Sam Gross, New York cartoonist

by Tim Soter

Recently I was at a lecture at the New York Comic & Picture Symposium at The New School – small gathering, fifteen attendees at most. Waiting for it to begin I eavesdropped on a conversation near me, hearing a man introduce himself as Sam Gross. That name sounded familiar. A quick Google image search brought up a seminal cartoon from my 70s childhood, a truly tasteless cartoon as they were often referred to, featuring a legless frog in a restaurant.

This was the guy who drew that!? Scrolling down through the other cartoons, I got even more excited. I approached him and introduced myself, asking him if he had ever worked with Mad magazine’s Harvey Kurtzman. “Oh yeah, I worked with Harvey at Esquire. Gloria Steinman was his secretary then.” He paused. “She was a real piece of ass.”

Sam Gross is a working New York based cartoonist, his cartoons have appeared in numerous magazines, including CosmopolitanEsquireGood HousekeepingHarvard Business Review and The New Yorker. He was cartoon editor for National Lampoon and Parents Magazine. He has had several books published of his work but perhaps the best title is “I Am Blind, and My Dog is Dead.”   The Comics Journal, in a wonderful interview with him says this, “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. 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. On the other side of the spectrum… 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.

A week after the lecture I reached out to someone who might have a contact for Sam.  I hadn’t thought to get it that night, too awe struck.  It took some persistence but I eventually got in touch with Sam and made an appointment to go meet him at his studio where he works on Wednesday, the day of the week he dedicates to going in and cartooning.

He needed a “headshot” for a book jacket and I was happy for an excuse to come talk and ask a bunch of questions. He kept insisting that he pay me, though I didn’t want payment. I’m not sure who suggested a trade.

While in the studio, an actual studio apartment on the Upper East Side I tired to “stare in” all of the information I could. So many book spines and ephemera, I wanted a day in there just to browse. I asked Sam about the binders. Black binders numbered on the side, i.e. “21,601 to 28,000.” He pulled one down and opened it and inside with pages of original drawings, all three-hole punched, each unique.

“I have over thirty thousand original cartoons in those binders.”

The studio was like being inside a cartoonist’s brain. Credit for his organizational skills has been attributed to his upbringing by his father, a CPA.

We talked some more, I asked more questions some about specific cartoons I had remembered.

Then it came time for him to pick out a cartoon, a preliminary drawing as my payment. “I like your cat cartoons. And the really weird stuff.” He took about fifteen minutes and came back with two, specially chosen for me.

I looked at them both, but the choice was clear. The abstract take on the start of human life. I could not have picked out a better one, glad he had this one in mind for me. And as far as being a preliminary sketch, this looked pretty finished to me, drawn on nice archival paper as well. Money wouldn’t have made me anywhere near as excited as this wonderful barter.

Some other Sam Gross gems…