In this second part of our MoCCA-based interview with the Bizarro artist, we discuss the influence of Gary Larson, the horrors of writing a funny strip during a year-long divorce, and how one turns a syndicated comic into a successful one-man entertainment revue.
Did the publication of The Far Side suggest to you the possibility that you too might be able to make it into nation syndication some day?
Yeah. People often ask me if [Gary] Larson influenced me. His humor didn’t influence me, because I was already doing that kind of work, and that kind of work was also appearing in magazines since I was a kid—it’s more of a magazine-style humor. What did influence me about his strip was that he was being published in newspapers, and I didn’t think that was previously possible, to get surreal, one-off magazine-style comics in the paper. At that time, the strangest stuff in there was Dennis The Menace—maybe Herman. That was as weird as it got.
Once Larson got published—and it took Chronicle several years to get him off the ground—it really started taking off. He jumped into the syndicate, which was unfortunate for Chronicle, but it really opened the door. Those two editors opened the doors for the rest of us.
Was Zippy the Pinhead around when you were first starting out?
Yeah, Zippy was around.
That seems like a precursor to a lot of weirdness.
Yeah, that was a really strange strip—way stranger than mine. Griffith had been an underground cartoonist since the 60s, and somebody at King Features decided to give that a shot—see how he would do in the papers. In fact, Bill Griffith and I had lunch one time, and we had an almost identical client list. The newspapers that would buy Bizarro were the ones that would buy Zippy. There was almost no difference between our client lists at all.
Newspapers aren’t often artists end goals anymore. There seems to be a very specific style of humor—
Or non-humor, in many cases.
Or non-humor. How did syndication become your ultimate goal?
Because it was easier. I’m not the kind of person who is brave or ambitious enough to hit magazine editors one at a time, over and over again, week after week, year after year, to cobble together a career. I had to depend on somebody signing me to a contract and doing all of the sales work, while I just stayed home and draw. And since The Far Side was taking off, I just figured there was a chance I could get that kind of gig. Which I did, in the long run, though I haven’t made a tenth of the money he did.
By the same token, it seems like the hardest thing in the world to do that, day after day.
It’s miserable [laughs].
Everybody I talk to says that.
It is. It’s a fucking creative gun to your head. It’s like somebody knocking you down every day, putting a gun to your head, and saying, “make me laugh,” and you’re just not in the mood [laughs]. When I’m in a good mood, it’s actually not that bad. I always appreciate the job, because it’s way better than an office job. It’s better than a lot of the things I could be doing. I’m not complaining about the job, when I’m in a good mood, it’s not that big of a deal, but I went through a divorce in ’96. That was a year of absolute hell throughout the house, and I had to write a joke everyday.
Did it turn a little darker during that period?
It did a little bit, yeah. There were a lot of dark relationship jokes. Marital stuff. Or even in the short term, you get the flu and you’re really flat on you back for a week, too bad. You’ve got to draw a funny comic and you’ve got to get that stuff in on deadline. There are 250 clients out there who are all gonna be pissed if you don’t get it in. It’s just unrelenting. You want to take a vacation? Screw you. You’ve got to write, draw, and color twice as much material before you go, so you’re exhausted by the time you get there, and then the moment you get home, you’ve got to hit the ground running, the second you sit down.
How long does it take to make a strip?
Well, it depends. A simply daily panel, in terms of sketching and inking it, it’s an hour. It’s not that much time. Then I’ve got to color it, which takes, maybe, 30 minutes to an hour—I work pretty fast. There’s always a million other things you have to do as well. But writing it—coming up with a joke a day—that’s the hard part. It’s not really the physical labor as much as the mental labor of coming up with a new idea every day, without any characters or storylines to build on. Next January is my 25th anniversary. I’ve written a joke a day for 24-and-a-half years. Doesn’t seem right.
Does it involve your sitting around, wracking your brain? Do you walk around and let jokes come to you?
At the beginning it was just staring at a blank piece of paper. Now it’s surfing the Web. I’ll surf the Web and images and stories will occur to me if I do that. It’s like anything else, if you practice, you really find a groove and get better at it. It’s probably actually easier now to find jokes than it was 15 years ago.
You mentioned earlier that you had written some prose books. Do you do that as something of a reprieve from having to do the comic all the time?
I just really love it. I love to write. I get bored really easily, so I like to switch around. I do fine art every once in a while and do standup shows about my cartoon strip, and that’s really fun, especially if I don’t have to travel for it. though I have travelled for it. I’ve done that show all over the country, practically. So yeah, all of that stuff creatively refills the jar—I don’t know where I’m going with this metaphor. It fills me up creatively, but then it makes me really tired. So I’ll go for months on these spurts where I work on different projects and get really jiggy with it, and then for a few months I stay home and just do Bizarro, because I get really tired.
What does the standup entail? If I went to a show, what would I see?
It’s a variety of things. I do songs and standup.
You play music?
Yeah, I play guitar. And I show cartoons, a slideshow and some video, and I tell anecdotes behind them. I do a little onstage drawing. But it’s much more like a comedy show than a lecture. When you say you’re showing slides and drawing onstage, it sounds like an infomercial, but it’s much more of a comedy show. It works well. People love it. It’s very popular with my readers.
So it’s mostly fans of the strip?
Yeah. I do it in San Francisco quite a bit. I always sell out in San Francisco. There’s a huge fanbase there. I’ve had a prominent spot in their newspaper for 25 years. Even if they don’t read it all the time, they know about. I have a decent turnout in LA. And Dallas, where I lived for many years. It’s primarily fans who have been before, or hear about it on my blog or Facebook and come out to see me.