As His Career Peaks Following a New Book With Steve Martin, Cartoonist Harry Bliss Considers Walking Away … Maybe | Comics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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As His Career Peaks Following a New Book With Steve Martin, Cartoonist Harry Bliss Considers Walking Away … Maybe 

Published December 14, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated December 21, 2022 at 11:07 a.m.

click to enlarge Harry Bliss - SOFI DILLOF
  • Sofi Dillof
  • Harry Bliss

Harry Bliss is ready to retire. At least, he might be. Maybe. Sitting across from a crackling woodstove in the cluttered but cozy wood-paneled living room of his Cornish, N.H., cottage, the 58-year-old New Yorker cartoonist and part-time Vermonter turned reflective as a reporter peppered him with questions about his life and career. Pondering how much longer he'll keep working, Bliss gazed at a painting by 19th-century artist Clifton Tomson hanging nearby. It features one of the few things Bliss claims he can't draw: a horse.

"I do not like working. I really don't," Bliss confessed, shaking his head. It was unclear if his exasperated grin betrayed facetiousness or revealed a deeper truth that he is, in fact, ready to lay down his pencils. Then he added flatly, "I have no ambition."

Delivered in a house where drawers and cabinets are overflowing with his work, that statement could read like the wry punch line to one of Bliss' own cartoons. The man is prolific by any measure.

He still gets up each morning to draw the syndicated daily comic, "Bliss," that he's produced since 2005 — more than 5,000 cartoons in all. The single-panel gag appears weekly in this newspaper, for which Bliss also contributes an occasional cover. A much greater claim to fame are the 25 New Yorker covers he's illustrated and the exponentially more cartoons for the magazine he's drawn since 1998. Fellow New Yorker cartoonist and former Vermont cartoonist laureate Ed Koren called Bliss "one of the brightest lights" at that publication.

He has also illustrated more than 20 children's books, including a series with writer Doreen Cronin that was adapted for an animated 2019 Amazon show, "Bug Diaries." Since 2018, he's collaborated with entertainer Steve Martin on "Bliss" cartoons. That partnership has produced two books, A Wealth of Pigeons in 2020 and Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions, published last month.

Anyone capable of that kind of prodigious and consistent output can hardly be said to suffer a lack of initiative. And yet...

"I like drawing, and I like that people like my cartoons," Bliss said. "But I don't want to spend the day trying to promote something. It's literally horrible for me to think about."

If Bliss is seriously contemplating walking away, he wouldn't be the first creative soul at his Cornish address to recede from public life, or even the best known. The labyrinthine cottage, which features a maze of quirky rooms and an underground tunnel/fallout shelter, sits several miles down a winding dirt road in the woods of western New Hampshire. It's an ideal spot to get away from the world. That was undoubtedly the allure for its past owner, author J.D. Salinger, possibly the most famous recluse of the 20th century.

Bliss, who bristles at the idea that he's a recluse, bought the place in 2016 and now spends most of his time there, surrounded by trees and woodland critters and his vast and varied art collections — all of which inspire his work in roughly equal measure, he said. When he can stomach the traffic, Bliss treks to Burlington, where his wife of 12 years, Sofi Dillof, lives most of the time. Otherwise, he's happiest holed up in Cornish, drawing and drinking and, every now and then, making goofy videos on Instagram.

"I don't know if it happened because I did psychedelics. I don't know what kicked in for me," he said. "But at a certain point I just thought, I would much rather stay in Cornish and read a book, go for a hike in the woods, cook dinner."

It's unlikely that Bliss will just stop making comics anytime soon. As his childhood friend John Butler put it, "I don't believe he's capable of not doing it. Cartoons just fall out of him."

But if Bliss did stop now, he and his spiritual housemate Salinger would share something else in common: going out at the peak of their popularity and influence.

While they're maybe not quite such paradigm-shattering works as Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Bliss' recent collaborations with Martin have thrust him into a national spotlight. Their collection A Wealth of Pigeons was composed mostly of "Bliss" cartoons written with Martin. Number One Is Walking is Martin's Hollywood memoir presented through Bliss' artistic lens. It is by turns hilarious, sweet and insightful — much like their individual works often are.

"They have an edge," said Françoise Mouly, the art editor at the New Yorker who introduced the two. "But there's a gentleness and an enjoyment of life and people."

Following the book's release last month, Bliss and Martin embarked on an old-fashioned press junket. They hit morning TV shows such as "The View" and did a series of high-profile meet-the-authors events hosted by some of Martin's celebrity pals.

In the TV interviews, Martin was every bit the warm and funny performer whom generations have come to love through "Saturday Night Live," The Jerk and Parenthood. And Bliss was, well ... "I was so fucking nervous," he admitted.

Indeed, he confessed as much live on "The View" before uncomfortably answering a question from cohost Sunny Hostin.

Stage fright aside, Bliss is charismatic and funny in person. Sharp-witted, mischievous and still somehow boyish as he nears 60 — picture a grown-up Calvin from "Calvin and Hobbes" with a taste for negronis — he's anything but the picture of a curmudgeonly recluse. Dillof describes him as "a combination of the bear on the cover of the Sleepytime tea box and the Tasmanian devil," adding, "He can be sweet and warm" but sometimes volatile.

Bliss is also someone whose career, by necessity and personal preference, mostly takes place in solitude. As Martin put it recently to Gayle King on "CBS Mornings," "One of the great things about working with Harry is that we never see each other."

It's a joke, but also not. And it speaks to the idea that, for the most part, Bliss would prefer not to see many people at all, outside of his closest circle. It may also help explain why, as his career crescendos, he has begun to consider its next phase.

As Bliss put it, "I was ready to retire before I met Steve."




Art Imitates Life Imitates Art

click to enlarge Harry Bliss cartoon - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Harry Bliss cartoon

On the wall above Bliss' desk in Cornish are two original comic boards. One is a "Peanuts" strip drawn by Charles Schulz. The other is a "Blondie" strip by Chic Young, which Bliss said is the "best cartoon I've ever seen."

Original comic art by the likes of Edward Gorey, Robert Crumb and Charles Addams hangs throughout Bliss' house. He proudly displays comics alongside the fine art of painters such as Tomson, Henry Pember Smith and others. In a sense, Bliss' house-turned-art-museum is a reflection of his own work — or maybe it's the other way around.

Whether illustrating children's books, composing New Yorker covers — which are all done in watercolor — or drawing his single-panel cartoons, Bliss succeeds with deceptive simplicity. His drawings, while unfussy and easy to consume, are often incredibly detailed and highly rendered — even when drawing "cute" for kids. His classical training allows him to draw pretty much anything he sees, from the trees that surround his Cornish home to re-creating "Nighthawks" or "Mona Lisa" for a good gag.

"You can say to Harry, 'We need a Rembrandt here,' and he can draw it," Martin told Seven Days in a 2020 interview about A Wealth of Pigeons. "Or a Monet or a Modigliani, an Edward Hopper. If you look in the book, all these are drawn so beautifully. Almost anything you ask for, he can deliver."

At the same time, Bliss has developed a distinct cartooning style that he blends almost seamlessly with his near-photorealistic scenes — and that often heightens his humor, which ranges from sweet to sardonic to downright twisted.

One recent "Bliss" depicts "Mort Feldstein: Loving Father and Professional Clown." Mort, dressed in full clown regalia, stands in the doorway of his son's bedroom at night and says, "Sweet dreams, Tim." Both Morton and his son are cartoonish: a perfectly creepy, sad clown; Tim huddled, scared, under the covers. But the lifelike detail in the rest of the scene — from the shading in Tim's darkened room to the lamp on his bureau — sets the atmosphere for the joke, juxtaposing the familiar sweetness of a parent saying good night with a child's fear of clowns.

"His facility for cartooning is off the charts," James Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, said of Bliss. "But he also knows that if you draw everything photorealistically, it's not a cartoon.

"He really has a great understanding of when to wow people with his rendering skills and when it's not effective in terms of humor," Sturm went on, noting that Bliss is a "great student of humor."

For that, Bliss credits not schooling but, at least in part, his sometimes rough childhood. Comedically, he said, he was weaned on 1970s comedy classics like "SNL" and Monty Python. But to escape a chaotic home life, he would also often lose himself in comics — "Peanuts," "The Addams Family" and MAD magazine, to name a few.

"My fondest memories of my childhood are of being by myself," Bliss said. He cracked a self-aware grin and added, "Is that weird?"




The Family Circus

click to enlarge Harry Bliss cartoon - COURTESY
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  • Harry Bliss cartoon

Bliss was raised in a family of artists in Rochester, N.Y. His parents, both artists, met in art school in Philadelphia; his uncles were successful illustrators, as well. All told, Bliss counts at least 10 professional artists in his immediate and extended family, including his sister Rachel and brother Charles. His oldest brother, John, is a teacher in Rochester and is "good enough to be a cartoonist," Bliss said. But, he teased, "he's not that funny."

Despite all that artistic DNA floating around his family's "shitty ranch" in the Rochester suburbs, Bliss doesn't mince words describing his 1970s upbringing.

"It was like a really fucked-up version of 'Happy Days,'" he said. "You just felt on edge, like at any moment things were going to combust." He alluded to a degree of physical and verbal abuse that was not uncommon in the era. "It was how everybody was raised back then: Kids got hit."

"He was a wiseass," Butler, his childhood friend, said of Bliss. "To a certain extent, he was a loner in the way we all were — that most artists are, I guess — in that we would all retreat to our bedrooms and draw. But he wasn't a wallflower by any means."

In fact, as he neared high school, Bliss said he was on the verge of "becoming a bad kid." So, his parents sent him for a year to McQuaid Jesuit High School, a strict, all-boys Rochester prep school where, Bliss said, corporal punishment was practically part of the curriculum.

"If you did something wrong ... they fucking hit you, hard," Bliss recalled.

Bliss said his therapist has suggested he has posttraumatic stress disorder from the tension and violence in his childhood. But, he acknowledged, in a twisted sort of way the scared-straight approach at McQuaid worked.

"We stopped misbehaving," he conceded.

Back in public school the following year, Bliss continued to find refuge and purpose in drawing. He obsessively consumed as much art as he could, from comics such as Eerie and Creepy magazines to art books of modern masters, including Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Marcel Duchamp.

"We didn't differentiate between high- and low-brow art. It was either good or it sucked," Bliss said. "Essentially, art was an escape from all the dysfunction that was in the air."

Through art-making, he also discovered an outlet for his burgeoning sense of humor. At McQuaid, Bliss would draw caricatures of the priests, to the delight of his classmates. His high school antics became more extroverted, though he denies being a class clown.

"I was a class disrupter," he clarified. "I enjoyed the attention, getting laughs."

After two years at the Philadelphia College of Art post-high school, Bliss transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and studied painting for two years. There he fell in love for the first time. Before long, his girlfriend got pregnant. Penniless, the couple gave the baby girl up for adoption.

"We went on welfare, and I was buying groceries with food stamps," Bliss recalled. "It was really fucking hard."

(That story has a happy ending. In 2005, Bliss and his daughter, Valerie, reunited. They remain close — Bliss is now a grandfather to her son.)

The experience as a starving artist spurred Bliss to return to PCA and finish his degree. Even before graduating in 1990, he was drawing illustrations for major magazines including GQ and BusinessWeek, along with regular work for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Then I met my son's mother," Bliss recalled. "And we did some drugs and drank a lot. And that was really fun."




Cover Story

click to enlarge Harry Bliss' first New Yorker cover - COURTESY
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  • Harry Bliss' first New Yorker cover

By 1997, Bliss was living in a cheap basement apartment in Nyack, N.Y., where he had moved to be closer to his son, Alex, and his mother, with whom he'd split up shortly after the boy was born; they were never married. Bliss was so deep in student loan debt that an accountant suggested he file for bankruptcy.

One afternoon in a rare-books store, he flipped through a book by Charles Addams, creator of "The Addams Family." It originally ran in the New Yorker as a single-panel gag comic, long before it was turned into a TV show and movies.

"It brought a lot of things home for me," Bliss said of that book. Specifically, he was reminded of reading Addams' cartoons in his mother's copies of the New Yorker as a kid. Rediscovering Addams' macabre humor, as well as a drawing style Bliss described as "lush and almost cinematic," sparked something.

"I thought, Shit, I could do this."

He ran home and drew a handful of black-and-white samples, which he sent to Robert Mankoff, then cartoon editor at the New Yorker. But the drawings ended up on the desk of Mouly, the magazine's newly installed art editor. Bliss still has the letter from her asking if he'd like to try his hand at some cover sketches for the magazine.

"Harry's drawings didn't tickle [Mankoff's] fancy or something ... but I had to publish him," Mouly recalled.

She explained that she had been hired by editor Tina Brown in 1993 to revamp the magazine's look and give it a sort of artistic "shock therapy." Bliss, in Mouly's estimation, "was just too perfect for the magazine. So, I put him on the cover before he was even published inside."

At the time, Mouly went on, the New Yorker had "sort of fallen asleep on its laurels." The magazine had "ignored an entire generation of people in the '60s and '70s," she said, "and now we were in the '90s, and many of our readers were, too."

click to enlarge Harry Bliss  New Yorker cover - COURTESY
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  • Harry Bliss New Yorker cover

In the 1970s, she said, the New Yorker delivered more abstract concepts on its cover. Mouly longed for a return to the covers of the 1930s and '40s, when artists such as Helen Hokinson, Mary Petty and Addams favored a storytelling approach.

"And Harry had that," she said.

Bliss landed the January 5, 1998, cover of the New Yorker. It featured a well-dressed coupled ascending a grand staircase, arms around each other, cocktails in hand, at the end of a ritzy New Year's Eve party. Bliss would do five more covers that year. Between those, a number of book cover illustrations and other gigs, he was able to pay off his student loans by the time the New Yorker offered him his first contract as a cartoonist the following year.

"I lived like a hermit," Bliss recalled. "But for the first time in my life I was actually making money. I had to pay taxes. I had health insurance."

In 1999, his career expanded even further. Legendary New Yorker cartoonist and children's book artist William Steig wrote Bliss a letter offering to connect him to his agent to do children's books. Bliss now has more than 20 children's books to his credit as an illustrator and a handful as a writer/illustrator, including Luke on the Loose and Bailey.

Ironically, that was also the year he started contributing cartoons to Playboy magazine, which he did for more than 15 years. Though he said his cartoons for that adult magazine, as well as those he penned for Penthouse, were rarely sexual. "Bob Guccione really liked mafia cartoons," Bliss recalled of the late Penthouse publisher. "So I did a lot of those."

In kids' books, Bliss plays up his warm, clean style to extra-adorable effect. Those projects have proved lucrative from the start. As have several others, his very first children's book, A Fine, Fine School with Newbery Medal-winning author Sharon Creech, landed on the 2001 New York Times bestseller list.

"I still get royalty checks for that thing," Bliss said in disbelief.




Panel Discussion

While illustrating for children's books, Bliss continued to crank out single-panel cartoons for the New Yorker. He explained that the magazine's many cartoonists are expected to pitch the cartoon editor — currently Emma Allen — seven to 10 ideas a week. Allen selects two or three from each artist and brings them to editor David Remnick, who narrows the field to 10 or 15 cartoons total.

click to enlarge Harry Bliss  New Yorker cover - COURTESY
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  • Harry Bliss New Yorker cover

"So, the rejection rate is pretty high," Bliss explained. What, then, to do with all of those unused gags?

In 2005, Bliss approached every major syndication company in the U.S. about syndicating his leftovers and landed with the Tribune Content Agency. The New Yorker would get the right of first refusal, and anything the mag declined was fair game for publication in some 80 publications in the U.S., Canada and Japan. Bliss maintains the copyright to his cartoons and also nets 60 percent of the syndication revenue, rather than the industry-standard 50-50 split.

Bliss prides himself on his business sense, which he credits for his success almost as much as his talent and work ethic. His philosophy essentially boils down to this: Don't sell yourself short.

Even before he made a living as an artist, Bliss said, he regularly turned down gigs if he'd thought he'd be underpaid or didn't see some other redeeming quality in the project.

"I felt like I'd rather bartend than not get paid what I'm worth," he said. "I tell people all the time, 'As an artist, don't undersell yourself, because you bring the whole fucking market down.'"

Though he draws cartoons every day, Bliss said he doesn't have a set process for them. Ideas can come from anywhere at any time. Some drop out of the sky with an image and punch line fully formed. Sometimes, they originate with a funny line or song lyric, or even just a curious word.

"Someone will say 'doppelgänger,' and I'll be like, 'That's gotta be in a cartoon," Bliss said.

click to enlarge Harry Bliss  New Yorker cover - COURTESY
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  • Harry Bliss New Yorker cover

Other ideas derive from images Bliss encounters in his day-to-day life but without punch lines, sort of like his own personal New Yorker caption contest.

One such recent cartoon features a man and his dog seated at a kitchen peninsula drinking coffee in the morning. They're desperately hungover, as evidenced by puffy eyelids on both the man and the dog — and the large bottle of Advil on the counter.

"What do you got goin' on today?" the man asks the dog. Anyone who's ever been hungover and struggling to make conversation with a roommate will recognize the humor in the scene.

That cartoon started out as a drawing Bliss made based on a photo of an empty kitchen that he found in a copy of a 1950s-era Good Housekeeping magazine — Bliss collects bound volumes of old print magazines, because of course he does.

"I saw that little round thing they're sitting at, and I just knew I had to draw that," he said. "I wanted to put people in that kitchen and see what would happen."

Bliss added that he'd originally planned for a husband and wife to be hungover in the kitchen before opting to go with a man and his dog — as he often does.

Bliss conceded the caption-contest comparison but noted one key difference.

"The thing about my cartoons is, that's me," he said. "I'm a drinker. I like booze. There are trees in my cartoons because I love trees.

"Most of the stuff that I admire and like, it's all in my cartoons," he went on. "That's one of the reasons I like working with Steve: He sends me in directions I wouldn't normally go."




Walking Forward

Excerpt from Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Distractions - COURTESY
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  • Excerpt from Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Distractions

At a New Yorker party in 2018, Martin approached Mouly with an idea for a cartoon. The French designer, editor and publisher is an icon in the comics world and is often "accosted," as she put it, by people looking to pitch her cartoon ideas.

"And I always freeze, because that's usually not the start of a good thing," she said. "Except when it comes from Steve Martin. Then I had to really freeze, because that had to be taken seriously."

Martin is a comedian, actor, musician, author and playwright with an Oscar, five Grammy Awards, a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and a Kennedy Center Honor to his credit. Perhaps the one thing he can't do is draw. He wondered if Mouly could recommend an artist to illustrate his ideas.

A tall order, Mouly noted, because Martin himself is so funny.

"Usually when you put two funny people together, you don't get something twice as funny," she observed.

Cartoonists, she went on, tend not to be sociable. Which is why Bliss came to mind: Despite his preference for solitude, he is affable.

Like Bliss, Mouly said, "There's something warm about Steve and his humor. They walk a line between the high and the low art, both of them. They're just trying to make themselves or their friends laugh."

As fellow New Yorker cartoonist Koren put it, Bliss doesn't just have a great eye and prodigious artistic talent: "He has a great ear" for humor, "coupled with a visually comical, complex view of things." Koren added, "It's no secret why he and Steve Martin are collaborators."

The partnership began with Bliss drawing cartoons written by Martin, which they referred to as "working forward." They would also work "backward," with Bliss sending Martin caption-less "orphan" cartoons for Martin to punch up. Forward or backward, the cartoons were published under the "Bliss" banner. When they had enough of them, the duo collected them into A Wealth of Pigeons, their 2020 debut.

In a Seven Days interview that year, Martin expressed his admiration for Bliss.

"Obviously, we must have a similar sense of humor, because more cartoons end up drawn than don't," he said. "But I love Harry's drawing style. First, it's just high level; it's very clear and cleanly drawn. And I like humor that is sharp, focused."

Excerpt from  Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Distractions - COURTESY
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  • Excerpt from Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Distractions

In turn, Bliss discovered something about Martin, which he revealed in a cartoon in the book. In it, Bliss is huddled over his desk working on a cartoon while Martin dictates from a recliner. A thought bubble from Bliss reads: "He's actually pretty funny."

Obviously, the former standup and star of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Roxanne, and the current Hulu series "Only Murders in the Building" is funny. "But writing cartoons is a different medium," Bliss said in 2020. "It's tricky. It would be like me trying to write a play or do standup. It's just not in my wheelhouse.

"But that cartoon is very accurate," he went on. "I was sitting there drawing and thinking as these ideas came in almost daily, These are actually good."

A Wealth of Pigeons quickly hit the New York Times bestseller list and laid the groundwork for Number One Is Walking. As it's Martin's memoir, the new book was mostly composed working forward, with Martin dictating stories from his movie career — freezing outdoors with John Candy during the filming of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, for example — to Bliss to draw.

"Steve is so good at telling anecdotes. He's very concise," Bliss said. "So, when I would hear them, I could see them in a strip."

However, Bliss noted, despite his classical training, one of his few artistic weak spots is drawing likenesses of people. That posed a challenge when trying to depict Martin's dinner conversation with Dana Delany about sex scenes or, worst of all, rendering Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase in Three Amigos, a movie that featured a lot of horses.

Bliss' versions of those celebs and others are certainly recognizable. They're not caricatures, exactly, though he does exaggerate certain features for effect — Martin's nose, for example. And he lucked out with Three Amigos, since many scenes of the stars on horseback were actually shot with the actors sitting on ladders outside of the frame.

In A Wealth of Pigeons, interstitial scenes among the single-panel cartoons illuminate Bliss and Martin's odd-couple relationship. Martin is portrayed, gently, as an oblivious and self-important celebrity, while Harry is more the wisecracking regular guy — which is hardly a stretch. That pairing is even more prominent, and effective, in Number One Is Walking.

Excerpt from  Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Distractions - COURTESY
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  • Excerpt from Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Distractions

In the book, Martin's stories are presented as the actor recounting them to Bliss, sometimes on walks in the woods or on bike rides. To set up the classic road-trip movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the duo is driving along a scenic mountain road. At the end of the Three Amigos section, Martin joins Bliss and his dog, Penny, in bed.

Penny appears in many of the strips in Number One Is Walking and also trails behind a strutting Martin on the book's cover. The mini-poodle takes a costar turn in the section about Martin's 1984 film All of Me. In that story, she and Martin are fishing. Near the end, we see a smiling Penny standing over a table holding a knife, about to fillet the day's catch. Martin encouraged Bliss to include the dog, who died last year.

As for working with Martin, Bliss said he's long past being starstruck. He and Martin have another book in the works, though Bliss wouldn't divulge details — possibly because there aren't many to divulge just yet.

"I have no fear anymore about telling Steve that something doesn't work," Bliss said. "And if at some point Steve decided he didn't want to do this anymore, I wouldn't give a shit about the work. I'd just miss Steve."




A House in the Woods

click to enlarge Harry Bliss in his home studio - SOFI DILLOF
  • Sofi Dillof
  • Harry Bliss in his home studio

Though Bliss often depicts himself and Martin walking together in Bliss' woods in their books, the actor has never ventured to Cornish. If he did, Martin, a noted lover of literature and art, might relish the aura of Salinger and the opportunity to explore the once-famed Cornish Art Colony, a legendary haven for artists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He might also appreciate the solitude, which Bliss had been seeking, subconsciously and otherwise, for decades.

Bliss moved to Vermont with his then-girlfriend, Kelly, in 1999. He was looking for a change of pace but also wanted to be near his son, Alex, who had moved to the Burlington area with his mother. Bliss has remained close with his son, who is now a filmmaker in Brooklyn.

Bliss and Kelly married in 2001, but the relationship was short-lived. Around 2005, he met Dillof at a book signing at Muddy Waters coffee shop in Burlington; she purchased one of Bliss' books for her daughter, Delia. After dating for a few years, they married in 2010.

"I've spent more money on engagement rings than on student loans," Bliss quipped.

He remained in the Burlington area for more than a decade but gradually tired of life in the Queen City.

"I was finding it more and more difficult to be in Burlington, 'the big city,'" he said. "I wanted to get away. I wanted to be in the woods."

In 2015, a New Yorker colleague sent around a listing for the house in Cornish, which had been on the market for a couple of years. Initially, Bliss had hoped to buy it collectively with other New Yorker cartoonists and turn it into a cartoonists' commune of sorts — in a way harking back to the Cornish Art Colony days. When no one else showed interest, he bought it himself.

Bliss now lives at the house most of the time, while Dillof, a popular yoga instructor, lives in Burlington. It's an unconventional arrangement that the couple said has its ups and downs. As Dillof noted, both she and Bliss need time alone and are afforded freedom they otherwise might not have together. But she also acknowledged it can get lonely.

"We miss each other a lot," she wrote in an email, adding that they rarely go more than four days without seeing each other.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder," Bliss said. "And that's true, because I really miss her when we're apart.

"But the upside is that I like to be alone," he continued. "So, it allows me the time to be in the woods by myself and read all the fucking books I have yet to read."

Understanding the house's legacy, Bliss said he feels an obligation to share it. One way he's done that is by developing the Cornish CCS Residency Fellowship with the Center for Cartoon Studies in nearby White River Junction, where he was once a board member. The annual fellowship, which started in 2017, invites one cartoonist a year to spend a month, typically in the fall, living in a guest apartment above Bliss' garage to work on a project.

The idea grew out of Bliss winning the Maurice Sendak Fellowship in 2014, when he spent five weeks on the late Where the Wild Things Are illustrator's estate in upstate New York.

"He has such a fierce passion and dedication to the craft of making comics," CCS cofounder Sturm said. "His love and passion for the medium is apparent in everything he does."

That includes fostering the next generation of cartoonists. Four artists have been through the Cornish residency since 2017 — it was paused during the pandemic. Bliss has stayed in touch with each cartoonist, including at least one who's now a New Yorker contributor, and he continues to be supportive of their work.

Nick Drnaso was the first Cornish CCS fellow, in February 2017. The Chicago-based cartoonist was working on his second book, Sabrina, which was published in 2018. He said the isolation in Cornish — Bliss didn't even have internet at the time — was a boon to his creativity. So was observing Bliss' artistic processes, which Drnaso said differ greatly from his own.

"He would wake up very early and just sit in bed, sometimes for several hours, just reading or sketching or thinking," Drnaso said. "It's 'work,' but he said he doesn't feel the pressure to actually produce something. He gives great care to the generative stage, which is something I've tried to take away.

"He's disciplined about knowing that that's necessary," Drnaso continued. "So, Harry's in this place in my mind, just working up in his mountain home."

From the desk where he draws his daily cartoon, Bliss has a postcard-worthy view of a sloping, wooded valley and, in the distance, Mount Ascutney. He's befriended several other neighbors, including Salinger's widow, Colleen, of whom he said, "I've never had a better neighbor." They're all friendly, Bliss said, but are there for the same reason.

"Wherever you live, you want to have a great community, and we have that," Bliss said. "But we all really also love our privacy."




A Penny Saved

click to enlarge Harry Bliss cartoon - COURTESY
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  • Harry Bliss cartoon

If there is such a thing as a typical Bliss cartoon, it would probably depict a man with glasses and a small dog walking in the woods or looking out on a rolling vista. The caption would be a sardonic kicker, delivered by either the man or the pooch.

The November 11 "Bliss" is one such example. It features a man atop a hill gazing out at a sweeping valley. His dog is in a baby carrier on his back, facing the other direction. The man says, "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

In another from October 25 — shortly after NASA slammed a spaceship into an asteroid to see if it could — the man is sitting against a tree with the dog on his lap. They gaze up at the sky, and the man says, "Big whoop. They ran into an asteroid. It's not like they caught a flying saucer in their mouth in midair."

If not explicitly based on his life, "Bliss" is often inspired by it and reflects it — albeit sometimes through a fun-house mirror. Almost nothing inspired Bliss more than his and Dillof's beloved dog in her 17 years on Earth.

click to enlarge Harry Bliss and Sofi Dillof with Penny - COURTESY OF HARRY BLISS
  • Courtesy Of Harry Bliss
  • Harry Bliss and Sofi Dillof with Penny

Dillof adopted Penny just before meeting Bliss. As a pup, she had a rare blood disorder that required extensive (and expensive) medical care. Penny's health eventually turned so dire that the vets strongly urged euthanizing her, but Dillof refused. After many long months of treatment, Penny survived.

"Sofi saved Penny's life," Bliss said. "I don't think a lot of people would have done that. But I'm so glad she did."

"Penny was a spunky little broad," Dillof wrote in an email.

You need only to look at his cartoons to see that Bliss developed an intense bond with Penny. Her death last October, he said, shattered him. Even more than a year later, she still appears frequently in "Bliss."

"I held her in my arms as she died," Bliss recalled. "I put her down, and then I just fainted."

Through Penny, he said, he "really discovered how to fully love something."

Bliss is currently working on a project called You Can Never Die. It's a memoir of sorts, ostensibly told through the lens of his relationship with Penny. But, he explained, "It won't be like any other memoir you've seen."

The title is taken from a caption of one of Bliss' cartoons. A man sits with his dog on a park bench and says, "Sitting here with you is so perfect ... which reminds me: You can never die."

click to enlarge Harry Bliss cartoon - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Harry Bliss cartoon

In fact, all the cartoons in the book will be dog cartoons — which are essentially all Penny cartoons. Each inspires a memory from Bliss' past, which will correspond to journal entries, photos and writings by Bliss, some dating back to his childhood.

"It's basically an art book," he explained, "but it's curated."

Bliss often posts to Instagram in a similar fashion. In the last month or so, he's posted a few Penny cartoons and offered accompanying memories. He's also shared observations on his unconventional living arrangement with Dillof, his appreciation for the work of Schulz, and the occasional drunken rant, art critique or bit with his sheep puppet, Sheepie. His posts are often candid, unguarded and hilarious.

Bliss expects that the memoir will be published in early 2024. In the meantime, he'll keep pumping out "Bliss" and whatever other work strikes his fancy — as long as it does. And if he can do it in peace, that will undoubtedly be a while.

"Here's the thing about working alone for days on end," Bliss said. "My mind is able to come and go wherever it wants. There are no distractions. That is incredibly valuable to an artist.

"I'm really semiretired already," he went on. "At a certain point in my career, I turned my love of drawing into my work. And now I draw cartoons that I want to draw, so I get my love of drawing out in my cartoons."

Whether he continues publishing or not, Bliss won't stop drawing. Probably ever. Like his friend Butler said, he can't.

"The process. That's the answer," Bliss said. "Whatever your process is, that has to fulfill you, that drives you, that makes you happy. And I just find it so goddamn rewarding, whether I succeed or fail."

Correction, December 14, 2022: This story has been updated to reflect that Steve Martin has never visited Harry Bliss in Cornish, N.H.

Learn more at harrybliss.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Drawing Conclusions | As his career peaks following a new book with Steve Martin, cartoonist Harry Bliss considers walking away ... maybe"

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About The Author

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles

Bio:
Dan Bolles is Seven Days' assistant arts editor and also edits What's Good, the annual city guide to Burlington. He has received numerous state, regional and national awards for his coverage of the arts, music, sports and culture. He loves dogs, dark beer and the Boston Red Sox.

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