Which came first, the cartoon or the punch line?
The answer is both, at least in the case of actor-writer Steve Martin and New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss. In an introduction to their marvelously dry and sly book, “A Wealth of Pigeons: A Cartoon Collection,” Martin writes of being paired with Bliss by New Yorker editor Françoise Mouly. “I mentioned that I had a cartoon idea and did she know anyone who might draw it,” Martin recalls. Mouly connected him with Bliss. From there began what Martin describes as a collaboration made in heaven: “We rarely speak to each other, and we live in different states,” he writes, presumably with a touch of his signature sarcasm.
At first, Martin dreamed up an idea and then dispatched it to Bliss to realize at the drawing board. At some point, “Harry began sending me orphan drawings for captions, and we discovered we had two ways to work: forwards and backwards.” He explains: “Forwards was me conceiving of several cartoon images and captions, and Harry would select his favorites; backwards was Harry sending me sketched or fully drawn cartoons for dialogue or banners.”
The resulting cartoons are little gems of comic perception, with the pair taking stock of human foibles and imagining animal intelligences with bemusement but never meanness. Perhaps owing to their collaborative method, their panels are also unusually balanced. While many cartoonists exhibit strength either as artists or as caption writers – for example, the great New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber was arguably better at imagining thoughts for his famous dogs than in drawing the dogs themselves – Bliss and Martin have crafted cartoons in which art and text are in harmonious balance.
The pair delights in needling the pretensions of the upper classes. One panel offers a parent and child looking for images in the clouds, but their status as sophisticated city dwellers is revealed in the child’s itemization of what he sees: “I see a horse, a puppy, and that one looks like a Rauschenberg installation.” Elsewhere, a caveman and his wife wait for the maitre d’ to check for their dinner reservation: “Maybe it’s under ‘Apeman,’” one says.
The small lies we tell ourselves are gently needled in a cartoon showing a couple rowing toward an ominous-looking cave: The husband says to his wife, “Don’t think of it as a cave, think of it as a retirement community.” Two men in business suits stand before a building labeled United States Mint and ponder how they can “monetize” it. Several cartoons reference Woodstock, aiming the collection squarely at baby boomers.
The most memorable panels reflect a durable tradition in cartooning: the attempt to place oneself inside the minds of assorted furry creatures. For example, Bliss and Martin imagine two squirrels stealing a food bowl from a dog watching them forlornly through a window (“Once we file off the name, it will be untraceable,” one squirrel says of the name, “Fifi,” on the bowl). In their comic universe, a pair of turkeys, hoping to dodge Thanksgiving, hide behind a log at the first whiff of cranberries, and one mischief-making pup, having destroyed a sofa, tells another pup upon their human owners returning home, “Quick, act casual.”
Throughout, Bliss’ draftsmanship is a source of pleasure itself; the artist is capable of conjuring a shotgun-wielding bird in flight (nature takes its revenge?) and Attila the Hun (renamed “Attila the Honeybunch” as he cradles an infant) with equal facility.
Delightfully, Bliss and Martin do not exempt themselves from their rapier wit, weaving throughout the book occasional cartoons in which they are the subjects. Bliss, who draws Martin perfectly – with a wayward smile and white hair – sends up his famous colleague when, in a strip chronicling their first meeting, the cartoon Martin name-drops Lady Gaga and Keanu Reeves. “Amazing!” the cartoon Bliss says in reply. “I once said ‘Hi’ to Ed Begley, Jr.”
Perhaps the famous Hollywood type and the nondescript cartoonist make for an odd couple, but the fruits of their labor are wonderfully witty and wise.