The Daily Heller: Elegant Words and Squiggly Lines

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I recall the first moment I saw R.O. Blechman (b. 1930)—to be specific, the first glimpse I got of his drawings. It was 1967. I was watching television, when a commercial for Alka-Seltzer came on. It was a stomach being interviewed about its digestive woes. Who could have predicted that a talking organ would change television advertising? The nervous stomach was an instant success, and viewers were charmed by its subtle hilarity, rendered with Blechman’s signature shaky, comic line.

From that moment on, I started seeing Blechman drawings everywhere. I was given his prototypical “graphic novel,” The Juggler of Our Lady (1953), watched his various Christmas animation shorts, notably the “CBS Christmas Message” (1966), among others, and kept my eye out for his illustrations in Humbug, Trump, Show and many other magazines. He did a few iconic New Yorker covers. I saw his PBS show “Simple Gifts” (1977); the segment “No Room at the Inn,” which also was made into a book. His tour de force was PBS’ animated special “Great Performances: The Soldier’s Tale” (1984) by Igor Stravinsky.

Today, at 92 the artist/writer is still spry, productive and creative. Currently we are blessed with a new book (actually, two books in one): On the One Hand: The Art & Graphic Stories of R.O. Blechman and On the Other Hand: The Writing of R.O Blechman Published & Unpublished (Fantagraphics). It is a treat for its wit, insight and intelligence. Published in late 2021, COVID took the wind out of its sales, but it’s back—we’re back. And what we desperately need now is wit, insight and intelligence—in short, Blechman’s squiggly lines and elegant words (both hands at once).

Bob, it is great to see a new collection of your work, which looks as fresh today as when you first squiggled a line. It is also a surprise to see so much of your essay writing in the book. What was your motivation to do this (which, I should add, is a turn-around book, with half your art and half your writing illustrated with a variety of other images)?
The idea for the turn-around book came from Gary Groth of Fantagraphics Books. He had seen that unusual format in a French book and thought that it would be an interesting form for Fantagraphics. Since I write and draw, he asked me to work on it.

I love the simplicity of the front and back cover. Not only is the title perfect, but the reverse images are brilliant. Did you come to the solution immediately or not?
The idea and the drawings came to me quickly and easily. 

I’m not sure which to discuss first. Let’s start with the drawing section. You reprint many of your STORY covers. The rest are narrative strips. Do you have a favored medium? Single or sequential?
I love watercolor as a medium, although I receive too few commissions for color work, so tend to use pen and ink in mostly linear fashion (although increasingly I add graphic shapes of solid black for decorative accents). You can see them in some of my weekly illustrations for poems in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.  

I like to write, I like to draw, so I’m drawn (no pun intended) to creating sequential drawings. Art Spiegelman thought that I had revived the art of the graphic novel with my 1952 book, The Juggler of Our Lady. Maybe, maybe not (probably not, but thank you, Art). I think I just did what Jules Feiffer was already doing in The Village Voice, but in more extended fashion.* But well before that—as a teenager, in fact—I remember that I would draw and write about things that interested me. For example, after a visit to Nantucket as a 15-/16-year-old, I did a graphic history of Nantucket—a booklet which I wrote, drew, and sewed together. I had taken Moby Dick with me on that trip, and when I realized that a church I visited [there] was the actual church where a character in the book, Father Mapple, spoke, I was overwhelmed. My God! Moby Dick was real! I felt that I had to memorialize my visit, so the booklet resulted. Written for whom? Nobody in particular. I just felt that I had to give the event a further life.

(*“Bob’s book came out in 1952 (or ’53) and Jules didn’t start his strip in the Voice until 1956. I think it’s essentially cocktail chatter to look for the first graphic novel, but Bob was definitely ahead of the curve.” – Gary Groth.)

I did the same as a 17-year-old college freshman (except that my motive was less pure). I was in Ohio, where I missed seeing Saul Steinberg’s drawings, which were published regularly in a New York newspaper, PM. I wrote him, care of the newspaper, enclosing a hand-sewn booklet of several pages—something about how empty my life in Ohio was without seeing his work on a regular/daily basis. Could he send me something? Well, he did, and what he sent was a large, beautiful drawing now gracing my living room wall. Sometimes chutzpah works. Sometimes. 

Your line work has evolved, albeit in imperceptible ways. How would you describe that process of gradual change from, say, the strip in your book from the late ’50s, “The Cold War,” to now?
You ask about how my drawing evolved. Well, in the book all my stuff is of rather recent vintage. My earlier work was far less fluid and didn’t have the characteristic squiggle that it now has. I suggest you look at my article in the book, “The Melting Pot” (pages 82–83), especially the last several paragraphs. They say something about the nature and origin of my style. 

I love the “Recognitions” story. What is the genesis of that one?
I just felt sorry for the real-life author—of course, the famous recluse, J.D. Salinger. What a sad and ironic tale.

I know this is a lame question, but you address so many interior subjects. Do you consider your strips to be fiction, observation, commentary or critique?
I’m glad you ask what might be a lame question (which makes me feel good about what may be—probably are—lame answers). Do I consider my strips to be “fiction, observation, commentary or critique?” Simple answer: All of the preceding. But maybe, by nature, they all are connected. “Fiction is fact distilled into truth,” Edward Albee claimed. Emily Dickinson might have agreed. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies.” The indirect approach … isn’t that what all true art is? The creator can’t avoid revealing himself/herself, even unintentionally.

You are also known for your animation work (e.g., the first one I ever saw on TV, the “talking stomach” commercial for Alka-Seltzer). Do you have a favorite medium?
Do I have a favorite medium? Well, sure, film. What better way of reaching an audience than through the eye, the ear and the mind? For somebody like myself who has done graphic stories since childhood, isn’t film a natural next step?

It often seems like your stories lean toward hapless people somehow failing to overcome failure. Your squiggly characters often lose something in the end. Do you agree, and if so, what is the reason?
I have to say that with the answers to your questions I was tempted to be more self-revealing about my life, but then I remembered what Joseph Conrad once cautioned: “Never confess anything about yourself in writing.” That sounds like good advice, although it does make for a less interesting text. So, you can do some embroidering on your own.