Max: First of all, let me just say I’m gazing at your New Yorker cover and I wanted to congratulate you. I think that’s fantastic.
Harry Bliss (HB): Thank you. I was happy with the way that came out.
Max: Yeah, it’s gorgeous. We were trying to figure out the media, it look like a mix of…
HB: It’s all watercolor. I’ve been working with watercolor since I was 12, I think. I was in the City about three years ago. I was taking classes. There was a three-year period where I’d go into Manhattan and take classes at the Art Students League—life drawing classes. I’d spend a month in Spanish Harlem. I’d photographed the Flatiron [Building] many times over the years.
Max: We’ve seen some of your videos and you don’t seem terribly self-conscious.
HB: [Laughter] I’m an idiot. I’ve gotten some shit from my agent and a couple publishers in the past about irreverent material that I’ve put out there, but most of it’s on Facebook. Shel Silverstein, I got nuttin’ on him.
Simon: You’re from an artistic family. Did that make it any easier for you to decide to become a professional cartoonist?
HB: Yeah, absolutely, without question. Being in a house where that was the go-to thing to do— sort of an escape from whatever dysfunction was going on, not just in the house, but in the world, which was the ‘70s. I used to draw my dad, and we used to go over to my uncle’s house. My two cousins are both illustrators, so there must be at least nine or ten who all went to art school and make a living as artists to this day.
Max: I kiddingly say I was paper trained on The New Yorker. Where I grew up, in the living room was the coffee table stacked with New Yorkers right next to an overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts.
HB: [Laughter] That sounds glorious. My mom’s been a subscriber since she was 17.
Max: Oh, really?
HB: She grew up in California, and my parents met at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art in the ‘50s. Yeah, we got The New Yorker every week. At a certain point in the ‘90s I was illustrating book covers – that’s pretty much what I did after art school. So I would get these manuscripts and I had a nice little niche going. I would take the manuscript to the local bar and I would sit there and sip my wine or beer and would read this manuscript and make sketches. I recall back when I was a kid – I used to love Charles Addams so much—and I’d forgotten after all those years of studying kind of an academic tradition in art school – I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts – I had this kind of epiphany where I was like, man, Charles Addams, he had this kind of classical style of beautiful washes, and the drawing was really great, and the gags were great. So, yeah, it all flooded back to me, and that’s when I initially thought I’d send stuff to The New Yorker. It’s funny, it goes back to The New Yorkers stacked up in the house.
Simon: You make a distinction between fine art—and even illustration art—and cartoon art. How do you distinguish those?
HB: Now I look at cartooning as a higher art form.
Max: You’re turning the world upside down there, Harry!
HB: Yeah, I see illustration as kind of a step down in some ways. I can appreciate a good picture—you know, nicely drawn and a nice composition—but there are a lot of people who can do that. But there aren’t a lot of people whose brains work in a specific way where they can comment in a very unique way about how they see the world. I think it’s a very difficult thing to do, whereas developing a style and learning your chops in terms of working with watercolor or oil or whatever you use. I think it’s not quite as elevated, for me. That’s just me.
Max: Recently, one of my favorites was “You’re not a police dog, and this is not a crime scene.”
HB: Oh, yeah, often the drawing will come, and then the caption. I’ll look at the drawing and the caption will come from that. I tell people I’ll imagine a narrative that led up to the drawing and that continues after the fact, so you develop a backstory based on that drawing. However, that Crime Scene drawing was a Larry Wood caption. Mankoff paired me with Larry last year and he’s a Caption Contest master!
Simon: That’s a very interesting approach because cartoonists that come at it from an art angle, rather than from a gag-writing angle, will start with an image and think of the gag after the image, in some sense. Do you think that’s true for you?
HB: It is, it is true. In fact, one that I did—The New Yorker ran it–had a dog tied up in a house and the guy–-his owner—comes home and the house is a wreck, clearly thieves have broken into the house. And [the dog] looks back at his owner and says, “Artie, they took my bowl!”
“You can will figure out who I am through my cartoons.”
Simon: And you can imagine other gags that are probably suitable on some level, maybe not as good, for that very image – don’t you think?
HB: Yeah, yeah, it really is a personal thing. I’m not crazy about gags that feel like a gag. I don’t know how to explain that. Sometimes it feels too much like a gag and I won’t go with it. I work with caption writers sometimes, too. There’s a great comedian – his name’s Craig Baldo – he’s been writing some great captions for me. I met him years ago – he used to do Stephen Colbert; he would warm-up the crowd. He was also on Conan O’Brien. I said to him, “You want to write some captions?” My wife writes captions sometimes. She’s sold a bunch of cartoons. Well, she’s the one who said to use [the name] Artie in that gag. It’s the collaboration for me when I get with certain personalities [and] like-minded people. It’s very unique to surround yourself with these people who kind of think like you… And there’s only like four of them, like four people that I know.
HB: I still feel a good drawing’s nice, but I don’t care if the drawing is shitty, I really don’t. I mean, a shitty gag and a shitty drawing, that’s a problem, but if it’s a good idea that makes me laugh, I really don’t care that much. I think Mankoff is right—it’s really the think and not the ink. I think he hit on something. Some of The New Yorker cartoonists, some of the old-timer guys I know, they don’t really subscribe to that way of thinking, but I do. If you have a clever idea, I can overlook shoddy drawing very easily. It’s not a problem for me at all.
Simon: Yeah, but you take enormous care in your own drawings, right?
HB: I do. I can’t help it. At this point, that’s just the way I do it. You look at a Sipress drawing or somebody like Bruce Eric Kaplan—he’s gaggier and his drawing is great, and it’s so stylistic.
Simon: You mentioned putting the cartoon together as expressing maybe your world view. Do you consciously have a world view? Do you express your world through your cartoons?
HB: You can will figure out who I am through my cartoons. It’s almost like Charles Schulz. If you want to get to know Schulz, just read Peanuts. I’m taking a class at Dartmouth right now, and it all informs my gags. There was one on God, the philosophy of religion, and there was another class on the literature of the gulag, and another class on Max Weber, so all this stuff. If you’re curious about the world, you find yourself soaking shit up and you have mirth in your DNA, that’s it, you can’t help it. This stuff is going to find its way onto paper. Given my background and my family, there’s no alternative.
Max: When you go into my library, the first thing you see is “Look alive, Proust, you’re up next.”
HB: That one is very autobiographical. When they bought that one, I was really happy. That’s my fireplace and that’s literally my space.
Simon: Yes, it really struck us as being authentic
HB: That makes me happy to hear – great to know that was communicated.
Simon: That leads to a question I have, which is what satisfaction you get out of drawing a cartoon, and maybe a separate question of having a cartoon accepted for publication at The New Yorker.
“[Getting published in The New Yorker] is a fantastic high. I guess it means in some ways I’m communicating with people through my mind and my ability to make pictures.”
HB: Part of it at this point is, you know, it’s a gig. Jack Ziegler was one of my all-time favorite cartoonists. I knew Jack fairly well, and Jack talked about his process, of how he wakes up in the morning and he just kind of zones out and reads for a few hours. And that’s pretty much what I do every day. I get up at 6:30-7:00, and I read and write for about four hours, so I actually get out of bed at like 11:00. I’ll get my coffee, I’ll read and write, so when some idea or some thought that comes to me in that process in those four hours ends up in The New Yorker or ends up in syndication, it feels great. It’s a fantastic high. I don’t know what it means. I guess it means in some ways I’m communicating with people through my mind and my ability to make pictures, but it’s fantastic.
Simon: Do you feel the pressure to produce now that you’re syndicated?
HB: Yeah, just before you called I was going to work tonight and I’m not now. It’s too late. I decided to read instead, so I had a glass of wine and started to eat some cheese, so, you know, I’ll get up tomorrow. I know I can knock out three gags tomorrow. I have a class tomorrow, but I know I can knock out three. I have a system down now where I get my cartoons to The New Yorker on Tuesday night, and the syndicate cartoons I have to get to my editor by Friday morning.
Simon: And which ones do you decide to send to The New Yorker and which to your syndicate?
HB: I send everything to The New Yorker first because I’m contracted with them, so they have first right of refusal and anything left over goes to syndication.
Simon: And you send 10 a week to The New Yorker?
HB: I try. I sent nine this week. I try to send 10, but it’s tough because what I send to The New Yorker are finishes.
HB: Yeah, because I know those finishes will end up in syndication, unless it’s too irreverent, which happens quite a bit actually. I have so many that would completely destroy my children’s book career. [Laughter.]
Simon: And you couldn’t do it under a pseudonym because everyone would recognize your style.
HB: Yeah, it’s not going to work. Well, I did cartoons for Playboy for a while, too, for about a decade. I worked with Michelle Urry [former Cartoon Editor at Playboy], who I loved dearly. In fact, I’ve been corresponding with a British cartoonist named Clyde Collins, and he used to do work for Playboy. I got in touch with him only because I was listening to Phil Collins’ memoir, and he mentioned his brother is a cartoonist. I looked him up and he draws really well. It’s kind of a traditional, Playboy full-page, color style. I didn’t mention what a Genesis geek I am.
Max: So you slowly climbed the ladder of respectability.
HB: You guys know there are so few venues around these days. It’s tough.
“I don’t get [The New Yorker], so I don’t know when my stuff is in the magazine.”
Max: When you publish something that you’re very happy about in The New Yorker, what kind of waves of adulation do you get? Are people showing up on your doorstep, or throwing clothing at you?
HB: Nah, I post up on Twitter or Facebook. It’s great self-promotion. But I don’t get the magazine, so I don’t know when my stuff is in the magazine.
Simon: [Laughter] They should at least give you a free subscription.
Max: Harry, I’ve got to renew my subscription soon, so if you send me your address, I’ll send you a gift subscription.
HB: [Laughter] Here’s the problem: they just stack up, man. I have so much to read already. About two years ago I started buying the vintage Modern Library editions, so I have maybe 80 or 100 books. So the older I get—I’m 53—I think I have to get through these books before I die. [Laughter] I don’t need New Yorkers, man. I know it’s great writing; it’s just too much. I do like The New York Review of Books. I read that pretty regularly, which I enjoy.
Simon: Getting back to The New Yorker, have you communicated much with Bob Mankoff over the years?
HB: Yeah. Bob became the Cartoon Editor when I first started in 1997 or ’98 when I started off as a cover artist. I now live in New Hampshire, so I’d try to see Bob when I’d go into Manhattan. We’ve had our disagreements over the years, but I’ve taken a liking to Bob over the past five or six years. He’s really been generous with me. If I had questions about humor or the psychology of humor – which I often do – we’ll sit down for half an hour. He’s really honest with me, and it’s been helpful.
Simon: I might add he emailed us via the Cartoon Companion saying it’s “wonderful”.
HB: I’ve watched him kind of morph. He turned out to be a good egg. I have tremendous respect for that guy. I can’t even imagine how difficult that job is. It’s just unbelievably challenging.
Max: A thousand cartoons a week.
HB: It’s nice to know he’s going to get back to drawing cartoons. Bob gave me a great piece of advice once. He said, “Cartooning can’t be taught, but it can be learned.”
“You get to the point in your life as a cartoonist where your gag becomes specific because they’re about you and reflect how you look at the world. That’s a key moment in the life of any cartoonist.”
Simon: Are there some active cartoonists that you really admire?
HB: Yeah yeah. I like Tom Toro’s stuff. He’s funny. I like Farley Katz’s stuff. Zach Kanin’s stuff is pretty funny. I gotta be honest, it’s pretty rare I laugh out loud. We’re so fuckin’ jaded, man, it’s hard to make me laugh. Jack Ziegler’s stuff would always make me laugh. Leo Cullum, he was great. And Danny Shanahan, I like his stuff quite a bit. Anybody’s whose gags are really specific. And that’s another piece of advice that Bob gave, which took me years to get. He kept telling me my gags were too broad, they weren’t specific enough. And I kept thinking to myself, fuck, man, your your advice is too broad. [Laughter] And then I realize he’s right. A good example would be like that gag, “Hey, Artie, they took my bowl”.
Max: I was just thinking of that. “Artie” made it specific.
HB: Yeah, and the setup, too—and the Proust one. I think that you get to the point in your life as a cartoonist where your gag becomes specific because they’re about you and reflect how you look at the world. That’s a key moment in the life of any cartoonist. It’s almost like you’re free. It doesn’t matter if you style the gag or not. It’s just you’re at a point in your career where you’re able to make yourself laugh, and not [whether] one of those 10 gags that you send to The New Yorker is going to make them laugh, and that’s great because that’s ultimately what you want to do. It’s not easy.
Part 2 of this interview in next week’s Cartoon Companion.