Of Childrens’ Books and Dirty Cartoons 

A conversation with Harry Bliss

by Matt SullivanA conversation with Harry Bliss.

Scene: Simpsons creator Matt Groening once said, “Cartooning is for people who can’t quite draw and can’t quite write.” Any truth in that?

Bliss: No, that’s bullshit—and I love Matt Groening. I mean, I could draw circles around some of the best artists that I know. I’ve taken writing classes. I think if I applied myself I could be a really good writer.

Scene: What’s the major difference between drawing a cartoon and creating a cover for The New Yorker?

Bliss: When I’m doing a cover, I’m thinking that this is going to be on a newsstand. So some element has to pop off the shelf. Pretty much everything else is the same. It’s all about ideas. My last cover was more like a social commentary where these people were looking at an abstract painting, and they were photographing it with their digital camera as opposed to actually looking at the painting.

Scene: I read that Peter Jackson bought the original of your King Kong cover.

Bliss: Well, he wanted to buy the original art, but I gave that to my brother Charlie. But he did buy a pretty tight color sketch from me.

Scene: Would you consider buying his movie?

Bliss: No, all I asked in return was, of course, some dough, and I wanted him to send me a signed photograph of all the cast and crew from King Kong. He did, which was cool.

Scene: I’ve noticed that many of the same themes and scenarios occur in your work. Death and snuggling come to mind. Do you have an idea and write quite a few cartoons with that same scenario, turning them in over the course of a few months?

Bliss: Not really. Generally I start cartooning by drawing. I look at the blank square, and a lot of times I’ll just start drawing. I’ll draw a dog and then I’ll draw the guy walking the dog. Then I’ll draw a fence. Then there’s a guy on the other side of the fence walking, or he’s cutting the grass. So I kind of draw the scene and then imagine these characters. It’s almost like we just dropped in on this still frame of their lives. And then I’ll start to think about the caption.

Scene: And all that snuggling?

Bliss: Yes, well, it’s all about my relationships with women.

Scene: Do you consider yourself an anti-snugglist?

Bliss: I just think the word “snuggle” is funny. But in a past relationship I’d catch hell for not snuggling in, you know, post-coital activity. And now I’m a big snuggler. My girlfriend now is like, “Get off me.” And that’s after sex. “Get off me. Come on, I’ve got stuff to do.”

Scene: Your syndicated one-panel cartoon, BLISS, and the ones published in The New Yorker can sometimes get a little adult, even borderline racy. But you’ve also won awards illustrating children’s books. What do you think the children’s book world would think of your dark side?

Bliss: Well it’s funny you should mention it because I just came from a talk to about 150 independent booksellers. They sell my children’s books. That’s how they know me. Eighty-five percent of the images they saw today were syndicated cartoons and New Yorker cartoons, basically some pretty racy stuff, and they were fucking howling. They loved it. I think there’s a strong tradition in the children’s book world of artists/writers who do both. William Steig’s a perfect example. He was a cartoonist for, God, 75 years or more for The New Yorker, and he’s a children’s book artist who’s just as much loved in the kid’s book world.

Scene: In your most recent children’s book series with Doreen Cronin—Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Spider, Diary of a Fly—do you feel lucky that something like a minotaur isn’t keeping a diary?

Bliss: Yeah, Diary of a Horse would suck.

Scene: While you’re touring to promote this latest book, do you still work on syndicated cartoons?

Bliss: I get a lot of ideas in airports. As soon as we get off the phone I’m going to start cartooning because I have five hours to kill, so I’m just going to hang out, order room service and cartoon for the next four or five hours. I get a lot of work done this way.

Scene: You have a BLISS collection called Death by Laughter to be published next year, and Christopher Guest wrote the introduction. What’s your favorite Guest film?

Bliss: You can’t beat Spinal Tap, man. Oh no, that’s Rob Reiner; [Guest] just wrote on it. Best in Show is great too. He’s just a really funny filmmaker. I really like the way he works. It’s not all that dissimilar from the way that I cartoon.

Scene: Each week The New Yorker runs a cartoon caption contest: the picture is provided, and readers submit captions. Any tips for winning?

Bliss: I would stay away from puns altogether. I think the best captions are the captions that aren’t obvious. I would tell people to just write a ton of them, and leave it alone for a day and come back to it.

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