Harry Bliss makes comedy and storytelling work on many levels. How do I know? He crafted comedy out of my dry questions in this email interview. In all seriousness, I credit Bliss' collaborations with Doreen Cronin (including 2003's Diary of A Worm and 2005's Diary of a Spider) as being a key catalyst (by tapping into my son's sense of humor) in sparking an increased interest in reading for him. So when I found out about Bliss' new book (for Françoise Mouly's Toon Books), Luke on the Loose ("Luke looks on at the pigeons in Central Park, while Dad is lost in 'boring Daddy talk', and before you know it—LUKE IS ON THE LOOSE! He’s free as a bird, on a hilarious solo flight through New York City", a story in which he handles both the writing and illustrating roles), I jumped at the chance to email interview him. My thanks to Bliss for his time--and to Ron Longe for his assistance in making this interview possible.
Tim O'Shea: You've worked with Françoise Mouly for years at the New Yorker--in terms of Luke on the Loose coming together, did she seek you out to work with the Toon Books imprint--or did you seek the publisher out yourself?
Harry Bliss: Francoise asked me to contribute to Toon Books and she is the publisher, so...
O'Shea: You've collaborated with several children authors, including Doreen Cronin, Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee and Sharon Creech. Were there any storytelling assets or lessons you took away from these collaborations?
Bliss: I learn many things from all the wonderful authors I've had the good fortune to work with over the years, mainly, how to integrate words and pictures. It's really a dance, trying to pair up the text with the art, not simply illustrating the words, but to move the story forward visually. If something is not enriching the story/characters, then it needs to go. This was especially critical with Luke. The author and I went back and forth constant- wait, I wrote Luke! Sorry.
O'Shea: Growing up, who were some of your favorite children illustrators?
Bliss: I loved Sendak, Seuss, Carl Barks, Modigliani, Remy Charlip, Millet, Rothko, Walt Kelly, Charles Addams, Charles Schulz, Picasso, Daumier, Turner, Homer, Crumb, Ingres, Will Eisner...I can go on...
O'Shea: Are you open to doing future adventures with Luke in another book in the future?
Bliss: I won't do another book with Luke. He's had his fun.
O'Shea: I love how you render the eyes in most of your cast--who or what influenced your approach in drawing eyes in such a manner?
Bliss: The treatment of eyes came naturally, I didn't plan it, I always like a deadpan look as opposed to an exaggerated expression -- less is more, I suppose.
O'Shea: I'm always impressed at how many comedy bits and asides you're able to squeeze into the page. But that being said, did you have to edit some of the comedy bits out of the book--for fear of overloading the young readers?
Bliss: The sight gags in the backgrounds of my books came from my love of Will Elder, a brilliant Mad magazine cartoonist who was a master at this sort of thing. I try to add as much as I can and I'm careful that the extra gags don't interfere with the central story. The extra visual gags are fun and the kids just love them, so I really work hard to give my readers a lot to explore.
O'Shea: On page eight, there is a dog reading a newspaper in the background. Was that a slight homage to the classic work of James Thurber?
Bliss: No homage to Thurber, I just enjoy anthropomorphizing animals, but Thurber was a genius and I adore his art and writing.
O'Shea: I was amazed at the action and comedy that plays out on pages 18 and 19 (with the foiled marriage proposal)--would you say that was the most challenging scene to layout and ultimately execute? If not, what do you consider to be the ambitious page or scene in the book?
Bliss: That spread was fun to do -- not too tough, just used a lot of tracing paper. Action like this in sequential panels takes patience, but it's an animation of sorts, like a flip book only with comic panels. The difficult page for me was the Brooklyn Bridge page -- tricky.
O'Shea: The book design is by Mouly and Jonathan Bennett. Was the Luke map of New York's five boroughs (on the back interior cover) their idea or yours?
Bliss: I forget whose idea the map was on the last page of the book, I believe it was mine or Françoise's. We'd felt something was needed to expand on the story and a map of Luke's journey seemed like a good idea.
O'Shea: In terms of marketing your new book to school libraries, how helpful was it for Luke on the Loose to be designated as a Junior Library Guild Selection?
Bliss: I know nothing about marketing (thank God), I just make the best pictures I can and hope the publisher does right by the book -- Françoise worked very hard to make the Toon Books accessible.
O'Shea: Last year saw the release of Death by Laughter with an introduction by Christopher Guest. How did you get Guest to do the intro? And do you have any plans to do another collection along those lines in the near to long term?
I'd met Jamie Lee Curtis through my editor at Harper, Joanna Cotler and through this connection I was able to reach out to Chris Guest, who is married to Curtis -- plus, Jamie and Chris own a few of my New Yorker originals. I do plan to do another cartoon collection -- in the works.
O'Shea: You have quite an amazing collection of mature comedy bits on YouTube--would you ever consider doing a comedic graphic novel for a more mature audience (more mature than your target market for your Toon Book, I mean)?
Bliss: Wow, I feel dirty knowing that you've seen the You Tube stuff. You should Facebook request me as a 'friend' -- I have over 100 videos on my Profile. I love making the shorts, they're a blast and my 'friends' enjoy the irreverence. If you want to get to know Harry Bliss, watch the videos and I apologize in advance if they offend anyone...really sorry.
No graphic novels for me, it's too much work, I'm too lazy, and quite honestly, I'd rather play hockey.
O'Shea: Is there anything you'd like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Bliss: Leaf Blowers and waste. I despise leaf blowers, in fact, I'm about to make a video making my case for ridding the planet of the damn things. Waste. I cannot believe the waste in this country, boggles my mind. Something must be done. Oh, and I'm working on a movie too -- screenplay in the works, it's awesome. Did you want to talk about hockey? I love hockey, or we could discuss North Korea? Funny how the Korean War is called 'The Forgotten War'...