By Steve Martin and Harry Bliss

Celadon Books


272pp/$28.00/November 2020

A Wealth of Pigeons
Cover by Harry Bliss

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Actor Steve Martin began collaborating with cartoonist Harry Bliss after being introduced to him by Francois Mouley, the art and cover editor of The New Yorker, a magazine Martin had written numerous articles for and through whom he met his wife when she was copyediting those articles. Although the relationship with Bliss hasn't produced a marriage or daughter, it has produced two volumes of cartoon collaborations. The first of which is A Wealth of Pigeons.

In his introduction, Martin explains how the collaborative process works with Bliss. Martin will send bliss ideas and captions for cartoons and Bliss will look through them and decide which ones to illustrate. Martin calls this the forward way of creating the cartoons. He notes that sometimes they create the cartoons backwards, with Bliss sending Martin the drawings and Martin then comes up with the captions. One expects that Bliss views this method a forward rather than backwards. Unfortunately, the men do not, generally, indicate which method was used for any particular cartoon. One exceptions is a cartoon showing Sisyphus pushing a rock uphill. In addition to the final cartoon as conceptualized by Martin and drawn by Bliss, the book also includes a sketch by Martin to give Bliss an idea of how the cartoon should appear, and also demonstrates why Martin needs a collaborator for the illustrations.

The majority of the cartoons are single frame drawings that stand on their own, although occasionally, Martin and Bliss tell short little stories, often with the two of them and Bliss's dog appearing as characters. These views into their lives and relationships, which are often meta in their topics, provide a precursor for the narrative cartoons the two men created for the first half of their second book, Number One Is Walking, about Martin's career in Hollywood. These cartoons tend to be self-deprecating on the part of both author and artist with the character of Bliss's dog providing the voice of reason.

Dogs feature heavily in the cartoons, although they aren't alone. Martin and Bliss do not have the sort of recurring cast like Gary Larson's The Far Side, and Bliss provides a variety of different looking humans and animals, including squirrels, pigs, horses, and aliens. His artistic style, while consistent, demonstrates range, with some sketches appearing minimalistic and others demonstrating a broader skill and even palette.

Martin also demonstrates a range, from captions and cartoons which are simply silly and intended for a laugh to more satirical cartoons that poke at our culture to darker cartoons that peel away layers of personal relationships. Martin is aware that some of the jokes may not work for everyone and addresses that in his introduction to the volume, noting "A cartoon is, no matter how simple it is, there's always one reliably present comment which I have grown to embrace: 'I don't get it.'"

The cartoons in A Wealth of Pigeons are reasonably straightforward and when there may be some ambiguity in Martin's words, Bliss's pictures help provide the necessary context. readers may not appreciate each cartoon, but there is little chance of readers not getting the joke. The cartoons collected in A Wealth of Pigeons are clever, humorous, entertaining, and the best of them will make the reader think. While this book may not have the reach of the films and television shows Martin has made, the book offers a more personal look at the way Martin's brain and humor work.

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