Continued from part 1 of Harry Bliss interview:
Max: Are there cartoonists you like for their style?
Harry Bliss (HB): Joe Dator’s stye has real personality. It just looks great.
Max: Joe said in one of his interviews, like you, he does the drawing first and then comes up with the gag.
HB: Interesting!. Does he have an idea in mind or does he just do the backstory?
Max: There was a video online that showed him going to some delicatessen in Queens with his pad of paper. He said he gets the best results when he sort of clears his mind and let his hand draw. It’s more or less the way you described your process.
Simon: I think Matt Diffee does the same thing.
HB: I can see Matt doing that. He’s more of a “drawer” guy. Ed Koren told me about eight or nine years ago—Ed’s a Vermonter, a good buddy of mine—he said, “You know what? Just draw man. Just sit down and draw.” And I did that. That’s really an excellent piece of advice. And William Steig used to do that, too. He loved to see where the pen would take him. That’s something I found really interesting, finding out where that flowing black ink will lead you. I’m pretty critical of cartoonists who go for that washy, traditional, illustrative kind of look.
Simon: Yes, you’re looking at the art and it’s distracting you from the humor.
HB: It’s tough because there’s a lot of rendering with my stuff, a lot of graphite, but the actual line work is really simple. I tend to like cartoons that are beautifully simple and have really simple line work. I’ve always liked Steig’s later stuff. For me, Jack Ziegler nailed it! Visually that stuff spoke to me.
“It is nice to get your cartoons accepted, but if you can get past that and just draw for yourself and just try not to give a shit … that’s how you have to be.”
Simon: One other question about The New Yorker: Can you ever guess which ones are going to be accepted?
HB: Yes. I’m pretty good at knowing which one they’re going to buy.
Simon: Whoa! You’re the first New Yorker cartoonist I’ve heard who’s said that.
HB: I think I know what they like. I know there are two gags in this week’s batch [of ten cartoons]; if they buy any of them, it’s going to be one of those two. When that happens, it feels great, because it feels like you know your audience.
Simon: Do you think that will change with the new Cartoon Editor, Emma Allen?
HB: I don’t know. I don’t think too much about it because David [Remnick, New Yorker editor-in-chief] sees the stuff as well. I hope not, I’m sure she knows everybody’s work. It’s funny, I talk to a lot of cartoonists and some of them get bummed out when they don’t sell. Then they try to draw for [getting published in] The New Yorker. It is nice to get your cartoons accepted, but if you can get past that and just draw for yourself and just try not to give a shit, which I know sounds arrogant, but that’s how you have to be. You just have to not fuckin’ care.
Max: There are some disaffected cartoonists that we are corresponding with. They’re bitter.
HB: Yeah, believe me, I hear it. I try to be encouraging. I feel really lucky because I grew up in a family of artists, so we didn’t give a shit about making money. My son’s graduated from college, my mortgage is fine, I live on next to nothing, so it’s not important to me at this point. There was a time where I went through hell with bitter, but you gotta get that out of your system. These guys who are bitter about not selling, it’s like, “Shut up, man! Then do something else. Find another job, try stand-up comedy.” You got to be able to deal with this rejection. And the bitterness these guys have? That’s good creative juice that you’re wasting!
Simon: You mentioned the covers you do for The New Yorker, like 20 or so?
HB: Maybe 20.
Simon: And you obviously work with a different editor for that, the Art Director I guess, right?
HB: Yes, Francoise Mouly.
Simon: I saw on one of your videos that everyone does them on spec. Is that right?
HB: Yes. Sometimes if there’s a news story breaking, they will send out a request for images. There’s also a calendar we get every year that tells us what the issues are—there’s a money issue, a fashion issue, etc.—so we have some idea of what to send, and of course there are the seasons. But yeah, the covers are all spec work.
Simon: Do you send a bunch of roughs every so often?
HB: Maybe eight or ten times a year I’ll throw something out there.
Max: What’s your hit rate?
HB: Oh, shit, the cover that was out last week [April 17, 2017] was three years old.
HB: I did that cover when I was in Manhattan taking life drawing classes at the Art Students League. I do that every year to keep my chops up. It was in the winter when I did that cover – they requested it overnight. I literally did it in one day in that little studio apartment and delivered it the next day. Then they sat on it for three years!
Max: Three years! That’s the most extreme case of hurry-up-and-wait I’ve heard!
HB: [Laughter] When I finished the cover, I was really happy with it. Covers are a whole different deal; a different editor, David [Remnick] weighs in – he has final word.
“Cartooning for me, that is my art. It’s as highbrow as you can get. Being a great cartoonist is the tops.”
Simon: You have the cartoons and the cover art. Do you do any art for yourself or what you might call fine, art for galleries, or any interest in doing that?
HB: No, it’s a good question because I’ve always wondered about that. I keep a journal on moleskines that are fully illustrated. That’s something I just do for me. But my art is my cartoons. That’s it. Who has time for that [other] shit? [Laughter] Plus, you see a sunset, you see a landscape—you can’t capture that. And what’s the point? Think in terms of art history, of all the magnificent landscapes that have been done by tremendous painters— why bother?
Simon: [Laughter] Can you top this?
HB: Cartooning for me, that is my art. I take it very seriously. It’s highbrow, it’s Daumier, it’s as highbrow as you can get in my mind. Being a great cartoonist is the tops.
Simon: We were looking at some of your videos where you’re up doing presentations with kids, and you do stuff in schools. Tell us what you get out of it.
HB: I love doing that. I love going to schools and hanging out with kids. First of all, they’re hilarious. I kind of study them in a way, and at the same time, I’m trying to make them laugh. I play a game with these kids where they do a scribble and I turn the scribble into something. We do that in presentation style where there’s maybe 50 and sometimes up to 300 kids in an auditorium. I was talking to this neurologist in Vermont here at the University of Vermont about different lobes of the brain that are being fired up with that activity. Some kids will come up and will be very intimidated and shy by the white surface of the paper. The challenge in getting that kid break through to not be intimidated—when that happens and just seeing their reaction and see them smile and feel that sense of accomplishment when they walk away—you can’t beat that. It’s great. It’s super rewarding.
Simon: Do you get some some funny questions from the kids in the question-and-answer session?
HB: Oh yeah. One kid said—no shit—he said, “Why don’t you talk more about your wife?” [Laughter]
Simon: Kids are great.
HB: I did a Ken Burns cartoon, and he got in touch with me and sent a case of wine. It’s one of the perks of this business, you’ll do a cartoon and if you use Ken Burns’ name he’ll get in touch with you – and you’re like, what? It’s the second time that’s happened, and it’s not intentional—you would think it would be—but the first time he sent me his entire collection of DVDs, which is awesome.
Simon: I’m getting right to work on my Ken Burns cartoon.
HB: If you guys are ever up here, I’ll take you to the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River. I’ll show you the school and you can catch Lyme disease, lotta ticks up here. I like what you guys are doing and like the ratings. It’s a good idea.