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

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



LIBRESCU: The comics editor of my local paper told me that they were afraid to make any changes, because when they do, people threaten to cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper. I suggested that perhaps one of the things that could help save newspapers would be expanding the comics section and giving local artists and new artists a venue for their work. It might actually invigorate the paper, because you can get world news and national news online or on TV the day before it appears in the newspaper. Local news is the one thing that newspapers can do better. They could showcase local artists. It would make the newspaper a source of material that people couldn’t get anywhere else. Maybe that would give newspapers a shot in the arm.

PIRARO: They have to do that kind of thing. I’ve thought that, too. In any business model, you want to appeal to a wide consumer base. So if you’ve got 30 cartoons in your newspaper, and all 30 of them are family-based humor, like Garfield and Blondie, it doesn’t make good business sense. If you have 30 cartoons, you want to have 10 that are family-based, 10 that are political-based, and 10 that are weird as hell, just to try to pull in more, different readers.

The reason I thought about that early on is because when I first tried to get syndicated back in the late ’80s, my salesmen would tell me how well so-and-so at the Wichita Branch and Twig likes your work, but they already have a cartoon like that — and it would be The Far Side. Well, they have 35 family-style cartoons. Why not have more than one oddball, surreal-humor cartoon? It just doesn’t make sense.

But again, that’s the way they think. They’re loath to change anything. No matter how old and lame a particular strip might be, if they cancel it, they’re going to get people threatening to cancel their subscriptions and that scares them to death. And somebody’s going to lose a lot of time answering angry letters. I don’t blame them for that. I don’t like to cause myself trouble, either. The editors aren’t crusaders for the best cartoon humor out there. They’re journalists who are trying to do their job and they don’t really want to be bothered by other things. It’s sort of a catch-22, and it’s not likely to change.

The other thing newspapers are going to have to do, of course, is start charging for the Internet. All the newspapers give away virtually all their content for free on the Internet. There are a few papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times where you can get most of the news for free, but you have to subscribe to get a handful of columnists.

So things are kind of moving in that direction. But talk about a bad business model! How can you say you can either buy this on environmentally destructive paper for x amount of money, or you can get it for free on your computer any time of day? It just doesn’t make sense to give it away, and they can’t do it forever.

LIBRESCU: Unless they can subsidize it with advertising.

PIRARO: Right, like television. But that’s the conundrum we’re in now. Newspapers are folding and all of my work is available every day online for free. I’m not going to do it for free forever. As soon as my income drops too low, I’m just going to quit and do something else for a living. You can’t expect people to give their work away for free forever.

LIBRESCU: You mentioned the comic strip Nancy. I was wondering what happens to these old comics. Why do artists continue to get hired in order to keep these ancient comic strips alive? Will people still be reading Nancy and Mary Worth in the 23rd century?

PIRARO: Well, that’s capitalism. They have a product that’s selling well. They’re not going to kill it off while it’s still selling, even if they have to offer an inferior version of it. I agree with you. Most true fans, or I should say, connoisseurs of the art form, agree that it’s far preferable to print reruns like they did with Peanuts than it is to hire someone new to keep an old comic strip going. But it’s just money.

LIBRESCU: Or you could do what Lynn Johnston did with For Better or For Worse and redraw your old strips over again.

PIRARO: Is that what she’s doing? I didn’t even know that.

LIBRESCU: She had the only strip that I can think of where the characters actually aged. She got to the point where the children in the strip had grown into adults. One day she announced that she was going to go back and revisit her old material and basically redraw the old strips and start all over again.

PIRARO: So it’s the same information, just different drawings?

LIBRESCU: Not the exact same information. I don’t really read the strip.

PIRARO: That’s a really weird decision.

LIBRESCU: It’s like a writer saying that he’s written all the books he’s going to write and now he’s going to start writing all his books over again from the beginning.

PIRARO: Yeah. Wow!



LIBRESCU: Cartoonists are always asked about their technique and where they get their ideas. I’m not going to ask where you get your ideas, but I was wondering if you’d share a little bit about your technique and your workflow?

PIRARO: For whatever reason, I can only come up with cartoon ideas in the first few hours of the day. The rest of the day, I don’t even bother trying. The first thing I do every day is sit down and surf the Web. I look at cartoons. I look at news. I look at websites. I just surf around the Web until I see an image, an idea or a phrase that inspires some kind of joke. I jot the joke down quickly and draw some scribbles to represent the art. Then I move on and keep trying to write.

Later, at any point of the day, I go back and look at my sketchbook and pull out the ideas that I think will make good cartoons. I pencil-sketch them onto Bristol board, like most people use. And then I ink them with India ink and a small brush. I do all my work with a brush now. I used a Rapidograph pen at first, but I changed to brushwork sometime around 1990. And I’ve been doing it that way ever since. For years, I even did my lettering with a brush.

Around 2002 or 2003, I had a font made of my brush lettering. I found a guy who designs fonts. I gave him several versions of my alphabet and he built a font for me. Now I use the font to fill in the captions because it’s so much faster and more efficient. If somebody buys the original, I go back and hand-letter it before I give them the art, of course.

I know cartoonists who are really secretive about how they work. They won’t admit that they use a font, but I totally admit it. I have no qualms admitting that, and being honest about my work.

Then I scan the art into the computer. I sell Bizarro in both strip and panel form. But I draw them in panel form, which is the original way I always did it. Then I break it apart on the computer and create the strip by moving the art and the caption balloons around. I have one of those Wacom Cintiq tablets where you can draw right on the screen with a pressure-sensitive pen. So if I need to add to the drawing, I do it on the computer. I do all the coloring on the computer with Photoshop. And that’s the whole story.

LIBRESCU: How do you like using the Cintiq?

PIRARO: For a while, I did that kind of stuff on the drawing tablet that sits on your lap, so you have to look at the screen and draw on your lap. I got pretty good at that. I honestly thought that I was good enough that I didn’t need a Cintiq. But a friend of mine who’s an animator said, “No, you need a Cintiq.” She had me over to her house and I played around for a while with the one that she had, and I thought, “Damn, this is amazing! It really is so much better.” I love the thing.

I bought one a few years ago and it was expensive. Maybe they’re a little cheaper now. It has just been the greatest thing — I really love it. It saves time and it’s much more accurate than using a conventional drawing tablet. No matter how good you get at using a tablet, it’s not the same as actually drawing where you’re seeing the image.

LIBRESCU: I have one of the old-style tablets and I can’t get it to do precisely what I want it to do. When I saw the Cintiq, I thought it was exactly what I’ve been looking for. The problem is that I can’t afford it.

PIRARO: Financially, it was a stretch for me, but it was a business deduction, and I just went for it. Now I’m really glad I did. If I’m away from home and don’t want to bring tons of art supplies and a scanner and everything, I just bring the Cintiq and connect it to a laptop. I’ll create my cartoons from start to finish entirely on the Cintiq. I can get away with it. Nobody can tell the difference. It’s indistinguishable from my own brushwork.



Tomorrow, in the conclusion of this interview, Dan Piraro talks about surrealism, modern art and the secret images hidden in his strips.


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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] […]