Funny Money

A passion for providing comic relief

by Will Lindner

bliss_jc_-0021 Illustrator, author, and cartoonist Harry Bliss

Harry Bliss works in a museum of his own making. It’s not an edifice, but rather a modest house in a quiet neighborhood in South Burlington, and no one but he may think of it as a museum. But besides providing him a work space separate from his home in downtown Burlington, and a place to accommodate guests, the house contains his prized “collection”: original paintings and drawings by many of the country’s most renowned popular artists and illustrators, including Garth Williams, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, and cartoonists Charles Addams, Robert Crumb, and Walt Kelly. They hang on walls, lean in corners, lie in small stacks upon nearly every surface. Many were gifts to him from the artists themselves.

harry_bliss_expressionsFor these are Harry Bliss’s people, if not his contemporaries. And nested within their art, he creates his own. Bliss, at 50, is a cartoonist whose work, syndicated through Tribune Media Services, appears in some 70 newspapers around the country, including The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. (He also contributes to the Burlington weekly Seven Days.)

He’s an award-winning illustrator, and sometimes-author of children’s books, including half a dozen New York Times best-sellers. In a perhaps loftier vein, Bliss has created 18 or so covers for the prestigious New Yorker magazine, ranging from the silly (King Kong spraying the summer-sweltering city with a Super Soaker, August 1, 2005), to the jarringly modernist cover of March 17, 2003, to the succinct social commentary provided on April 17, 2000, in which a white businessman passes a young black man innocently walking his dog on a late-night city sidewalk while the shadow on the wall behind them (the looming image of a stick-up) portrays the businessman’s fervid, fearful imagination.

It’s an impressive, diverse body of work, and it grows almost every day.

“Harry produces six panels a week” — cartoons, for Tribune Media — “and he’s been doing that since July 2005,” says Bliss’s agent, Holly McGhee, who, as founder, president, and creative director at Manhattan-based Pippin Properties, frequently pairs him like a matchmaker with suitable authors. “He meets those deadlines every day, but I think for him it doesn’t feel like work. That’s play, for him.”

The daily schedule notwithstanding, children’s book art has become Bliss’s staple — “a fantastic field for me,” he attests.

The connection came in 1998 through his correspondence with a fellow New Yorker contributor, the then-aging William Steig (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Shrek). “He said if I ever wanted to do children’s books to look up his agent.”

Bliss felt he didn’t really need an agent; several years of “editorial” work — New Yorker covers, book jackets, topical newspaper illustrations — had, he believed, made him savvy enough to represent himself in negotiations.

“But when William Steig — this is a legendary artist! — says ‘Do you want to meet my agent?’ you go meet his agent.” So Bliss, who was living in Nyack, N.Y., traveled into the city to meet Holly McGhee. Theirs was an instant connection. Their first project, a collaboration with Newbury Award–winning author Sharon Creech titled A Fine, Fine School, became a Times best-seller.

“I fell in love with his characters,” McGhee explains. “It’s their faces and their eyes. I look at the characters’ eyes to see if I feel a personal connection. If you can nail the face, the rest follows.”

bliss_nyorkerHarry Bliss, The New Yorker, March 15, 1999

Bliss, a self-confessed wisenheimer and “class clown” during his youth in Rochester, N.Y., says, “I think there’s a slight irreverence that I put in, which certain editors and certain writers like. [They] allow me the springboard to transcend the manuscript, to move it toward humor a little bit. And kids are very visual. I might be doing a reading and the kids will say ‘You forgot that little rat in the corner eating marshmallows.’ They’ve pored over it, and it speaks to them. To have this connection, where you have these 6-year-old kids relate to the kid in you, when you’re 50 … It’s a wonderful thing.”

This from a man who, for several years, followed his infant, then toddler, and eventually adolescent son, Alex, around from state to state. Bliss and Alex’s mother never married, but for Bliss it was unthinkable not to be near the boy. That’s what he was doing in Nyack, and it’s also what brought him to Vermont after Alex’s mother had relocated to Burlington.

Bliss drove up with his then fiancé. “It was a spring day, the sun was out, and we just fell in love with it,” he recalls. It led to a conversation with his attorney. “’Should I go?’ He said, ‘Harry, if I had a choice of living in Rockland County, New York, or Burlington, Vermont, I’d be packing my [expletive deleted] bags right now.’

“That was in 2000,” Bliss recalls. “I bought this house [today’s museum/workspace] in 2001.”

Besides following Alex around, Bliss has also followed his muse, single-mindedly and unquestioningly. It’s the family muse, however, and easily recognizable. His parents, Jack and Rozlyn, met at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art in the 1950s. After graduating, the couple and their first-born son, John, moved to Rochester, where Jack and his brothers Harry and Ken opened Studio 5 Graphics with several other designers.

“They did a lot of ad work for the big companies of the ’60s and ’70s,” says Bliss.

Artists proliferated like rabbits (one of Bliss’s enduring images) – a dozen or so in the extended clan, including his brother Charlie (now a framer) and sister Rachel (a painter in Philadelphia). He jokes, “If you couldn’t tell the difference between a Braque and a Picasso in our house you were beaten.”

The muse moved in, personally, when he was 14 and stayed up all night drawing his feet. At 15 his parents enrolled him in a summer course at the Philadelphia College of Art. “It was the best four weeks of my life,” Bliss recalls. “There was no looking back.” With starts and stops along the way, his academic pathway led through the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the University of the Arts (also in Philadelphia), and Syracuse University, where his received his master of arts.

His first professional work, undertaken while still in college, included editorial illustrations for the Philadelphia Inquirer, GQ, and McCall’s. Then came book jackets for young adult novels and mysteries. He became so busy his mother often read the books and provided him a synopsis.

“Humor was nowhere,” he says.

bliss_kong“Slow down, I want to take a peek in Barney’s!”

But in 1996, in Nyack, he purchased an out-of-print volume of Charles Addams cartoons. “Looking at those cartoons, I remembered The New Yorker coming to our house every week. It was kind of an epiphany. “I thought, ‘I can do this. I can render like this.’”

He sent some samples to The New Yorker, and heard back from Francoise Mouly, the magazine’s cover editor. His first cover fronted the January 5, 1998, New Year’s issue: a couple ascending a majestic stairway, past the detritus of the evening’s celebration.

Despite the urbane content of some of his work, Bliss has settled fully into Burlington, with his wife, Sofi Dillof, co-founder and instructor at Laughing River Yoga in Winooski, and his stepdaughter, Delia McConnell, a freshman at Burlington High School. (Alex is studying film at the School of Visual Arts in New York.)

He’s become a hockey fanatic, attending UVM games religiously and playing in a men’s league on Sundays. He and Sofi are avid hikers, and Bliss travels to international schools around the world, mentoring students as an artist-in-residence. A committed PETA supporter, Bliss designed “McCruelty,” a now-famous statue of a chicken on crutches, symbolizing the heinous conditions of factory farms.

Furthermore, Bliss contributes his imagination and artistic depth to his adopted city. Philip Baruth, a state senator from Chittenden County and member of UVM’s English department, found Bliss in his advanced fiction-writing workshop some years back.

“He’s a wildly, explosively talented guy,” says Baruth, who didn’t know at first who Harry Bliss was. “He had five story ideas going, and we pushed through them all. If you imagine a typical Bliss cartoon — some bizarre instance in the life of a couple — and you scrunched yourself down and sourced yourself through one of those panels into their actual world, that’s what it was like. Fantastic stuff!”

Death By Laughter (Abrams Image), Harry Bliss’s compilation of cartoons, was released in 2008. How many will follow is anyone’s guess. •