Thursday, April 06, 2023

Number One Is Walking by Steve Martin & Harry Bliss

We generally don't expect much of show-biz memoirs. It's usually superficial and light, in which the Famous Person gushes about all the famous things they did, usually focusing on how wonderful and special and talented everyone else was and how it was a joy to do the things you remember them for.

There is the other side, of course - the memoir in which someone settles scores, and sometimes even names names. Those are more fun, but less typical.

In manner and substance, Steve Martin's Number One Is Walking is absolutely a standard Hollywood memoir. Everything was always for the best in this best of all possible worlds, only very slightly marred by some occasional self-doubt, which was always proved wrong. He was smart and funny and beloved! And we liked him, we really liked him!

What makes Number One interesting - to the extent that it is interesting, and I'm not claiming a whole lot there - is that cartoonist Harry Bliss turned Martin's standard, somewhat bland stories into comics, which means it doesn't look like anyone else's memoirs. Bliss is a better caricaturist than I realized, and that's absolutely critical for the book - he has to draw dozens of famous people from the last fifty years, including obvious ones like Lily Tomlin and John Candy but also randos like Dean Jones and Jaqueline Onassis.

But, mostly, what he draws is himself, present-day Martin, and Bliss's dog Penny, as Martin tells these stories to Bliss. Now, the book is credited as "by" Martin with "drawings by" Bliss, but the working relationship as they present it seems to be that Martin told stories, Bliss took notes, and then Bliss assembled it into comics pages. In my book, that's roughly "story by Martin, script by Bliss" or maybe a quirky version of Marvel Method.

I don't want to say the best parts of the book are the Steve-and-Harry-and-Penny bits,, wait, I do want to say that. And it's entirely true. The "my movie career" material is potted and bland, saying obvious things Martin has probably said dozens of times in interviews and magazine profiles. The interplay of two men and their talking dog is funnier and more distinctive. (I should say that Penny isn't really a talking dog; like Garfield, she has thought balloons that comment on the action but there's no indication that the Steve and Harry characters understand her.)

But wait! Number One is less than it seems! The Hollywood material [1] peters out less than halfway through: there's 92 pages of "Movies" and then 154 pages of "and Other Diversions." Most of that back half is single panel cartoons, each placed on a right-hand page with the facing page blank, but there are a few longer comics sequences with Steve and Harry and Penny, too.

Now, all of Number One is amusing. And Bliss's drawings are great, whether he's doing gag cartoons from Martin's captions or illustrating the two of them walking through the Guggenheim. But Martin has proved he can do great, deep work - he's written several good novels, an excellent memoir of his early stand-up days, award-winning plays and screenplays, and whatever the heck you call Cruel Shoes. This feels a lot like slumming, like telling lazy stories and letting someone else do all the hard work. I enjoyed reading it, but I did not come out with a more positive image of Martin than I went in with.

[1] Also to note: these are not full comics pages. There's some pages of mostly hand-lettering, set like introductions or text features. Some pages are blank, or have a spot illustration, or a movie title, or something similarly minor like that. And some of the pages of actual comics are full pages, while others are more like a single daily-strip, with a few panels in one tier. There is much less comics-format material in this book than it would appear.

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