Mondo Bizarro: The Dan Piraro Interview
In today’s culture, nothing breeds imitators like success: The Osbournes begat The Anna Nicole Show, Nirvana spawned a flannel-clad host of grunge bands, and we can blame Survivor for the scourge of reality programming. Similarly, in comics, the blockbuster popularity of Gary Larson’s The Far Side created a demand for single panels showcasing oddball humor. Dan Piraro’s Bizarro benefited from good timing but too often became relegated to the burgeoning category of Far Side clone; however, no clone could so successfully entwine artistic virtuosity with a unique comedic perspective. Since Bizarro‘s January 22, 1986, debut, Piraro has taken his panel in directions simultaneously surreal and topical. In a comic universe where world-weary talking dogs exist alongside nihilistic housewives, Piraro gives his cartoons heft by skewering his own betes noires: wasteful consumerism, environmental destruction, corporate greed and sheeplike people, to name a few. (He also espouses animal rights in his work, for which the Humane Society honored him in January with its Genesis Award.) Though his humor is never didactic, Piraro’s work is remarkable in its unwillingness to pander, even when the occasional panel borders on the inscrutable. (For example, he once used the Etruscans as a punchline; if you skipped history class that day, tough.) The 44-year-old Kansas City, Mo., native (and current New Yorker) has also begun participating in the nascent vaudeville revival with his one-man Bizarro Bologna Show, an entertainment potpourri into which he incorporates puppetry, song, ventriloquism, mind reading and drawing (not to mention slides of Bizarro cartoons too blue for newspaper publication). Creatively restive, Piraro also produces fine art, some of which uses the Catholic imagery that he was exposed to at parochial school. Yet after 17 years of deadline-mandated creativity, Piraro has refused to coast or repeat himself, and his peers in the National Cartoonists Society have acknowledged their respect for him by voting him the winner of its Best Newspaper Panel award for three years running, a string of victories without NCS precedent, not to mention its top prize, the Reuben Award, in 2010. Although from time to time Piraro mulls over leaving cartooning for other creative pastures—again, shades of Gary Larson!—he won’t be hanging up his brush any time soon, having recently inked a multiyear contract with King Features Syndicate. Since sustained excellence like Bizarro‘s is rare in any medium, his willingness to shepherd his panel into its third decade is great news for comics fans and for the more than 200 papers that carry the strip. Though Piraro maintains that Bizarro is a comic strip for people who don’t read comic strips, we all know better: Bizarro is a comic strip for people who love comic strips. —Tom Heintjes
Tom Heintjes: When did you determine that the water buffalo represented the pinnacle of feminine coiffure?
Dan Piraro: [Laughter] It was kind of a gradual process. I grew up in Oklahoma with ladies who looked like that. I was also a big fan of The Jetsons, and the women in The Jetsons always had this retro, futuristic, lacquered look. I liked that look. Also, I get bored sometimes. It’s easy to get bored when you have to do something every day, and quite often that boredom shows up in a lot of people’s work. Their work doesn’t change at all over the years and they’re just rehashing the same ideas and characters. So I try to keep it fresh for myself and my readers by changing things. And at some point I kept trying to draw women funnier, and the hair just got bigger and wackier. I’m not tired of it, so I keep doing it.
Heintjes: A lot of the furniture you draw has a retro look to it as well.
Piraro: I’m a big fan of furniture. I love furniture designs, especially chairs. I get a kick out of drawing chairs that I would like to have. I actually own a lot of the furniture I draw in my cartoons. A friend of mine builds furniture, and I’ve had him build some of the furniture I’ve drawn.
Heintjes: I especially like some of the coffee tables you’ve drawn.
Piraro: Some of those are based on ones I own, and some of them are based on ones in my head that I’d like to own.
Heintjes: Your gift for cartooning manifested itself pretty early on.
Piraro: My favorite pastime has always been drawing, even when I was two or three years old. I also played sports and army and all the stuff that kids regularly do, but my favorite thing was always drawing. I spent hours and hours a day in my room, or by the TV or somewhere.
Heintjes: Did your parents encourage it?
Piraro: Yeah, they recognized that I had a real passion for it. They would show stuff that I drew to their friends, or they’d ask me to draw stuff for people.
Heintjes: Did they have any artistic talent?
Piraro: The funny thing is that they both do, but neither of them uses it professionally or ever has. In my immediate family—my parents, sisters and cousins—all of us are either into some sort of professional art field or are heavily into hobby art. There’s a lot of artistic talent in the family. I have a cousin in Kansas City who’s a successful illustrator and does some work for Marvel Comics. I have another cousin who’s an art director and designer. But it’s pretty much a normal Midwestern family. When I wanted to go to art school instead of regular college, they were a little reticent about it. My mom’s attitude was, Be an art student, but have brain surgery to fall back on. “Falling back” was a big theme in my family. You had to have something to fall back on, when what you wanted to do failed, which it would. You needed to be able to fall back. I try to deny that at every turn.
Piraro: I went to Catholic school, Latin Mass every morning. The nuns dressed up like penguins in black-and-white habits where just their faces were showing.
Heintjes: And another piece of the Piraro puzzle falls into place.
Piraro: It was a very conformist environment. They weren’t real into creativity for the most part. They were trying to stamp out good little Catholics by the dozens. But at some point during the week, they’d tell us to take out our Big Chief tablets and our crayons, and they’d assign us some art. Well, as soon as she’d say, “Take out your crayons,” I’d start. I didn’t need any help deciding what to draw. I always had something in my head I wanted to draw. Art time was maybe the only part of elementary school I didn’t find excruciating. One time, Sister Miriam Theresa came by my desk and said,”What is this a drawing of?” And I said, “It’s a cowboy and a horse.” She said, “What Bible story does it depict?” Apparently, the assignment had been to draw something from a Bible story, but I didn’t hear that. I just started drawing cowboys and horses. She took the drawing from me, and I was so hurt. She couldn’t have hurt me more if she’d taken my puppy and twisted its neck off. I thought I was in big trouble. Later that night, my mom called me over and she had the drawing. She said, “Sister Miriam Theresa gave me this drawing after school today.” I thought, “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble now.” Mom said, “Why did you draw this cowboy so big?” I said, “Because he’s close, he’s in front.” She said, “Why did you draw the horse so little?” I said, “Because he’s far away, he’s in back.” I was thinking, “What the heck is all this about?” I had no idea what was going on about this drawing. Later on, I found out that they couldn’t believe I drew this in perspective, and kids just don’t do that. It’s just the way I saw things.
Heintjes: Did you go to art school after high school?
Piraro: I didn’t want to go to college at all. I really felt that after high school, I was ready to be unleashed on the world, which was sheer arrogance on my part, but what the heck—I was a kid. But my parents just didn’t think you could make a living without a college degree, so they made me apply for scholarships. My mother would put things in front of me and make me fill them out. She would take pictures of my art. It was really kind of sad; I wasn’t lifting a finger to help. I was such a spoiled ass. I was not a troubled teen or anything, but I was not interested in going to college. We argued and argued, and she finally made me agree that, if she could get me a scholarship, I’d go to college. She ended up getting me a fine arts scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis.
Heintjes: That’s a very good school.
Piraro: Yeah, it’s very good. [Mother Goose and Grimm cartoonist] Mike Peters graduated from there. I went there as long as I could stand it, which was a semester, and then I dropped out.
Heintjes: You flushed the scholarship.
Piraro: I flushed a four-year scholarship. I gave it all back and convinced my parents that I tried. And they said, “OK, well, you have to pay rent now.” So that was pretty much what kicked me out on my ear. Once I was not in school, they weren’t willing to support me anymore. So I started working. It took me a lot longer to get rich than I thought it would. In fact, I’m still waiting.
Heintjes: In 1981, you began illustrating advertisements for Neiman-Marcus.
Piraro: I was doing a little illustrating, but it was mostly designing ads like direct-mail cards and some of the photo ads in magazines. It was nothing cartoony at all. In fact, my art never really ran toward cartooning until I decided to become a cartoonist. Before that, I was doing serious art. I wanted to become a painter. The stuff I did commercially was pretty realistic or was very stylized. It had nothing to do with humor.
Heintjes: You never came up with humorous ideas as you do now?
Piraro: No. In fact, that’s sort of how I got into cartooning. The atmosphere at Neiman’s was fun. It was a bunch of edgy, art-school kids who worked there, so it was kind of a fun place to work, but the work itself was really dry. To entertain myself, I would draw these odd, nonsensical cartoons of odd people doing strange things with little narrations. They didn’t make much sense, but people liked them. I guess they had a certain kind of odd charm. My friends started collecting these little photocopied collections of my cartoons, and from time to time they would try to convince me to get them published. I would say, “Oh come on—people don’t publish this kind of stuff. People only publish Dennis the Menace.” Then one day, someone brought me a newspaper, and I had long since stopped reading newspaper comics. Someone brought me a paper and said, “Look at this thing called The Far Side.” I was like, “Wow, look at that! How strange is that! They’re publishing things like that!” I couldn’t believe it! So while Gary Larson wasn’t a direct influence on me, the fact that he was in the paper was an influence on me. So I started making my cartoons a little more intelligible, and I started submitting them. I figured if you could get signed to a syndication contract, you’re probably making 50 grand a year right off the bat.
Heintjes: Boy, you were green.
Piraro: I know. And I also figured it wouldn’t be hard to get syndicated. I said, “How hard can it be? Look how bland the newspaper page is. It must mean not many people are trying to do this” [laughter]. So I decided to come up with the perfect idea: Science fiction was popular, and women’s causes were popular, so I came up with a science fiction strip about a woman. I said, “It will have a running commentary about society like Doonesbury, and it will appeal to this, that and the other group.” So I drew up a bunch of these strips and titled it Babs Bizarro. The title came to me out of thin air. So I sent this off to a few syndicates, and I got the usual, “These are interesting, but it’s not really what we’re looking for.”
Heintjes: So you had already figured out how to submit material to the syndicates.
Piraro: Someone had given me this big book on how to be a cartoonist, which had about a pamphlet’s worth of information in it. I just needed to know where to send them and how the industry worked. I didn’t know if I needed an agent or anything like that, but the book told me that if I send it, they would look at it. So I started doing that. I’d send 20 or 25 samples with an envelope so they could send them back to me with their response.
Heintjes: And you began receiving the time-honored “encouraging rejection.”
Piraro: Yes, the encouraging rejections. I did that for a while. For maybe a couple of months, I probably drew up 30 or 40 of those strips and sent them off. Then I gave up—”Oh, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Look at this garbage in the paper.” I guess I got my feelings hurt, and I wasn’t very good with rejection. But at some point I decided to try again, and I figured I’d send in the wacky stuff I used to do to entertain myself at Neiman’s.
Heintjes: You didn’t draw new material? These were your drawings from the department store?
Piraro: Yes, and these were some really crummy scribblings. But the key was—and I tell this to people who are trying to get started in the field—that it’s what comes from your heart. If you’re not entertaining yourself, you’re not going to be entertaining anyone else, either. To hell with the formulas. A lot of people try to be so professional and so formulaic that it comes off stiff. It looks like they’re copying what’s already in the paper, which is what syndicates complain about: “Don’t send me something like Blondie—I’ve already got Blondie.” And those strips I sent in are the ones that got the attention. It’s a simple thing to see now. Then, I started getting the personalized letters from the syndicates, not the form letters. The most encouraging thing was when Stuart Dodds from Chronicle Features called me on the phone, and he just loved them. He said they would love to continue talking to me about them. He said they wouldn’t be able to do anything about syndication at that moment because they had a very small sales force and they already had The Far Side. That was when The Far Side was still in its first five years, and it was with Chronicle Features. They said they didn’t feel they could take on another odd cartoon feature, because they didn’t feel that they could sell both of them. At that time, Larson had been doing The Far Side for about three years and it was still in under 100 papers. It was sort of a slow launch for him. But Stuart said they really liked my stuff and asked me to keep working on it and sending them things as I did them. I was all excited about that, and then a couple of months later he called and said he was going to be in Dallas on a sales trip, and he wanted to take me out to lunch. I was 25 years old at this point, so it was really exciting. It was the first time a businessperson had ever taken me to lunch and paid for it. It was like the first time a limo picks you up at the airport, and there’s that guy with your name on a sign. The first time that happens is very exciting. So about a year and a half later, I’m still doing stuff and sending it to him. He would come to town every now and then, and we had three or four meetings in Dallas when he was in town, and we became friendly. He liked the stuff I was doing. Then one day he called me and said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Gary Larson is jumping to Universal Press Syndicate, and we had no idea he was even thinking about it. But the good news is that we’ve decided to pick up your strip because we now have room for it.”
Heintjes: Chronicle Features launched you into eight papers, which is a toehold in the marketplace but hardly provides a living wage. How did you manage with that client list?
Piraro: Like everybody else—I worked during the day and came home and cartooned all night.
Heintjes: You were also starting a family around this time. You really had your hands full with a full-time day job, a syndicated strip and a small child.
Piraro: Yeah, I did. That aspect of the situation was not great. We were not trying to have kids at that point, it was just one of those things that happens. I was 23 when she was born, and raising a kid wasn’t where I thought I would be at that age. That was difficult.
Heintjes: Were you still at Neiman-Marcus?
Piraro: At that time, my day job was in an illustration studio, so I was doing illustrations of stuff like Pepsi and Taco Bell and Frito-Lay, like you see on coupons. It was dry, dull stuff and it drove me nuts.
Heintjes: So cartooning was a welcome creative outlet, even with the other demands in your life.
Piraro: Yeah, it was my only creative outlet at the time, because I didn’t have time to do anything else. So I’d some home, and I’d have my daughter on one knee and my sketchpad on the other knee, and I’d be working.
Heintjes: How long was your contract with Chronicle Features?
Piraro: I did 10 years at Chronicle. At the time I left Chronicle, my client list was not that strong. Again, Chronicle had a very small sales force, and it was a very small syndicate. As small as my list was, I think it might have been the biggest one they had.
Heintjes: By the time you left Chronicle, how many papers was Bizarro in?
Piraro: Maybe 100 or 110. I wasn’t making money hand over fist, but by that time I was making a living, and I was able to quit the illustration job. I guess I had been doing the illustration job for about five years.
Heintjes: So around 1990 you were able to focus full-time on cartooning.
Heintjes: Chronicle must have had a feeling of deja vu when you went to Universal, since that’s the same path Gary Larson took. How did they feel about your departure?
Piraro: They were upset about it. They were very upset that, just as The Far Side was becoming a national sensation, Larson jumped ship. That’s how Chronicle saw it, but Gary Larson felt that he wouldn’t have become a national sensation without a larger sales force. Chronicle felt he was about to become a national sensation with them, and when he left it sort of yanked the rug out from under Chronicle. Stuart Dobbs and I had become friends, and he’s a great guy. He was a very British guy…well, he still is, since he’s not dead [laughter]. He was also into Zen Buddhism and meditation, so he’s a very peaceful man, so it’s not like he ever said anything bad about Gary Larson. If he really hated something, he’d say [affecting a British accent], “Yes, well, it’s not quite what you’d like it to be, is it?” But he understood my situation. I had stuck it out for 10 years. I did not want to be the bad guy. I knew Chronicle had been hurt when Gary left them. My first contract with Chronicle was for five years. At the end of that contract, we talked, and I said, “I really think I’ve got a product that’s worth more than 60 papers.” I really believed I should have more papers. So we talked, and I decided to renew for another five years. At the end of another five years, they were still having a lot of trouble breaking the 100-paper mark, and I just wanted more. I called Stuart and told him that. We talked, but he admitted there wasn’t a lot more that they could do. They just didn’t have manpower to hit the streets and drive a feature home.
Heintjes: What was the change like when you went to Universal?
Piraro: Universal is a terrific company to work with. They really do trust you to know your audience. When I was coming up at Chronicle, there were times when I really did have to be edited. I would send in ten strips, and they’d call up and say, “Three of these are good. We don’t get this one, and this one we get but it’s not very funny, and in this one, you can’t talk about that in a newspaper.” So I was used to being edited, because you have to be taught what works, what doesn’t and why. But by the end of my 10 years at Chronicle, they had pretty much stopped editing me at all. So when I went to Universal, I asked about the editing policies, and they said, “Nobody knows your readership better than you do, so unless it’s something really objectionable, we’re not going to bother you.” And that’s exactly what they did. Even when I sent in something controversial, they called and said, “I think editors are going to have a fit about this. Editors might get some bad mail, and they hate to get bad mail. Is this something you really want to do?” Then they leave it up to you, and they go with it. They’re very good at standing behind their talent. There have been a number of times when I’ve said, “You’re right, I really didn’t think about it that way,” and other times I’ve said, “I really feel strongly about this gag; let’s go with it.”
Heintjes: So there have been times when individual papers objected to Bizarro strips, but the syndicate never blocked you from publishing one of them.
Heintjes: Are you able to see a common trait among the strips to which editors object?
Piraro: That’s a tough question. There are certain things you know you can’t get away with. Even if they’re very benign, you can’t get away with sexual references. You know you can’t get away with certain religious references. I was just thinking about this, because I have a joke about the nativity scene that I want to run on Christmas Day. The three kings are giving Jesus their gifts, and Mary says, “Just three small gifts? This isn’t going to look very good under the tree.” I called the syndicate to ask their thoughts about it, and they said, “That’s not so bad—you can get away with that.” The rule in my mind is that you can draw God in heaven, you can draw Moses, you can draw angels, the devil and all that stuff, but you can’t draw Jesus. People get bent out of shape. So drawing the nativity scene was a question: He’s in the manger with the hay and you can’t really see him. And there’s Mary, and a lot of people are sensitive about Mary.
Heintjes: You know that as well as anyone, having been raised Catholic.
Piraro: That’s how I know that. But I’m very against the commercialization of Christmas. It’s just disgusting. I find the whole thing to be a disgusting display of American consumerism.
Heintjes: Dan, there are three words I can use to describe you: stink, stank, stunk.
Piraro: Yes, totally. I’m always rooting for the Grinch. But I’m not opposed to Christmas because I don’t want people to be happy. And some people say, “Oh, you just don’t want to give gifts because you’re not generous.” That’s not it. Christmas is not about generosity anymore; it’s really completely about selfishness. You go out and give a bunch of gifts and you get a bunch of gifts, and if you don’t get the right gifts you’re all bent out of shape. I’m also an avid environmentalist, and all this consumerism wreaks havoc on the planet. There’s so much trash and so much pollution. The modern American Christmas has nothing to do with the traditional Christmas. This so-called tradition of piling gifts on was invented by department stores in the early twentieth century. Before that, it did not exist. There was no concept of showering people with gifts. I find the whole thing really empty and gross. Are you familiar with the cartoonist Nina Paley?
Heintjes: Sure, she’s got a new strip titled The Hots. She’s great.
Piraro: She lives in New York, and we’ve become really good friends. We share the same political outlook, and she’s got a website devoted to the Christmas-resistance movement. It’s at xmasresistance.org, and I always try to point people to it.
Heintjes: There is a basis for believing that readers see some of your own beliefs in the strip.
Piraro: Yes, definitely.