The ‘upbeat book’ we all need right now

Donald Liebenson

THE WASHINGTON POST – Steve Martin, 75, falls under the heading of “needs no introduction”.

He is an actor, an art collector and an author, and those are only the A’s. So when in the course of a party he shared with Francoise Mouly, art and cover editor for the New Yorker, that he had ideas for one-panel cartoons, and asked for recommendations for an artist with whom he could collaborate, without hesitation, she suggested one of the magazine’s standout staff cartoonists, Harry Bliss.

Like Martin, Bliss, 56, stays busy: In addition to his New Yorker gig, he is the creator of an eponymous syndicated comic and a bestselling children’s book illustrator, perhaps best known for the Bug Diaries series.

“I know Steve,” Mouly said in a phone interview, “and he is very thoughtful about what he does. Harry came to mind because he has the same intellectual honesty and generosity of spirit as Steve. I thought they would be a good match. When I mentioned Harry, he said that he loved Harry’s work. I thought, ‘That is a good start.’”

A Wealth of Pigeons, a collection of more than 130 cartoons at once surreal, silly, satirical and, at times, oddly moving, bears the initial fruits of their collaboration. (They are also working on a narrative project.) In one cartoon, a detective in an interrogation room commands the perp, “Tell us again – a little less graphic,” as his shocked-looking colleagues retch. In another, a couple considers whether to “encourage or discourage” their toddler, who is depicted juggling while riding a unicycle.

In cartooning, as in comedy, timing is everything. The cartoons were created and released during the pandemic. “It is delightful to see this good match come to something so pleasurable,” Mouly said, “and pleasure is something we can use these days.”

In a joint conference call with Bliss and Martin, Martin said, “I’m feeling good; it is an upbeat book.”

Q: Steve, you were familiar with Harry’s work before Francoise recommended him. What is it about his cartoons that resonate with you?

Martin: His drawing style is very identifiable; it’s very clear drawing. The first cartoon idea I sent him was the one that’s early in the book of the dog begging on the street corner, and his sign says, “I have no thumbs.”

Q: Harry, what was your introduction to Steve? The movies? Saturday Night Live?

Martin: It was cartooning. He had never heard of me. (Harry laughs).

Bliss: Steve is not far off there. I learned a lot about him and learned to appreciate qualities about him that I never knew. Growing up, yeah, he was the “Wild and Crazy Guy” from those SNL sketches with Dan Aykroyd, and, of course The Jerk appealed to my sense of humour as a young person. I loved it, and I still love it.

Q: Steve, I came across a quote attributed to Kurt Vonnegut: “Practice any art, not to get money and fame, but to … make your soul grow.” With all of your creative outlets, is that mindset what inspired you to branch out into writing cartoons?

Martin: I wish I could say yes; that is a great quote. [I would say] there is a little bit of an element of ego. I always envied cartoonists and could not figure out how they did it. I told Harry the hardest cartoons to make are when he’ll send me a drawing of a guy and a dog walking down a street. There is no indication of where it is headed; it can go in any direction. I wanted to see if I could do it. I wasn’t just going out on a whim. I had contributed to a friend’s cartoons and I liked it. You get a little confidence if you get one or two that are good. Once it starts, it’s on. You are now committed.

Q: Writing and cartooning are solitary endeavours. How did your collaboration develop?

Martin: We just hit it off. I am just guessing that Harry was probably more forgiving at first trying not to hurt my feelings. It should be noted we work in retrograde and forward motion; sometimes I’ll send him an idea, and sometimes he’ll send me a drawing. And if Harry sends me a drawing, then I could tell it was a drawing he really loved  to do.

Bliss: We have similar tastes in art. He is a collector, and we both love Winslow Homer. One of my favourite drawings in the book is the lobster fisherman in the boat with the woman, and she says, “It has been three dates. Time for some action.” That was an example of me wanting to, in my own way, replicate Winslow Homer. I had no idea what the caption would be. I just wanted to do that drawing. And when Steve sent back that caption, just the incongruity of the frankness of her response killed me. The word “action” just kills me.

Q: Cartoonists do not have the luxury stand-up comedians have of honing a bit in front of an audience. One of the cartoons in the book shows Steve trying out a cartoon on his wife, his young daughter and, finally, his cat. How do you two know a cartoon is ready to go out into the world?

Martin: This is a medium where there is barely feedback. For the first time in my life, I am going with, “Well, I think it is funny.” Because when I do stand-up and I think it is funny and the audience doesn’t, it is out the next day. In a strange way, this is more fun, because you just kind of believe in it. Some days I go back to cartoons we have written, and I go, “I do not get it anymore,” and some of them grow in their humour.

Bliss: Every Sunday is my syndicate deadline, so I have to come up with six cartoons, which is not a big deal, because outside of raking the leaves and piling firewood, there is not much else I do. I think it is instinctual. If something makes me laugh and then I send it to Steve and we both think it is funny, it is a go.

Q: There is one that mentions Game of Thrones, but it is rare your cartoons reference popular culture. Was this a conscious decision?

Martin: I do not like (making topical references), because it provokes unwarranted responses. Sometimes you make an innocuous reference, but if someone has an opinion about that independent of the joke, they get offended, and it starts the ball rolling. I see that on Twitter. Suddenly, you are way off base of what you set out to do. I just generally find it easier if I avoid it. I also think of it as a reprieve for the reader.

Bliss: I totally agree. I listen to the news, but it is too much to bring into my work. It is not fun.