I’ve been a big fan of Dan Piraro’s Bizarro comic ever since it first started running in the papers in Minneapolis in the 80’s. I’ve always loved the surrealist humor, the highly detailed artwork, and the look of the characters. When Jim Horwitz’s interview ran at the beginning of January, Dan mentioned it on his blog, which prompted me to go visit there, and ask Dan for an interview, too. He graciously, and surprisingly, said, “Yes.” Which immediately put me in a bind – what do you ask a man that’s been asked every question imaginable already? Answer – … I’m still working on that.
BC: You’ve stated that you’re moving more into painting and establishing yourself as a fine artist. What’s the appeal of painting, to you as a cartoonist? Sam Hurt, of Eyebeam, has also taken up painting, and I’m sure you’re aware that famed funny man George W. Bush also tackled this profession after retiring from his stand up career. What makes painting so popular as an activity? Is it the work schedule, the lack of deadlines, or greater control of the licensing rights?
DP: I grew up wanting to be a painter but being raised in a small town in Oklahoma, didn’t have the slightest idea how to make money at it. To avoid minimum wage jobs, I gravitated towards commercial illustration in my early twenties and was fairly quickly able to make enough to live indoors and eat regularly and was happy with that for a while. It was certainly better than the random jobs I’d been doing since high school, but I didn’t enjoy the work. In fact, within a couple of years, I really hated it. In an effort to escape the world of ad agencies, I began drawing and submitting cartoons to syndicates. I got some interest fairly quickly, but it took a couple of years of trying before finally getting a small syndicate, Chronicle Features in San Francisco, to give me a try. I considered myself profoundly fortunate to have landed a syndication contract at the age of 26 but didn’t realize that the money would be very slow coming and so I was trapped in my commercial illustration job for quite a few more years, doing Bizarro at night and on weekends.
DP: Though I’ve really enjoyed my cartoon career, I’ve always seen myself becoming a painter eventually. I find fine art to be very meditative and the easiest way to get into what people call “flow” or the “zone”. Unlike commercial art and cartooning, fine art is something you do entirely for yourself, without aiming it at an audience. Also, my fine art looks very little like my cartoon art so it’s a big change of pace for me.
BC: When Trump gets his wall built, who will be the first to deface it – you, or Banksy?
DP: I’ve been saying that I’d be happy to pitch in to pay for and build that wall if it will keep Trump and his supporters out of Mexico. In reality, though, one can easily see it is going to be an impossibly expensive quagmire that will likely never be completed; Trump’s Tower of Babel. And, of course, if it ever is completed, all one needs to defeat a 25-foot wall is a 26-foot ladder.
BC: Speaking of Trump, his followers seem to be very quick in denouncing anti-Trump cartoons, and claiming to boycott the artists of said cartoons. What’s your view on this? Is it better to play it safe and stay away from political cartoons now? Should artists stand up for their beliefs regardless of the consequences, or should they remain neutral and then use the money they make off of Trump supporters to help fund the groups Trump targets?
DP: The old paradigm for syndicated cartoonists used to be to not do anything to offend anyone in an attempt to maintain the broadest possible appeal. But now, with newspapers in decline and the way the Internet works, the opposite is true. There is so much interesting content online that it is very hard to attract attention; one way to do so is to have a strong opinion, which serves to attract people with similar opinions, of which there are always enough to support you. I’ve been hammering Trump hard on an almost weekly basis and it has improved my visibility and popularity online, not diminished it. (I’ve also not received any complaints from my client newspapers, which was something I occasionally got when I would take a shot at W. Bush.) I think it is important to remember that less than 1/4 of Americans voted for Trump. Who knows what the half of the country that did not vote at all think, but I’m guessing it’s safe to assume that a clear majority of Americans despise him and want him gone as quickly as possible. So I suspect trashing him isn’t that dangerous to any one person’s career. Even if it were, I refuse to remain silent during what is inarguably the darkest time in America’s history in a century. All of us need to call out this lying carnival barker and his cabinet of Simpsons billionaires.
BC: Can you talk about your stand-up comedy experiences? Were there any high- or low-lights that really stand out or make for good stories?
DP: I loved doing my one-man show and stand-up back in the day. There is nothing like the immediate gratification of hearing a roomful of people laugh at your comedy. Cartoonists don’t usually get that.
DP: My best and worst memories of those days belong to a single tour I did in about 2005 with my relatively new wife and my eldest daughter, Krapuzar. (She and her sister, Krelspeth, are who the hidden “K2” in my cartoons are a shout-out to.) My daughter was in her early 20s and was onstage with me during “The Bizarro Baloney Show,” which entailed songs, puppets, stand-up, video, some audience interaction, sets, costumes, props, and a few other bits of vaudevillian shenanigans. She played violin during the songs, did a bit of improvisational back-and-forth with me, and together we sang and danced to the big finale number. Audiences loved it and those shows are among my favorite memories of our time spent together.
DP: On the dark side, there were only the three of us on that tour and we had to manage the props, costumes and sets, the hotel and transportation arrangements, the tickets, sales of products, everything. It was exhausting and–without the payoff of the adulation onstage–my wife came to hate it and developed a major case of jealousy over my relationship with my daughter. She became increasingly surly and the tension between her and us was tremendous. It was such a drag that I got a stress zit in the middle of my forehead that would not go away. I looked like a religious Hindu for weeks. I still have a prominent scar there to this day, which I hate. Fortunately, the marriage didn’t last as long as the scar.
BC: Since, you’re talking about retiring, looking back on your career as a cartoonist, are there any things that really stand out, good or bad, things that make you shake your head and say “what were they thinking” or “what was I thinking?” People you’ve met in the industry that you’ve become friends with that have stories worth repeating?
DP: I’m not sure this is what you’re asking for but this story occurs to me as a highlight: I was at the Montreal Just For Laughs comedy festival (as an audience member, not a performer) and I went to see Zach Galifianakis perform. I’ve long been a huge fan of both his stand-up and his TV and film work. Halfway through his set he walked through the audience and did some question/answer improv with random people. It was one of those old theaters that had cocktail tables on the floor and seats in the balcony. He happened by my table and asked the typical questions of me, looking for ways to improvise something funny.
“What’s your name?”…Dan.
“What do you do?” …I’m a syndicated cartoonist.
“Oh, really? Is it anything I might know?” …I do “Bizarro”.
At this, completely unexpected, the audience erupted in applause. This was hugely satisfying to me, of course. Then Zach said, “No way! I love your cartoons!” This was even more hugely satisfying. We chatted for another 30 seconds or so then he moved on. After the show I went backstage and met him, we exchanged email addresses and have very loosely stayed in touch via email since. I was hoping we’d become best friends and I’d end up getting a part in one of his films but that never happened, of course. :^}
BC: Other than just becoming older, how do you think you’ve changed as a cartoonist over the years? Are there types of jokes that you’ve done before that just don’t seem funny anymore? Or, do you think your audiences have changed since you started out? Who are your favorite cartoonists for doing guest appearances in the Bizarro strip? Any artists that you’d love to work with again, given the chance?
DP: I’ve learned a lot about what makes a funny cartoon and what misses. About three quarters of my first couple years of work now seems clumsy and amateurish to me and I’m a bit embarrassed by much of it. Fortunately, that was in the late 80s, before everything you did appeared on the Internet for eternity.
BC: Aww, those were the ones that attracted me to you in the first place. So… um… can we still be friends?
DP: If you’re comfortable being friends with a self-loathing person, sure.
DP: Regarding guest cartoonists, I’ve only done that a handful of times (Wayno, J.C.Duffy, and Francesco Marciuliano are the only three I can think of right now. GOD, I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!) and have always been happy with what they did. I chose them because I loved their work in the first place, and I was not disappointed by their efforts. One cartoonist I would have loved to have known but did not meet was the late, great B. Kliban.
BC: I like Dave Kellett’s work on Drive, and Sheldon, although I have yet to see Stripped (since I live in Japan). What was it like being interviewed by him for Stripped, and was there anything you talked about with Dave that you would have liked to have seen get into the movie?
DP: Dave’s film was mostly about the changing world of cartoons and the transition between newspapers and the Internet. I’ve learned a lot from his perspective on it, and have found his ideas on how to make the Internet more lucrative for cartoonists to be invaluable. Luckily, I’m still making a decent living off of newspapers so I’ve not had to rely too much on making money online, but as that day approaches, I’ve found myself using a lot of his advice. I spent a few years in LA before I moved to Mexico and was able to become friends with Kellett and pick his brain a bit about the topic. He’s a super talented and smart guy, and is always happy to help other cartoonists succeed.
BC: As a last resort question, how about, “If you kept a daily diary, what would a typical entry look like for one day in a Bizarro life?”
DP: People are usually disappointed to hear about my average day. I think they hope it will be surreal and zany, but in truth, I’m a creature of routine and my days are pretty average and domestic. I begin by reading my emails and news articles online as I sip a cup of piping hot whiskey. Around noon, I put away my laptop, climb out of the pallet of straw that I use for a bed, and take my dog for a walk through our rural, Mexican neighborhood to secure the first meal of the day. She’s good at finding edibles in lots of places that I’m too large to get to, like tunnels and the crevices of collapsed buildings. Once we’ve both had enough to eat, we go back to my hut and I get to work on cartoons. Around 5pm, I fire up my motorcycle and buzz through the cobblestone streets of town as fast as I can without hitting any donkey carts, and throw tequila balloons at tourists. (They’re just like water balloons but with tequila. You can get top shelf tequila here for super cheap so it’s very affordable. Most tourists get pissed off but some shout “Thanks, mister!”) This takes about 45 minutes. On the way home, I stop off at the local shaman’s tent and stock up on ayahuasca and peyote. Once home, I chase the iguanas out of my house and remind myself I need to build a door, then I pour myself a balloon of tequila (the iguanas keep breaking my glassware so I drink from balloons) take the ayahuasca and peyote, and spend the rest of the evening talking to creatures from another dimension. I’m not sure what time I go to bed but I wake up in my straw pile each morning at the same time and the whole boring rut starts all over again.
BC: I got it! A question that has never been asked before! Do you accept house guests? Credit cards?
DP: One of the things people who move to exotic locations have nightmares about is people whom they don’t necessarily want as house guests inviting themselves to come stay. I can recommend some lovely hotels in the area that accept credit cards, however.
BC: In a criminally inept world controlled by unbelievably ill-informed leadership, Dan provides an insanely reasonably priced book of adult coloration for only $5.99. The above illustrations have been from Creative Haven Bizarro Land. The ink fumes alone are worth the price of the book.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Dan Piraro (c) 2017.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2017. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)
Poll: Do the hotels you stay at change the straw every three days?