Comics: Meet the Artist
With Dan Piraro
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, Dec. 6, 2002; 1 p.m. ET
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by Dan Piraro, who co-cartoons "Bizarro."
Tobin and Piraro were online Friday, Dec. 20 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Bizarro," and the art of cartooning.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Suzanne Tobin: Greetings, comics fans, and welcome to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today we boldly go where we have never gone before: to a cartoonist whose work we carry online, but not in our print version of The Washington Post. (You know, that whole space crunch thing...they'll never allow us enough space to carry all the talented cartoonists we'd like to!) Dan Piraro, creator of "Bizarro," is joining us from his studio in New York City. Welcome, Dan, and thanks for joining us Live Online!
Dan Piraro: hi, boys and girls, thanks for inviting me.
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Hi Dan. I love your cartoons.
Can you tell me how you got syndicated?
I would like to be a syndicated cartoonist some day.
Dan Piraro: hi rick. i got syndicated the same way most people do, i sent my cartoons in to syndicates with an SASE. after a couple of years of rejection letters, i finally got a bite.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I bet you were a "normal" child. How bizarre, if at all, were you when you were young?
Dan Piraro: i was fairly normal except that i daydreamed a lot and drew constantly. i got in trouble in school for drawing too much. in the first grade, i used to get fed up with the whole thing, raise my hand to go to the bathroom, then walk home, sneak into the house and draw quietly in my room.
i also used to eat bark off of trees, but that's another story.
Harrisburg, Pa.: How do you do it? How does one consistently come up, not only with humorous ideas, yet with uniquely bizarre humorous ideas, day after day? Do you try to do one comic a day, do you work in batches, or does it vary? What, if anything, do you use for inspiration for your great work?
Dan Piraro: the whole trick to being a cartoonist isn't drawing, but thinking. i've had to write over 5000 jokes in the past 16 years. under normal circumstances it is hard, but when something really lousy happens in your life, like a divorce or a death or being arrested for public indecency, it is really hard to keep the jokes coming.
i don't know how i do it, no one does. it's just something i can do. thank god.
Suzanne Tobin: Dan, I noticed on your Web page, www.bizarro.com, that you have a one-man stage show, the Bizarro Bologna Show, which you promise us is "Coming to your town like a flaming ball of lunchmeat from outer space." How did that come into being?
Dan Piraro: i've done talks and speeches at schools and such for years and i always have a ball. i talk about my career and show slides of my work and answer questions and it's usually a really good time. at some point about a year ago i decided to add some songs, puppets, performance art, etc, and make it a real evening at the theater. so far i've had a lot of luck with it and intend to keep doing it in as many cities as i can.
Seattle, Wash.: What is your drawing schedule like? Do you think up all your own ideas and how many cartoons do you draw each day?
Dan Piraro: i write all my own ideas, with a few exceptions a year. i get ideas from readers every week, but i only use one in a hundred maybe. when i do, i add their name under my signature and i give them the original art. i never buy jokes and 360 of them a year are mine.
i think up gags every morning, sometimes i'll get 1 idea, sometimes 8 or 10. none of my gags has ever been written outside of that first hour after i wake up in the morning. after that my brain turns to jello and so i spend the rest of the day drawing the gags i've written, or sometimes just wandering aimlessly through the subway tunnels under my building here in new york.
Northern Connecticut: So Dan if you win another Reuben division award for Best Comics Panel do you think it would be fair if Dave Coverly and I throw you off a balcony? Just as a comedy joke?
Dan Piraro: thanks for mentioning my three consecutive BEST PANEL OF THE YEAR awards from the NATIONAL CARTOONISTS SOCIETY. not that i'm proud of them or anything.
yes, you and dave may throw me off of a balcony if you'd like. please make sure there is a pool below me, however.
Suzanne Tobin: On Aug. 30, when I had your father-in-law, Chris Browne, Live Online, he was detailing all the cartoonists he had in his family. And I quote, "My father was a cartoonist. My brother, Chance, is a cartoonist. My stepdaughter, Ashley, is married to Dan Piraro, who draws "Bizarro." Ashley's father is Ralph Smith, who draws "Through Thick and Thin." And my aunt, Annette, was a cartoonist for Classics Illustrated Comics."
Do you think scientists will someday isolate the cartoonist gene?
Dan Piraro: i hope they do and then find a way to eradicate it in people who insist on being cartoonists in spite of their complete lack of ability. i won't mention names, but i'm sure we can all think of a few in that category.
my wife's family is great. when we get together we all quip and joke and give each other hell constantly. it's the most fun you could have with an in-law.
ash and i have decided not to reproduce, however, because we're afraid the gene pool is too close and our kids would be idiots.
Arlington, VA: Why aren't you in the Washington Post? I read you online, but am inherently lazy, and would like the dead-tree version (easier to clip!).
Dan Piraro: i don't know. i definitely think i should be in the post and would LOVE to be, but unfortunately, i'm not the one who makes those decisions. if you would like to see bizarro in there, call, email, or write the comics editor of the WP and tell them so. i'll send you a personalized hanky if you do.
Porkrind, Miss.: Did you ever try to shave your legs with a wood planer? Don't do it. Believe me it's not a good idea.
-- Roxanne in Ole Miss
Dan Piraro: after my experience with the cheese grater, i've sworn off wood planers entirely. i wish you the best, however.
Bulemia, Ore.: Dear Dan,
I loved your work on Threes Company back in the seventies. What's Suzanne Somers really like and did she really invent the thighmaster or is that just some marketing gimmick?
Dan Piraro: thanks, that was a real kick. suzanne was a lot of fun to work with and a real lady. and yes, she did invent the thighmaster. i was there the day it happened and have had flashbacks of euphoria ever since.
john ritter was a peach, too, and that rumor about him and don knotts was completely false as far as i know.
Suzanne Tobin: Dan, you mentioned the National Cartoonists Society. Since we often get questions from aspiring cartoonists (see Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, above), is there a way they can join even if they don't have any work published yet? I know they have a page for prospective cartoonists (http://www.reuben.org/wannabe.asp).
Dan Piraro: yes, i think you can. go to their web site and check out the guidelines. we have a convention once a year and a few hundred of us get together and mostly drink for three days. it's tons of fun, and a lot of the guys i've met there are not regularly published, and some not at all, but all are interested in the field and trying to get their work seen. you can hang out with three unpublished guys, garry trudeau, cathy guisewhite, revilo, all at the same bar. it's a blast.
Buzzardbreath, Wyo.: Hi Dan! If Jesus and Superman had a fight who do you think would win? What if Jesus had kryptonite boxing gloves on? This is a tough call.
Dan Piraro: that's getting into an entire theological realm that i'm not really qualified to expound on, but i'll give it a shot.
if you're a christian, you have to say jesus because he can do anything. if you don't believe in him as the son of god, then you have to say superman because in that case jesus would just be a skinny jewish guy. my real question is if superman and jesus were in a fight, what would the point of "boxing gloves" be?
Suzanne Tobin: Dan, how many compilations have you published? And where can your fans buy them for Christmas for those people who already have everything?
Dan Piraro: to date i have 11 books of bizarro cartoons out. my latest is called LIFE IS STRANGE AND SO ARE YOU. it is a large format book of a few hundred of my best color sunday cartoons. i've also added a lot of liner notes about the different cartoons, where the idea came from, what sort of mail i got afterward, why i began hiding little symbols in my drawings, etc.
the easiest place to find them is on the web. you can buy them through BIZARRO.COM, or AMAZON. most of the big chain stores usually have a few copies, but my distribution hasn't been so great lately. the company responsible for that has been replaced, but they were so bad for so long, a lot of chains got fed up and just stopped ordering.
by the way, i always tell anyone that if they send me a book with an SASE, i'll draw a picture in it, sign it and send it back. you can get my address by writing to the webmaster at BIZARRO.COM or sending it to my attention via KING FEATURES SYNDICATE, 888 7TH AVE. NY NY 10019
Washington, DC: What's your educational background? I'm an aspiring cartoonist currently in my junior year in college, who just endured the torture of final exams. At times like these, I fantasize about chucking the whole higher education thing and devoting all my efforts to developing a comic strip. I usually doodle my way through the few classes I actually attend. I often consider just chucking the whole thing and going off to join the comics pages, but my 'rents would freak. (Besides, they're paying for it and I figure I'll postpone the starving artist gig as long as I can.) I just don't see how this is going to help me down the road. What's your take on this?
Dan Piraro: your degree won't help you in the comics field, but an education is completely necessary. i quit school after one semester and never went back, but i've been reading, traveling and asking questions for the past 20 years to fill in the gap. if you don't put anything in your head, there isn't much hope of anything worthwhile coming back out.
also, the comics business is extremely hard to get into, and once you're in, you typically don' t make enough to live on for several more years. in fact, the majority of syndicated cartoonists live a pretty meager life, and do a lot of freelance on the side. i had a full time job in an advertising illustration studio for the first ten years of my syndication because i needed the money.
Cleveland, Ohio: Could you please explain the effect that Guatemala has had on your cartooning?
Dan Piraro: great question, you must have done your homework.
around 1986 i wrote a joke that featured a made-up award called the ALBERT G. THOMPSON AWARD. a few weeks later i got a letter from an albert g. thompson, a college professor in the midwest, who asked if i had possibly been one of his students. i wasn't, and i told him i'd just made the name and we became pen pals for a short time. i gave him the original art .
ten years later i got an email from a chris thompson, who introduced himself as albert's son. albert and his wife had since retired and bought a small coffee farm in guatemala and chris was conveying an invitation to me to visit them.
i did, along with my two daughters, and i had the time of my life. it is a beautiful country, the thompson's land is like the garden of eden and the Thompsons themselves are remarkable folks. i've been back almost every year since and consider them my surrogate family.
Damascus: You show slides of your work in your stage show? Isn't that a little too close to showing slides of your vacation? Doesn't that put your audience to sleep?
Dan Piraro: no, the slides are of some of my best cartoons over the years. they always get a huge laugh and the audience typically asks me to show more cartoons than i do. i also show some other weird stuff that i use for strange sight gags and comedy routines.
Chantilly VA: Hi Dan, long-time fan here. How long? I still have a copy of one of my all-time favorites: the fast-food kid on trial for murder in courtroom full of cows. "Perhaps THIS will refresh your memory!"
Also, do you know what happened to Guindon? I used to love his work too.
Dan Piraro: i was a big fan of richard guindon too, but i have no idea what happened to him. i read a long time ago that he just got tired of doing a joke a day and moved on to other things. i'm not sure what, though.
the cow cartoon you mentioned was the cover of my first book, published in 1986 or so. that IS an old one. have you seen any of my work since then?
Sarasota, Florida: Dear Mr. Bizarro,
Are you providing a safe and secure home
environment for my adorable, brilliant and
talented daughter, who is deserving of all good
things? And what have you gotten her for
Love, Daddy in law
Dan Piraro: hi, dad,
chris is not just one of my many fathers-in-law (ashley's mom got around) but also the cartoonist who does RAISING DUNCAN and whose father did HAGAR THE HORRIBLE.
yes, i'm providing the best home possible for your daughter, known around these parts as "the queen of everything." i adore her beyond belief, as you know, and for christmas i'm giving her my undying devotion for the rest of our natural lives.
i got in on sale at sears.
Cleveland Ohio: Thanks for the great answer. Did Stephen King ever file suite for you using his likeness in a cartoon without his permission? Did Vincent Price sue from the grave for leaving him out of the cartoon?
Thanks for the great answer, I'll make sure it gets seen by the right people.
Dan Piraro: no, stephen king didn't file suit but he did bang on my window in the middle of the night and scare the crap out of me.
in my guatemala answer i forgot to mention that the thompson's son chris is a really great guy who is bright and talented, has a lovely family, and spends too much time on the internet while he is at work.
ny ny: i know you have a busy schedule with
"bizarro" but was wondering if, as maybe
a new year's goal, you are considering
doing some more fine art painting?
Dan Piraro: i'm definitely planning a new year's resolution to do just that. my wife is always after me to do more of that and she's right. but man, my schedule is crazy.
New York: I saw your show at the N.Y. Fringe Festival and loved it! I want to take some friends of mine the next time you bring it to a theater near us! Any firm dates or plans?
Dan Piraro: glad you liked it. i'm currently talking to people in chicago, cincinnati, washington d.c., and new york about doing the show. so far, no firm dates, but i post them on my web site, BIZARRO.COM when they are confirmed, so keep watching.
Centreville, VA: In a lot of your cartoons are little drawings of things like a slice of pie. What is the symbolism of this?
Dan Piraro: i started doing those for fun a couple years ago and began building an entire cult philosophy around them. the meanings are spelled out on my web site, BIZARRO.COM and also in the back of my color sunday book, LIFE IS STRANGE AND SO ARE YOU. there is a new symbol that isn't explained in either of those places, a firecracker, and it represents my wife, ashley. we just got married this past fall.
e.e.cummings: why do you type in all lower case? is your shift key disabled?
Dan Piraro: i'm not tall enough to reach the upper case keys.
Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Dan, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer our readers' questions. I wish I had more space in the paper...even though I don't get to make those decisions, my boss does. But if you want to see Bizarro in the paper, call 202-334-4775 (our comics hotline) or e-mail email@example.com and let the powers that be know that you'd like to see Bizarro in print! Join us again in two weeks for another edition of Comics: Meet the Artist.
Dan Piraro: thanks, boys and girls. see you later,
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