The Blue (Inter)View: Dan Piraro, Creator of Bizarro

Since you began, you’ve gotten more and more openly political – not every panel, or even most panels, of course, but neither could a person read more than a couple of weeks of your stuff today and not realize where you stand on many issues. Does your political stuff ever rub King Features the wrong way?

My editor at King Features agrees with my politics so he doesn’t give me any trouble about it. But his personal politics aside, he’s really good at his job and his main concern is that I don’t jeopardize Bizarro‘s saleability. We’ve had a few discussions about it and I’ve tried to stay on the acceptable side of the line so I can get my ideas across without destroying my client list, thus eliminating any chance to convey an idea at all.

Do you feel a responsibility to speak through your strip on certain issues? Or does it just happen?

I’ve always been a person of strong conscience. I have a lot of trouble not expressing my opinions when I feel that something important is at stake. It isn’t the most commercially lucrative way to conduct my career, but I’d rather be a poor person who stands for something than a rich guy who stands by and allows injustices to be perpetrated around him.

Am I wrong in perceiving that you moved toward including more political stuff as time has gone on – does the syndicate view that differently than a strip that was political from the beginning, like a Doonesbury or a Boondocks?

Yes. The difference is that Boondocks and Doonesbury are pitched as openly political strips, so an editor knows what he/she is getting when they buy it. Bizarro is being sold as a humor feature with a strong point of view, but isn’t literally a "political" feature.


You’ve just put out The 3 Little Pigs Buy The White House. It’s both an artistic success, and a political success, in that your message is very clear. In this book, do you consider yourself an artist first or a messenger first?

I don’t really separate the two — as an artist I am conveying a message. In that particular case, however, the message comes first, in that the art exists to support it.


Would you be more frustrated if it bit artistically, or if it was beautiful but nobody understood the message?

Either would be a failure, so I can’t really say which would be worse.


Have you gotten any feedback on it? Any flak? Has it generated much publicity?

Every response I’ve gotten to it has been overwhelmingly positive. I don’t know how much publicity has been generated for it; it’s been mentioned a few times in larger articles about the spate of anti-Bush books that have come out this year. In such a crowd, it is difficult to be singled out. It is selling pretty well and I’ve been happy with the progress.


Were the media for the book the same you use in your strip? Was the coloring done like your Sundays, or a different way?

The book was done the same way I do Bizarro. The ink is all done by hand, the old-fashioned way, then the drawing is scanned and the coloring is done in Photoshop.


I know you probably want to mention the nationwide tour you’re doing with other left-leaning comics. In fact, as you do this e-mail interview, I imagine you’re on the road somewhere (thanks for fitting this in). What all is in the show?

The show consists of four stand-up comics, myself being one. I host the show and introduce each comic to do his own set. We cover blatantly political subjects like the stolen election of 2000, the war on terrorism, the tax cuts for the rich, global warming, as well as more social issues like gay marriage and drug laws. The other three guys are traditional stand-up comedians, I add a couple songs and some projected visuals to my part of the show.


Do you envision adding many more dates to it – any cities or regions in particular you’re really looking to add? Does your part of the show include any of the Bizarro Bologna show of a couple of years ago?

One song is directly from my Bologna show because it was already political, and my opening song is similar to one I used to open the Bologna show with but with political lyrics. The rest is new. Some markets we’ve either booked or are negotiating with are Washington D.C., Nashville, Miami, Raleigh, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Ann Arbor, L.A., San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver.


Do you ever check out Comics I Don’t Understand? Are you ever surprised by what jokes aren’t understood? Do you feel for the guy who runs the site, or think he just needs to try a little harder? Or do you sometimes agree with him – that you don’t get the joke yourself?

I’d never heard of that web site but I just checked it out. There are a few on his page that I don’t get either, but most of them are obvious. But in his defense, I find comics nearly every week that I just don’t get. I often ask my wife about them and half the time she sees the point immediately and fills me in and I feel stupid for having missed it, the other half of the time she can’t figure it out either. I was excited to see one of my own on there, which judging by his comment, he is possibly too young to understand. It refers to "Big Chief" brand writing tablets, which every first-grader from 1950 to 1970 had to use.


In your book Life is Strange and So are You, there’s a recurring theme that you don’t think of lot of the typical newspaper comic reading crowd gets your jokes. Is that a real problem? What do you base that observation on?

I don’t think it’s much of a problem, just a reality. I’ve learned over the years that Bizarro has a strong cult following, but doesn’t appeal to the overwhelming majority of Americans. In all honesty, I don’t have a very high opinion of the majority of Americans. Bush’s high poll numbers are a perfect example of the average American mentality. I would guess most of my hardcore fans have the same feeling.


I know you like some "underground" stuff, as I imagine just about every cartoonist does, since everybody starts there. Who are some people whose work you’d really like to see reach a bigger audience?

I don’t actively pursue comics, I just look at them when they happen to cross my path. So while I know there are TONS of really great comics out there, I’m not an expert on them. I like comics by a guy called Kaz a lot. I like Dan Clowes a lot, but mostly for his art. I don’t think in terms of getting good comics a larger audience. The things I tend to like don’t get a large audience because the average person doesn’t think like I do. It’s a chicken and egg question. If a comic I like gets a larger audience, chances are it would be because it no longer had the qualities I enjoyed at first.

That’s not always the case, of course. I love The Simpsons and so does everyone else. But it is definitely the exception, not the rule.


Does the Internet change anything for you? Is your site a significant part of your enterprise? Does it work well to support the newspaper strip, or can you tell?

I don’t have hard numbers to base this on, but I think it gives me a much larger audience. That doesn’t necessarily put money in my pocket, but it improves my visibility, which in the long run is good for the enterprise. The more people that have heard of your work, the more books you sell, the more licensing offers you get, etc. My web site gets a lot of hits and I meet people all the time who are fans of my work only through the Internet, so I suppose it’s a good thing.


When you draw the upside down bird do you turn the paper upside down, or can you draw it upside down from rightside up now?

I draw it better upside down. That’s the way I’ve trained myself to do it.


Are there old jokes of yours that you’re now uncomfortable with, since you’ve become vegan (I can’t think of any, I’m just curious)? Or are there any jokes that you’re now uncomfortable with because of any way in which you’ve grown and changed over the years?

I’m not uncomfortable with them really, but I don’t reprint them in books or calendars because I have a large following of animal rights activists and I don’t want to offend them. They understand that we all come to our beliefs in different ways and at different times, so they certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see I had done an insensitive cartoon in the past, but I don’t believe in further publicizing an unenlightened position I may have formerly held. I can’t think of any examples right now, but I did cut some cartoons out of an upcoming calendar for that reason.


You think there will ever be a Family Circus where Billy says "I bet no Thanksgiving turkey ever tasted as good as this one," and the ghosts of all the other turkeys they’ve eaten are hovering around the room? Seriously, Bil Keane is OK with parodies you’ve done – has anybody ever been really unhappy with being satirized in your strip? Were you OK with them being unhappy?

I’ve not heard from anyone who didn’t like one of my parodies. I try not to be unkind to my colleagues, except for Garfield. But Davis is so rich and wrapped up in himself that I rather doubt he’s ever even heard of me, much less seen one of my parodies.


Did you seek a one-panel format when you started? If yes, why? Is it a challenge you enjoy, getting a joke done in one picture?

I actually did a three-panel strip for a few months when I was first trying to get syndicated. I wasn’t getting any good responses, so I decided to do what came naturally for me, the single-panel gag without regular characters. Magazine cartoons have always been my favorite and Bizarro is based on that kind of sensibility.


Congratulations on the Genesis Award you just won, for the comic strip that, in the Humane Society’s eyes, best represents animal issues. That’s two in a row for you, right? Do they tell you which panels of yours in particular garnered the award, or is it just the year’s worth of material?

They review both things they’ve seen in the papers and things artists send them to consider. The awards committee is in Los Angeles and they tend to collect my cartoons all year anyway. So it’s the body of work that they are awarding.


Congratulations also on being up for the Reuben for overall best cartoonist. After winning 3 consecutive Reubens for the category of best single panel, it must be a special thrill. Do you feel like the nominators and voters really consider just the work from 2003, or are they looking at your entire body of work?

It’s more of a "body of work" sort of award. You can win the category awards as often as they wish to give them to you, but the "cartoonist of the year" you can only win once in your lifetime. So sometimes it is given to somebody who has really been hot for a while (Scott Adams, Patrick McDonnell), and sometimes to somebody who has a lifetime of outstanding work behind them (Jack Davis, Matt Groening). After 18 years of Bizarro, I fall somewhere in between those two categories, even though I’m not yet an old guy.


I never realized until recently that not every syndicated cartoonist is a member of the NCS, and so not every syndicated cartoonist can vote. Does the NCS "feel like" just about everybody, or not?

It seems like just about everybody, yeah. I’ve met just about every major cartoonist of the past fifty years at one event or another.


Does the NCS award dinner have a vegan option, or do you have to eat before you go?

We ask for vegan ahead of time and they give us different dishes. The convention is at different hotels in different cities each year, so some dinners are better than others. There are several notable vegetarians and vegans in the NCS. Patrick McDonnell and his wife, Dave Coverly of Speed Bump, Hilary Price of Rhymes With Orange. It’s a growing movement worldwide, so there will likely be more in the NCS in coming years.


Does Lynn Johnston has as foul a mouth as everyone says?

Yes, but only in appropriate situations. She’s a very friendly, happy, accessible person who throws out the occasional sexual innuendo when it’s appropriate. Her timing is exquisite and she always gets a big laugh. Bil Keane has a very burlesque sense of humor, too. Come to think of it, most cartoonists do. We keep it out of the papers because we have to.


Some of your fine art. In your books and interviews you always refer to these other artistic endeavors as "fine art." What’s the distinguishing quality that makes those paintings fine art?

I use that term for art that I do with no market or consumer in mind. Just my own pleasure.


Do you ever exhibit?

Rarely. The biggest reason being that I do so little "fine art" [is] that I never have enough to fill up a decent show. The San Francisco Museum of Cartoon Art did a retrospective of my art, from fine to commercial to comics, a few years ago.


Does being actively involved in the "fine arts community" affect your strip? If so, how?

I’m not actively involved. In fact, I stay away from it intentionally. It’s a grueling, dishonest racket, just like any other business. Since I don’t need the money, I keep my fine art to myself.


Are you a fan of Kenny Scharf, or Rodney Alan Greenblatt, or Keith Haring, or any other recent/active artists who incorporate lots of cartooning elements in their work? How does that affect your strip? How does it affect your painting?

I like that kind of work, yes. I find it inspiring, but not in ways I can really discuss easily. I suppose any time I see work I like, it inspires me to create something good myself.


A couple of places you’ve claimed that you used to be a bologna distributor, even as you drew Bizarro. In one of those chats the Washington Post has from time to time, though, you said you did graphic design work on the side until the comic strip was fully supporting you. Were you ever really a bologna distributor? Could you possibly have fit both of those jobs in, or have I discovered a big scandal – that you just wanted everyone to think you were a bologna distributor because you were ashamed of drawing for a living?

I used the term "bologna distributor" to mean a person who distributes lies. As in "I used to work as a bologna distributor". I’ve never been ashamed of being a commercial artist. I hated it almost every minute of every day, but I wasn’t ashamed because I was making a lot of money and I didn’t have to wear a tie to work.


Speaking of which, did you ever study drawing? Or is it all self-taught?

I’m completely self-taught. I had a big fine arts scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis and gave it up after one semester. It wasn’t for me. Since then I’ve educated myself intellectually through travel and reading, and artistically through reading and trial and-error.