A Conversation with Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro, Part One of Three

Posted by on November 3rd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conducted by Marc Librescu

Part one ♦ Part twoPart three


All cartoons ©2010 Dan Piraro.


Dan Piraro is the creative mind behind the award-winning cartoon Bizarro. First syndicated in 1985, Bizarro has developed a loyal following and now appears internationally in more than 350 daily and Sunday newspapers.

Piraro was born in Kansas City, Mo., and grew up in Tulsa, Okla. He left Washington University in St. Louis after attending for one semester. He later worked as a commercial artist in Dallas, Texas, before moving to New York City In 2002. Piraro has published 13 Bizarro collections, along with three other books. Bizarro Among the Savages (Andrews McMeel, 1998) detailed his exploits during a book tour that was completely funded by his fans (he even stayed in their homes). The Three Little Pigs Buy the White House (St. Martins, 2004) is a satirical look at the Bush administration in the form of a children’s book. Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro (Harry N. Abrams, 2006) is a retrospective of his careers as a cartoonist, fine artist and commercial illustrator.

Bizarro is one of the few bright lights in today’s newspaper comics page. Combining a mix of offbeat humor with an occasional smattering of politics and animal activism (Piraro has been a vegan since 2002), the cartoon has won three consecutive Best Cartoon Panel of the Year awards from the National Cartoonists Society. This year, Piraro received their highest award, the Reuben Award, for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

Piraro regularly gives talks and performs comedy across the country. His one-man stand-up comedy show, The Bizarro Baloney Show, made its debut at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival, where it was voted Best Solo Show.

He spoke with me by phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lives with his wife, Ashley Lou Smith.

— Marc Librescu


MARC LIBRESCU: In the introduction to William Steig’s book, Ruminations, Whitney Balliett talked about “the mysterious line that separates cartoonists from artists.” Balliett said, “Cartoonists are sketchers who deal in obsolescence, whereas artists, more heavily equipped, aim at permanence.” As a cartoonist who also creates fine art, do you agree that cartoons are ephemeral?

DAN PIRARO: [Laughs.] You’re starting with the softballs and you’ll be getting to the harder questions later, huh?

I don’t think hard about these issues. Charles Schulz, who was a wonderful friend and a pleasure to all cartoonists who were lucky enough to meet him, had a sort of chip on his shoulder about the separation of cartoons and fine art. He felt that cartoons were every bit as important in society and the creative world as fine art and he wanted to see cartoons in the Louvre. Norman Rockwell was another person who was separated by some as an illustrator and others as a fine artist. I don’t know how much that bothered Norman, but there has always been that kind of debate.

Quite honestly, I just don’t care. I think that creative efforts are what they are. You reach down into your soul, pull something out, and you throw it out there. There’s no way to control how it’s accepted or not accepted by individuals or by society as a whole, and it is of no concern to me.

Humor gets dated quite often. If you look back at some of the cartoons from the early 20th century, they just aren’t funny or they don’t ring the same bell or push the same buttons that they did then. But then others do. There’s no way to predict the future. I don’t know what about my cartoons will or won’t be relevant in 50 or 100 years and I won’t be here to care, so I don’t worry about it.

I always thought of cartooning as being a job. I try to make it as much of an art form as I can, but in my own mind, I sort of separate it. I think, well this is a job. It’s not pure creativity. There are a lot of rules that I have to go by. I can’t touch on certain subjects. The cartoons have to make a certain amount of sense and have a certain context. They have to be understandable to most people, and hopefully, amusing to most people. There are just a lot of rules. It’s a product that I’m on deadline for, getting paid for and under contract for.

So I think of it as more of a commercial venture that I try to put as much creativity and soul into as I can, given the guidelines. Whereas with fine arts, I just go for it — straight from the heart. Whatever happens happens. I don’t think about the audience. I don’t think about the time frame. I just enjoy the creative process. Once again, where it ends up in history or in anyone else’s mind is beyond my control, so I don’t worry about that.



LIBRESCU: You mentioned in your book, Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro, that, if you made enough money with your cartooning, you’d like to do fine art. I wonder about people like Gary Larsen, who’ve retired from cartooning. If you found yourself in that situation, would you still need to communicate via cartoons in the same the way as when you were doing it as a job?

PIRARO: I don’t know. I’ve wondered about that myself. The further I go down this road, the more I think about getting out of it, only because I’ve been doing it for over 25 years now — a cartoon a day for over 25 years. And it’s getting more and more like a prison sentence in the sense that I can’t escape it. Yeah, I feel very fortunate to be doing it and I enjoy it. It’s so much better than any number of other jobs.

In 21st century United States, you certainly cannot complain if you’re making a living as an artist — period. You just can’t. It’s like complaining that you won $10 million in the lottery instead of a hundred million. So, I like my career, but I’d love to change. I’d love to be able to get away from the 365-day-a-year responsibility because the downside is that I don’t get any vacations unless I work twice as many hours for x amount of time. I don’t get any time off for grieving, illnesses, or injuries. I just have to work through whatever happens. And that becomes an incredible grind after a quarter of a century. I’ve been through any number of funerals and I’ve been through a divorce and a couple of breakups and my dog died and who knows how many bouts of influenza. At that point it becomes really grueling.

So I’d love to get away from it and do fine art. I think about that. I ask myself if I’ll miss the daily contact that I have with my readers. When I send stuff out there, I know that they’re reading it. I don’t watch them read it, or hear from each one of them, or get their opinion on every cartoon, but I know they’re out there. So there’s this kind of connection that I have with my readers. And I wonder if I’ll miss it, and if I’ll occasionally come up with cartoon ideas. If I do, I’ll draw them and put them on my blog. If somebody sees them, then I guess that’s a good thing.

I’m sure there would be a certain amount of withdrawal. And I’ve often thought specifically about Gary Larsen. What in the world is he doing with his time? Not that cartooning is the only thing that he can do. But I’m driven by ambition. I wouldn’t be happy sitting in my house for the rest of my life just painting and leaning the paintings up against the wall. I’d want to succeed. I’d want to get them in galleries, start selling them, and build a following. I’d want to get my art out there so it communicates with other people. To me, that’s a big part of the process.

It’s not that way for all artists. Many do it purely for the sake of art. But I really like sharing it and getting stuff out there. People often look at someone who’s already successful and ask, “Why do they bother? Don’t they have enough money? Why are they still working so hard? Why are they still trying to succeed? Why are they complaining about this, that, or the other? They’re famous. They’re rich. They’ve got the awards. What drives them?”

Well, it’s ambition. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t quit working and just sit around and watch TV, travel and scuba dive for the rest of my life. It’s fun, but it isn’t enough. There’s something in me that makes me want to set goals and achieve them.

So, I don’t know what life after cartooning will be like. I’m looking forward to finding out, but I don’t know that I ever will. I may be…

LIBRESCU:…forced into a life of cartooning.

PIRARO: Yeah. I may be stuck doing this until I drop just because I need the paycheck.

LIBRESCU: It beats working in the coal mine.

PIRARO: It absolutely does. It beats working in any cubicle in the world, for that matter.


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