1-on-1 with Harry Bliss, cartoonist who collaborated with Steve Martin on new book, ‘A Wealth of Pigeons’

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ROCHESTER, N.Y (WROC) — Harry Bliss may be in New Hampshire now, but he was born and raised in Henrietta. The veteran cartoonist — who’s work sometimes has a dark twist — has worked for The New Yorker, with dozens of cartoons published.

But his latest venture is a book called “A Wealth of Pigeons.” It was born out of a very fruitful collaboration with the iconic comedian, writer, and banjoist, Steve Martin. The collection of cartoons by Bliss and Martin, was released just less than a month ago, and it’s already a top seller.

Here’s our 1-on-1 conversation.

When you were a kid growing up in the Rochester area, what was your, did your home environment sort of cultivate your artistic side? And what were some of those like early influences that can you remember that sort of sparked your career?

Yeah, there were many, but both of my parents met in art school. There they were artists and to a certain extent still are. My siblings are all artists. I have two cousins who are illustrators and my uncle was in, was an illustrator, and painters. So the Bliss family was really involved in the art scene in Rochester.

And so I always joked that I had done my first drawing in utero, little drawing, But that’s not really true.

The Memorial Art gallery of Rochester had a massive influence on me. And every time I go back to Rochester, I check out that museum. I’ve been all over the world and it’s a smallish museum, but it’s pretty sublime. I love that collection, but yeah, comics and, and my family were very influential growing up.

Comics; they’re all the rage now, or at least the comic book heroes are and the movies are, but I suspect when you were growing up, that was, it was much more of the counterculture thing, which is kind of how they started originally. So what, what comic books and what comic book artists inspired you?

I didn’t get into counterculture comics until, you know, in my thirties. I collected the worst comics, like the comics that aren’t worth anything today. They’re still great. I collected like Marvel, you know, ‘Werewolf by Night” and “The Tomb of Dracula,” and MAD Magazine. I loved MAD and that had a very big influence on me as well.

We would go up to the Dome Arena in Henrietta… They would have like a flea market on Sundays and there was this guy Mark… And he’s all, they’re all smoking cigarettes. and there are boxes of comics, and me and my brother Charlie would go up there, and peruse all the, all the books and look for some deals. So it’s yeah, big impact.

Plus there was 7-11 up by JMC Sperry high school. They had the Marvel superhero Slurpee cups, and I would religiously go and get those. I was getting them on my banana seat bicycle. I loved it.

What is different about doing these sort of comical panels that you’re known for that you’ve done so many for so many great publications, what’s different about them and what’s challenging and rewarding about them for you?

For me comic cartoon gag panels, for me personally, it’s more about a narrative mirth. So it’s more about dropping into something. I’ve said this before, but in most cases, when I draw a panel, I want the reader to feel as though that they’re dropping into some narrative that has already been taking place and that narrative continues beyond the panel.

If I think of these drawings, whether it’s two people out to dinner or, a man talking to his dog, I have to then imagine the narrative. And then that informs caption. Now, within that caption, there has to be some social universal commentary on the human condition. Maybe it appeals to dog owners.

But that’s different in a in sequential comics and graphic novels because it’s a long narrative, and you have many, many panels in which to tell a story over a period of time. And you also have the space between the panels, which people don’t really talk about that white space that happens. That’s where your imagination lies.

We give you this panel and this panel, but that white space things happen in the, in that place. And that’s very important distinction between a single panel, gag cartoons and sequential comics.

How on earth did you meet Steve Martin? How did this whole thing happen?

Well, it happened because my, uh, my editor at The New Yorker, who I’ve worked with for many years, for 20 years now. I was having dinner with him and his wife, and my editor mentioned that Steve had some cartoon gag ideas that he and his wife had one, two in particular that, that made it in the book.

He was curious about someone who he could work with, and the name “Harry Bliss” came up. And he turns out Steve really is a fan of my work, which is very flattering. Um, so shortly thereafter, um, you know, my editor connected us via email and we were off and running, man.

I mean, it just, you know, a lot of the stuff that is in the book, some of those sequential narratives, those comic strips that are kind of peppered throughout the book explain, fairly faithfully, how the relationship developed. I mean, some of it is humorous and we make things up just for fun.

Steve will email me every day. I mean, we, if there’s two or three days to go by, it’s pretty rare that we’re not in touch with each other. I’m going to working on the second book now, too, which is pretty cool.

So when did you first really connect with them and then how long did it take to get the book going?

We were doing initially we were just doing syndicate cartoons. So he just was doing it for fun. All we just wanted to do it, if it wasn’t fun, we weren’t going to do it. It was one of those things… I wasn’t sure because I love Steve Martin and I grew up with his humor, and I he’s brilliant. I mean, he he’s morphed he’s, he’s a brilliant mind.

That didn’t necessarily mean to me that he would have what it takes to write cartoons. It’s a specific type of humor, but as it turned out he was pretty good. And he was he was very persistent, which I really admired kind of his tenacity and all this. And he hit, he would end it.

Steve Martin’s humor, some of the cartoons that he would suggest or write up for me to draw were very unique and they were the type of cartoons.

Many of them were in the book that I would have never thought of. So that type of collaboration appeals to me very much. And the fact I had to remove the fact that it was Steve Martin… Because sometimes I’d read a caption and I’d read it and Steve’s voice and I’m like, “Oh, that’s really funny.” And then I’d have to say, “wait a minute… is it funny because you’re reading it and Steve Martin’s voice or is it a funny cartoon?” So that was a tiny kind of a hurdle I had to navigate through.

You can watch him talk about “A Wealth of Pigeons” here:

You talked about some of the traits that you thought were, you know, that you might’ve surprised about it are you he’s a better comic writer than you would’ve thought, but what’s something that has sort of surprised you or learned, or you gained a better appreciation for now that you’ve worked with like Steve Martin, the personal bit more, not Steve not seeing Steve Martin, the character.

Well, first off he’s just a nice person. Imean that’s the big takeaway for me is I just, I really liked him as a human being. I also learned that the things that I’ve learned about Steve is that he’s super generous. He can be very modest and, he’s a hell of an art collector. He has a fantastic art collection.

So we’re able to talk about art in a way, in a pretty in-depth way. And he has certain visual instincts into my cartoons. Like he’ll mention Winslow Homer, or he’ll say this particular drawing reminds him of some obscure German landscape painter. And that’s very rare. And so we have a connection on that.

I would say overall it I’ve just, you know, I’ve learned that, um, it’s, it’s interesting because people, you know, think of Steve and they think of Steve Martin, SNL and “The Jerk” and you know, his movies, but he’s actually a great writer.

I mean, people don’t realize what a terrific writer he is. I just read four of his plays and you know, a book of his plays. They’re just great. I didn’t know. I mean, I was, I grew up on all (his stuff), the 70s stuff, and he’s been on the tonight show like 77 times.

The first and most important thing for me is that he’s just a nice guy. He’s a good, he’s a great collaborator. He’s great to work with. Very modest.

Besides the fruitful collaborative part of this, what is something you want someone to take away from “A Wealth of Pigeons?”

They’re actually toward the end, there was, it was a respite, it was a respite from 2020. A lot of my humor that ends up on Instagram — and some of the stuff in The New Yorker — is pretty sardonic and can get pretty dark. And we wanted this book to steer a little bit away from that because we felt like we wanted the book to be a family book. We wanted it to appeal to their kids.

There are cartoons in the book that appealed to 10 year olds that are just silly and funny. I mean, we wanted it to be a book that gets passed around from husband to wife, to sister, to brother to, you know, the whole family. That’s really it. Well, hopefully they laugh.

Here’s the Big Three. Sort of growing up in Rochester, only moving around, but what’s something about Rochester, your hometown that made it such a great place for you and other artists to do original art to thrive?

It was the art scene is pretty strong and the music scene’s there too. But for me, it was the Henrietta Public Library. It was the real Memorial Art Gallery… McQuaid Jesuit, I spent a year there.

But yeah, MAG was huge for me.

Next one. If you could accomplish one thing and have that be like your crowning achievement, what would it be?

I want to be an old man and I want to, I want to be as empathetic as I possibly can. I want to keep drawing and making art. And, and I have this fellowship program that I started in Cornish, New Hampshire. I started that in 2016, in conjunction with the Center for Cartoon Studies. So each year we, we give an award to a graphic novelist, and they apply from all over the country. So that’s something I’m really proud of. I want to continue that.

I want to continue to use any success that I have to empower and, financially reward the best up and coming graphic sort storytellers out there, and maybe have a museum someday of comic art. That would be, that would be nice. That’d be cool.

I think empathy is always a good goal that all of us should go towards, especially in a very cynical age. Finally, one more, if you have any advice for aspiring artists, what would it be?

Well, the one thing you have to do, and Neil Gaiman said this is you have to live a long life. I mean, you have to experience things and you have to move about, you have to have your heart broken. You have to you have to get in trouble. Then you have to draw from life.

I met Andrew Wyeth. Uh, once I spent two hours with him, and I talked to him and we both kind of had this, we both agree that drawing is, is essential. It’s a way for artists to understand the world they live in. And you don’t necessarily have to draw in the end. You could work on a computer, but the, I think this hand thing, this brain to hand onto paper thing, and then looking and taking it in and taking it through you. It’s a spiritual journey, man.

And I really think it’s honestly, it’s not something just artists should do. Everybody should do it. I really believe it. It’s a meditation and I can’t say that strongly enough, if you want to be an artist — actually — if you want to be a good artist, you should be drawing every single day, every day.

Watch the full interview here:

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