even made a suggestion — except once she did. I was just starting out and got unceremoniously dismissed from Esquire.
Jerry Beatty was Esquire's cartoon editor at that time, in the late fifties or early sixties. You gotta go to Esquire. I got a story to tell you, though. Eleven months ago you threw me out of here. Do you prefer doing editorial or advertising work? For the most part, advertising rates have either been frozen or even whittled down. At one point I worked as an accountant, so every one of the drawings is numbered. When money has come in I post to that number in my index and know, pretty much to the nearest dollar what a drawing has made.
One year I sold seven drawings and did quite well. Another year I sold eleven drawings and also did quite well — better than a couple of years when I sold a book, which would be ninety or drawings.
What cartoons have the longest afterlife? The only one who really has staying power at the moment is Charles Addams with the Broadway production, the recipe book, calendars, and biography.
They know from Shrek but not Steig. The Addams Family drawings, by the way, do make a chunk of money. I understand there are of those, and they're out of sight. I was up at the Cartoon Bank once, and they were selling an Addams drawing they got from a collector, and it went for ten thousand dollars. I looked at the drawing, and it was a drawing from an idea they'd bought from me for two hundred bucks back in the sixties. It was a bunch of shrunken heads and one of them has a smiley face.
They said they'd had a lot of people interested in it but had to take the first offer. That worked out pretty well for you, I hear. Now I have two other drawings up for bid. I have an idea of how popular they are by the number of reprints the Cartoon Bank sells. Let's go back to the beginning — even to your prehistory. Where were your parents from? My mother was born in Lasi on the Romania-Russia border and my father was born in Lithuania. They came to the United States as children around , or at least my mother did.
What were their names? When did you arrive? They got married in or and had me on August 7, I was born in the Bronx and lived there almost twenty-one years. My middle name is Harry. They were both in the diamond business and both of them died young. What did your father do for a living? I keep fairly good track of things. But I am keeping fairly good track of 27, drawings at the moment. Where did you go to school? My high school was DeWitt Clinton, which was an all-boys school I understand is coed now.
I grew up on the Moshulu Parkway and walked to school. Then I went to City College. I started as a business major and took a lot of liberal arts courses. I basically took a lot of art and history courses, I just wanted to get the hell out of there.
When did you go into the army? I got drafted in and spent two years in Germany. They published pin-ups, murders, the usual trash, and they saw I had a weekly cartoon in something called the Headquarters Area Command Post.
I was a Private First Class but I was making more money than a Major, which pissed off my company commander. Were those your first published cartoons? It was a very scholarly looking guy being interrogated by the police.
He's saying, "It all began when my Phi Beta Kappa key fit into the bank vault. What are the first cartoons you remember seeing that blew your young mind? Probably everything in The Saturday Evening Post. But still to this day, most of the time when I initially look at a magazine I look at it from the back to the front, except for The New Yorker. Because all the cartoons were in the back of The Saturday Evening Post. When did you become a full-time cartoonist?
I drew on the desk with crayon and ink in first grade. Levy, sent me home with a note. My mother had to come to school with Kirkman soap and we had to scour the desk. But when I got out of the army I was screwed up in the head.
I bummed around for a little bit trying to get some stuff going. Was it like Catch? Not from the army; I had pressure from my family. What are you doing? And so I got an accounting job. I think I lasted six months and then my father needed me for tax season. My wife and I saved up enough money and got married. And she said, "You gotta give it a shot, a real serious shot. How did you go about getting established as a cartoonist? We'd saved up enough money to live for a year without making a sale.
She was working for the New York State Department of Labor, getting people jobs, and she wanted to be a writer. We decided that my market was in Europe, since I'd already been published there.