Humor in ink: an interview with cartoonist Harry Bliss

Harry Bliss is a cartoonist and illustrator from New York. He has illustrated book covers for writers such as Lawrence Block, Dorothy Uhnak, Bob Dole and Fiona Buckley. He has also illustrated children’s books, including “A Fine, Fine School” by Sharon Creech, and more recently, “Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken” by Kate DiCamillo. His own book of cartoons, “Death by Laughter,” came out just this year. Harry Bliss works for The New Yorker magazine as a cartoonist and lives in South Burlington. Vermont Cynic: Why were you drawn to illustration as opposed to other art forms? Harry Bliss: Both of my parents were artists, and I had two or three uncles who were artists, so art was in the house when I was growing up. There was this pressure to understand art and be familiar with it. As for me, I loved the control I had as an artist. It’s a huge freedom. Growing up in a lower-class suburb in Rochester, N.Y. that control was a great thing to have.Who influenced you as an artist when you first started to pursue art as a possible career?Comic books were a big influence on me. I was a comic book geek. I also loved the impressionists and post-impressionists. At 13 or so, I was obsessed with post-impressionists, like Picasso. Who are your favorite artists now? What about your favorite humorists or comedians? There are so many. Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth, both American artists, are two favorites. Wyeth is very deep. People mistake his paintings for being nostalgic, but they’re not. They’re very emotional. I can stand in front of a Wyeth painting for such a long time, just staring at it. There are very few artists who can generate such emotion in me. Also, Balthus. As for comedians, I love Larry David and Christopher Guest. “The Office” is brilliant. One of the best shows I think I’ve ever seen. Tragically hilarious. I feel like that’s the kind of humor I strive for. I’m addicted to “Dexter” too. “The Daily Show” is great, and Stephen Colbert. Have you seen “Strangers with Candy”? Stephen Colbert was on that with Amy Sedaris and it’s hilarious. This next one may sound strange, but I’m always interested in how artists answer this question: Would you say that, as an illustrator and cartoonist, you are a success?Yeah … yeah, definitely. I’m probably more of a success in my own head than I am in the world. Everything else I’m pretty modest about, but I have a big ego about my work. There are other great artists out there, for sure, but when I see their work I don’t get jealous so much as excited. How did you go about creating a career for yourself as an illustrator? It’s extremely difficult. I can tell you that you have to be ridiculously disciplined. The percentage of my art students who went on to have careers in their chosen field was about 10 percent. However, I think now is a good time to be an artist because there is just more work now in the visual arts, especially for photographers and graphic artists. Video games provide so many jobs for artists. Thousands and thousands of people work on a game, and it takes about five years to make. Can you compare illustrating children’s books to drawing cartoons?Drawing cartoons is way more fun. Kids’ books are really hard. It takes me around nine months to create a children’s book. “Louise” was some of the best painting I ever did in my life. It’s so time-consuming, whereas with a cartoon I can sit for a couple of hours and make some cartoons. Cartoons are just easier for me than kids’ books.What about cover art? How much freedom are you given in the creation of cover art?I have complete freedom. I actually just finished a cover that I’m hoping will run. I don’t usually know if my cover will run until the day before. The New Yorker will pay me for it if it does, but sometimes it doesn’t. My editor really liked the sketch this time, though. I mean, it’s pretty rare that she would reply with “NICE” in all capital letters, so that’s a good sign. The thing is, I really wasn’t doing anything. I was just doing something I thought I would love to do. That was the first cover I’ve done in a long time since I started on “Louise.” It’s a pretty organic process. What are some of your sources for humor?My son’s a pretty good source. He’s funny. My girlfriend’s outstanding, plus she has really funny friends. She actually sold a cartoon about teaching yoga to The New Yorker recently. A lot of times real life will inspire humor, and often I’ll just sit down and draw, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a lot of fun that way. I like to imagine a whole narrative around each drawing, and that’ll inspire a caption. That’s just one way to approach it. How do you think something is made humorous?It’s all subjective. Each person comes with their own idea of humor. For me there has to be an element of humanity in the humor. For example, there’s this scene in ” This is Spinal Tap” where this rock band gets lost behind the stage and it’s just so funny, but there’s a certain human quality in these characters because you can empathize with their stupidity and their flaws. I think we find humor in things we relate to on a visceral, deeper level. It has to be personal.You frequently use animals in your cartoons. Can you talk about why that is?I guess I get tired of people, and I love drawing dogs. Since I’ve had a dog I’ve become a real animal person. I really love animals. I do eat meat. I try not to, but I honestly don’t understand why we can’t eat people, too. If you’re going to eat one animal, like a cow or a pig, why not eat a dog or a cat or a person? I’ve just gotten really attached to my little dog. The way I think about it, it’s [the animal’s] habitat, too – we’re sharing it with them. Besides, [other] people really like dogs. I get e-mails about it all the time. I heard of this one woman who sends my dog cartoons to her son in Iraq. I thought that was great, just really nice. What direction do you think your career is heading in now? Any projects you’re undertaking?I just want to keep cartooning. I like the idea that somewhere I’m making someone laugh. I could do that forever. I want to help people more, and to leave less of a carbon footprint, although that may not be a career direction.I do have an idea for a kid’s book. It’s a good idea, I can’t say too much about it yet. A great American story about traveling to this country and about family. I just feel like I have to do it. I would do this book for nothing … maybe I will do that, then I’ll just sell it for a ton of money (laughs). All I can do and tell others to do is to “be present,” stop worrying about rushing to get somewhere. Whatever it is you’re worrying about, don’t worry about it. I was terribly worried my whole life, and it made me miserable. So now I just want to make people laugh. I want to spread the word to people to just not worry so much.