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

Posted by on November 4th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conducted by Marc Librescu

Part one ♦ Part two ♦ Part three


Click image for larger version. All cartoons ©2010 Dan Piraro.


MARC LIBRESCU: Which cartoonists influenced your work?

DAN PIRARO: [Pause.] I’m lighting a cigar. That was the reason for my pause. It wasn’t because I was thinking.

I enjoyed newspaper comics when I was a kid, but magazine cartoons were my favorites. I loved the one-off gags that I saw in the New Yorker, even more than the comic strips with story lines and regular characters. Nowadays it’s almost exclusively the New Yorker that runs single-panel cartoons, but when I was a kid in the ’60s and ’70s, almost every magazine was full of them. That’s what they did. I have no idea why they stopped it. It’s not expensive for publications to buy those things and everybody loves them. I cannot even fathom the logic behind not doing that any more, but they don’t.

Anyway, those were my favorites. I just loved the surprise quality of this weird, one-off image without regular characters that magazine cartoons provided. I thought they were the coolest thing ever. I enjoyed the little mental trick of looking at a slice of a moment and wondering what happened right before this picture, and what was going to happen right after, and reading the caption, and putting it all together in your head. Solving that puzzle in your head was such a thrill for me. That’s why I designed Bizarro the way that I did.

I really admired people like Schulz. I was also a big fan of Tumbleweeds by Tom K. Ryan, partly because I loved cowboys and Indians (which was my main game when I was a little kid), but also because of the way it was designed. It has a really strange, abstract character design. I’m still a fan of the way he draws.

I became a fan of the New Yorker cartoonists at an early age. I loved Gahan Wilson. The National Lampoon cartoons were terrific. Gahan Wilson, Charles Adams, all those early New Yorker guys whose names I can’t remember any more because they haven’t been in the magazine now for quite a while, and more recently people like Jack Ziegler and Mick Stevens. I guess those guys have been around for quite a while, too.

Those are the people who influenced me. Then when I was in college, my main influence, by far, was Kliban. My roommate had one of his offbeat books, not the cat one that made him millions… in fact, it was Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head. I looked through it and it changed my world. I loved the bizarre way Kliban drew. It was just so amazing. These were not classic traditional gags with a certain set-up and rhythm. They were really just the strange musings of a creative man, in graphic form. I found that so appealing. It really pulled me in.

I’d never really drawn cartoons before. I’d always admired and enjoyed them, but I never drew them. When I saw Kliban’s work, I started drawing these strange musings out of my own mind. A few years later, I started sending them off to syndicates and tried to get syndicated. What stopped me from doing it earlier was that I’d gotten out of the habit of reading newspapers and I didn’t know how to get into magazines. That seemed like a lot of work. You had to figure out who at the magazine you had to send your stuff off to. It seemed like such a long shot. As an illustrator, I was an introvert. I wasn’t a natural salesman, so it was a difficult thing for me to manage.

I hadn’t read the newspaper in ages. In the early ’80s when I was a young adult looking for something to do for a living, I thought of the newspaper as a place where only cartoons like Marmaduke and Dennis the Menace were welcome. I was working at an ad agency one time, an in-house ad agency at Neiman-Marcus of all places, and a lot of my colleagues enjoyed my cartoons. They said I should try to get them syndicated in the paper. I said, “They don’t print that kind of stuff.” Somebody brought in a Far Side cartoon, which had only been in the paper for a few years at that time, maybe three or four years. I’d never heard of it and had never seen it. And I thought, “Oh my God, this is a magazine-style cartoon! They’re putting magazine-style cartoons in the newspaper now!”

That was the impetus that got me to start mailing my stuff to the syndicates. A couple of years later, I got signed. As The Far Side picked up popularity and steam, all the syndicates said, “Let’s start putting some of these magazine-style cartoons in our lineup.”

It wasn’t really Larson who inspired me as much as it was his editor, who started selling that kind of work to newspapers. I always felt like that was the moment that changed the face of newspapers. His name was Stan Arnold. He changed the face of newspapers because he recognized the potential of getting that kind of humor into the funny pages. And it worked. People like it.



LIBRESCU: Aside from the occasional original comic strip or cartoon, newspaper comics are pretty bad as a whole.

PIRARO: Yep. I agree.

LIBRESCU: While comics have been evolving in different media, such as graphic novels and animation, newspaper cartoons by and large have been stuck somewhere between the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Why?

PIRARO: I have theories about it. I don’t know a lot of newspaper editors personally, but I know a lot of syndicate salesmen, and they know every newspaper editor. Some of the information I’ve gotten from them is basically that newspaper editors think of themselves as journalists. They’re all about the news. There are a handful around the country who are fans of cartoons and who really want to make that part of the paper special. But for the majority of them, it’s just a job that’s tacked on to their regular journalism job. They’re responsible for picking cartoons to put in the newspaper, but they don’t take it terribly seriously.

It becomes a path of least resistance. Editors aren’t out to find the best, most creative and newest thing. They’re basically out to fill those pages with things their subscribers are going to enjoy. Subscribers have been enjoying Beetle Bailey for 45 years, or 60 years, or whatever. If they take it out, a lot of people complain. So they leave everything in there. They leave in anything that has a following. They don’t want to spend a week answering angry letters from people who need their Nancy fix.

That’s part of the problem. Then you have young guys coming up — and I made this mistake myself at first — who look at the newspaper and they go, “This is the stuff that’s popular. I’m going to create cartoons like this.” So they don’t push the envelope. When they do, it reduces their chance of getting signed, so they just don’t do it.

The syndicates have been guilty of that themselves. They look at what has sold and they continue to offer what’s been successful in the past. You know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So that’s what they do. It’s a generational thing. It’s sad to say, but it takes editors and syndicate heads getting old and dying, and turning their jobs over to younger people who still believe — erroneously — that they can change the world. [Laughs.]

You have to wait until the old guard is gone and the new folks come up to even take baby steps. It’s a very slow process. For the longest time, the people who have been choosing comics for the newspaper were almost exclusively white men over 60. Not always, but often. They’re guys that have been in the newspaper business forever. How varied can the taste of that subset of Americans be?

The hardest part of syndication is that there’s no ratings system, so no matter how many newspapers you’re in, you have no idea whether you have one reader or a million. You could be in 2,500 newspapers around the world and have no fans. It may be that no one reads your cartoon or that nobody likes it. You don’t know. In any given market your entire career relies on a single person.


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One Response to “A Conversation with Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro, Part Two of Three”

  1. […] Creators | Marc Librescu continues his three-part conversation with Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro. [TCJ.com] […]