Interview: Dan Piraro Pt. 1 [of 2]

Categories:  Interviews

For the past quarter century, something strange has been unfolding in the comic pages of newspapers across the country—something called Bizarro. Dan Piraro began the single-paneled semi-absurdist strip nearly 25 five years ago, when the landscape of syndicated comics was largely dominated by unfunny animals—a motif, which, sadly, has largely gone unchanged.

All these years later, Bizarro remains one of the last bastions for interesting and genuinely hilarious comics in the funny pages. The strip is syndicated to more than 350 papers, though, as Piraro will be the first to admit, is a bit hard to come by in his home town of New York. That said, the artist has no trouble drawing fans out during signings at MoCCA, or while performing his one-man music/comedy piece, “The Bizarro Baloney Show.”

We sat down with Piraro this weekend to talk about conventions, editors, and why Kansas City doesn’t always appreciate a good abortion joke.

Do you go to MoCCA every year?

Yeah—well, I wasn’t here last year, because there was something I had to be out of town for.

Do you do most of the New York-area conventions? Were you at New York Comic Con?

I have done that, yeah. But this show is way better than any of the comic cons, only because it’s all of the best stuff and none of the nonsense—none of the Hollywood or Japanese stuff. It’s none of that other stuff that I’m not interested. There’s no better people watching in the world than those big comic cons, but there’s so much junk that you don’t really get to see any of the stuff you like, because it’s so spread out.

So you’re still a pretty active comic reader, then?

Yes and no. I have a handful of favorite things that I read, but I don’t follow the industry as closely as you might think I would. It’s funny, at these kinds of events, people always come up to me and throw names around, like, “did you hear that so and so is working with so and so for such and such they’re going to do a sequel to such and such?” and I’ve never heard of any of these things. I just smile and nod even though I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Is it just people engaging you in small talk?

It’s just hardcore fans. They go to these things and they’re excited to talk comics and they’re excited to talk to cartoonists and they just start throwing names around, and I’m not a hardcore fan like they are, so half the time I don’t even know what they’re talking about [laughs].

I spoke to you earlier at your table and you said that hadn’t walked around yet. When you go to these shows, do you set aside the time to check out other booths?

I’m actually about to do that in a few minutes. I do it kind of quick. The problem is I end up spending all of my money. The thing I love about  these comics is the art. I don’t personally feel like the writing is as strong in alternative comics. The writing doesn’t interest me as much as the art. A lot of it is great art, but to me a lot of the writing is inconsequential. Some of these people are great writers. But I buy a lot of stuff because of the way it looks, and I get inspired by the art. I’ll read the first couple of pages, and if they don’t grab me, I won’t read the rest. Still, a lot of my favorite books are ones that I don’t even read.

Do you consider yourself an artist first, when it comes to your own work?

I actually really like to write. I’ve written and published a couple of books.

Prose?

Yeah. And I write a monthly column for a magazine. I love to write. And of course my cartoons aren’t really stories. They’re just glimpses. And of course to me it’s gotta be funny first and look good second, in terms of being successful. For instance, Dilbert is a cartoon that’s really well written, if you’re a person who works in an office. It’s clever and funny, but it’s horribly drawn, and Scott Adams is the first to admit that. But imagine if it was incredibly well drawn and badly written—nobody would know what Dilbert was. So the writing is a more important thing, when it comes to audience. A great looking book that doesn’t do anything for anybody, whether it’s a graphic novel or a comic strip, you’re not going to build an audience—well, you might. Frank Frazetta was a great artist who wasn’t know for writing.

He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, either.

Yeah. So it does happen. But when we’re talking about graphic novels, it makes sense to have great writing. Put something into it, or get someone who can write, I think.

It’s funny, it seems to be that in the case of indie comics, if you’re a good storyteller, you don’t necessarily have to be a great artist.  A lot of the successful artists out there, you wouldn’t necessarily point to them as great draftsmen.

Yeah, and also I think the whole online comics and self-publishing thing is great for people who want to get their work seen, but the bad side is that you don’t have an editor. So it’s very easy for someone who likes to draw to just do these draws and throw up a story that isn’t coherent or isn’t interesting. And that’s one of the great things about being published. They say, “look, we’re not going to spend any money to publish this, until the story piques our interest. Let’s work on it.” It’s one of the downsides of self-publishing online. There’s a lot of great stuff, but there’s a lot of bad stuff, too. People can draw and they think they can write, but a lot of them can’t.

It seems like doing newspaper strip is sort of the ultimate form of being edited. You’ve probably got countless people who have to approve your stuff at any one time.

Yeah. The thing is, you hit your stride at some point fairly quickly, because it’s a lot of work. You have to draw every single day, 365 days a year, year after year, after year. So once you hit your stride, editors tend to leave you alone. At this point, after 25 years, they figure I know my audience, I know what I’m doing. Sometimes if I push the envelope too much, my editor may call and say, “this may cause some trouble in middle America. Is this abortion joke really funny enough to risk losing Kansas City?” That sort of thing. But at this point, it doesn’t happen to me much. If I’m not good at it now, I never will be.

How long did it take you to hit that stride?

I’d say a couple of years. It took a couple of years of my editors basically reviewing everything I wrote and giving me pointers about what could make the joke clearer or what doesn’t read at all or asking me to re-write stuff.  Just various things that editors do. But once you get a little professional advice and you practice a lot, you get better at it.

You must have had some good editors in the beginning. Your strip is very much unlike anything that came in the papers before it.

Thank you. That’s a great compliment.

Was it hard to find editors who were on the same wavelength, or at least appreciated what you were doing?

Well, my first editor, the guy who picked my stuff out of the mail and started training me on the path to getting published, was the same guy who discovered Gary Larson, so he’s of a similar mindset. It was a couple of guys in San Francisco named Stan Arnold and Stuart Dodds. They worked together for Chronicle Features. A few years later, Larson jumped to another syndicate and at that point I was sending my work out and they picked me out of the mail pile and brought me along. It was the same kind of a mindset that was able to spot me. Andnce you have a career going, all editors tend to “get” you.

Once you’re a clear money making opportunity.

Yeah. Who knows whether they do or not. But the people I have now at King Features are terrific. They totally understand what I’m doing, and they’re very much in my corner about it.

[Concluded in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

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One Comment to “Interview: Dan Piraro Pt. 1 [of 2]”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » June 11, 2009: Shorter Journalista 22