By: Rob Tornoe
Dan Piraro, the artist behind the wickedly skewed comic panel Bizarro, won this year’s Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, the highest honor a cartoonist can receive. Piraro talks about drawing, syndication and following in the footsteps of The Far Side legend Gary Larson.
So how long have you been drawing Bizarro?
Just celebrated Bizarro’s 25th anniversary this past January. Well, not really “celebrated,” more like noted it as I looked at my calendar.
Winning puts you in the company of such cartooning giants as Matt Groening, Garry Trudeau and Bill Watterson. What are your thoughts about holding a place among such cartooning greats?
It’s a great honor and I’m very happy to see my name on that list. To be honest, I didn’t think that a relatively “outsider” panel like Bizarro would ever be considered for a hall-of-fame-type award, so I’m surprised as well as flattered.
Bizarro is known for its skewed take on life and its unconventional style and appearance. Where do you come up with your ideas?
I surf the Web first thing in the morning, catch up on my favorite cartoons and blogs, the news, various pop culture sites, etc. Eventually, something pops into my head and I gnaw on it until it amuses me and turns into a cartoon. Beyond that, I can’t say. I never write jokes while actually living life, don’t carry a notebook or anything like that. It really only happens when I sit down to write.
Bizarro is one of the most intricately drawn cartoon panels available. How long does it take you to draw a single panel?
A daily panel from blank page to finish usually takes me 20 or 30 minutes. A complex Sunday might take as much as 90 minutes, but most are more like an hour. The coloring, which is done on computer, adds about as much time again. Coloring them is actually my favorite part of the process these days.
Can you recall any interesting feedback you’ve received over one of your cartoons?
I drew a cartoon in the late 1980s of a guy answering his door to a couple of men and some reporters. A man in a suit says, “Mr. Simmons, you’ve been chosen as this year’s recipient of the Albert G. Thompson Award. And now, for your personal enjoyment for one year, is Albert G. Thompson.” Within days I received a letter from an Albert G. Thompson, who looked like the man in the cartoon. He had been a college professor for years, his department head was a Mr. Simmons, and he was certain I must have been a former student. It was a complete coincidence, but we struck up a friendship that has lasted to this day.
When Bizarro entered syndication in the mid-’80s, was it hard to convince newspapers to pick it up because if its unconventional style?
I wasn’t on the sales trips and was always spared the bad news or negative comments, so I have no idea what people thought. Bizarro basically followed the sales path of The Far Side; big cities picked it up first and small markets followed much, much later. The majority of my client list is on the coasts, with a smattering of big cities and towns in the center. The Deep South is still not responding, but then, they never do, do they?
You actually entered syndication as a replacement to “The Far Side” when Gary Larson left Chronicle Features and moved to Universal Press Syndicate. Have you ever met Gary?
When I first was signed by Chronicle Features, I saw that Gary was appearing at a shopping mall bookstore in Dallas on a weekday afternoon. I had a nice chat with him and asked him what Chronicle Features was like to work with. He told me he liked them a lot and had no complaints, but since he didn’t know how long he’d be able to make money as a cartoonist, he felt he needed to move to a larger syndicate to improve his chances while his popularity lasted. He seemed convinced The Far Side could be a flash in the pan.
What’s your favorite part of being a cartoonist?
Honestly? My favorite part of this job is creating my blog every day. I wish I could make money from it. Alas.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist for E&P, The Press of Atlantic City and Cagle Cartoons, and is the editor of Laugh! magazine. He can be reached at Rob@LaughDE.com.