the reformation designs creator series

An Interview
with Dan Piraro
of Bizarro Comics

Instead of angling for money, create things you love and enjoy the process without a lot of attachment to the end result. 

If your work is fresh and honest, you might get lucky, find an audience, and make some money from it someday.

Dan Piraro

Founder, Illustrator, Provocateur Extraordinaire, Bizarro Comics

When I first reached out to Dan Piraro for an interview, I wasn’t sure if he would respond.

As a kid, I was always a huge fan of Bizarro comics, as well as Gary Larson’s Far Side.

From a creativity standpoint, I’ve always been fascinated by how artists work and what techniques, mindsets, and principles they apply when doing their work. I figured I would reach out and ask to do an interview. To my pleasant surprise, he said yes! To check out what he had to say about his creative process, read on, dear reader.

First things first:
If you don’t even try to reach out to people that you look up to, you’ll never know what could come of it.

Bizarro is one of the most popular comic-strips of all time and Dan’s work (along with Gary Larson of “The Far Side”) was a huge inspiration for me as a kid.

It blew my mind that someone who was drawing goofy cartoons that poked fun at our society was making some kind of a living with their art - let alone as wide-spread as Bizarro. 

Fun fact - as of January of 2018, Dan has been doing Bizarro comics 7 days-a-week for 33 years. His work is in over a dozen different countries and over 350 newspapers!

If you do any kind of “creative” work, I am sure you probably thought the same thing I did: “That’s MINDBLOWING.”

It shows the power of the focused, intentional discipline that is often required to sustain any kind of “creative” career.

(The ‘discipline’ aspect of this stuff is the part that not many people like to talk about because very few like to hear that this stuff is work - but all those thousands of hours of practice really do add up after a while!)

First, I’d like to share the process I used to make this interview happen - because I find that a lot of artists and entrepreneurs are afraid to reach out to people that they perceive to be more “successful” than them.

I have also found that very often, those who have been doing creative work for any length of time are almost always more than willing to share with you from their wisdom and years of experience if you are genuinely interested in pursuing a similar career of mastering something that is currently just a hobby.

You’ve just got to get over your fear of reaching out to them and the worry you have about feeling/looking stupid if they say no, don’t respond, etc.

(As an aside, here’s a good post from Seth Godin on this issue if you’re interested)

I’ve also found that it often pays off to get a little creative and have some fun with the way you reach out to people who are much busier and “more successful” than you.

For example, below is the image I sent to Dan when reaching out to him for the first time about doing this interview.

I had done a pencil & pen sketch of the above cartoon in some of my random creative time and thought it would be fun to digitize and mix with the comic-strip look since Bizarro is syndicated in so many newspapers.

Could I have gone with a traditional message or an e-mail? Sure.

But that would be boring and would likely get lost in a sea of other messages and requests - especially since people are so busy these days. The thing is, it doesn’t take a whole lot of special effort to get someone’s attention if you put in a little bit more creative thinking than the average Joe or Jill.

Below is the sketch it started with. You should note that I drew this on January 8th of 2017 - which means this blog post you’re reading now is over a year in the making.

(Could I have gotten it out sooner? Sure. But life happens sometimes and one of the biggest things I can encourage you with is to give your creative ideas time to “simmer” if they need to)

If you want to connect with other people who are doing things you want to be doing, you’ve got to be willing to reach out to them and demonstrate simple, creative ways that you can collaborate. And you’ve got to do the work to make it happen.

I am a big believer in creating win-win opportunities and making it easy for those I want to connect with to participate in projects I’m working on.

In this case, all Dan had to do was answer a few questions in any spare time that he had - and I made sure to let him know that if he didn’t want to answer any of the questions that it was no big deal.

Within a few days after sending the image above, Dan had asked me to send over the interview questions.

It’s taken me a little while to get this interview published, but I wanted to share with you a bit of background before getting to the interview itself.

Let this inspire you to not think small when it comes to who you want to work with…especially when it pertains to those who inspire you!

Below is the interview where Dan talks about how he discovered his unique style / voice as an artist and his advice for other artists and “creative types” who want to challenge the status quo and make a living with their art.

It never ceases to amaze me the opportunities that can be created if you’re just willing to go a little bit further than everybody else.

Enjoy the interview!

QUESTION #1:
How did you know when you found your unique style and voice IN your artwork and do you remember what you were doing when you realized it?

There’s never been a moment like that for me. I’ve been doing artwork of various kinds since I was a small child and have always just followed my instincts and tried to improve.

Dan Piraro

Founder, Illustrator, Provocateur Extraordinaire, Bizarro Comics

DAN:

As a young college dropout (after one semester) I began looking for ways to make a living as an artist. I wanted to be a painter but didn’t know how to turn that into enough money to live on so I fell into commercial illustration.

That was lucrative but I disliked it intensely. After a few years of it, I stumbled upon the idea of being a cartoonist. I was already creating cartoons to amuse myself, and my friends and coworkers liked what I was doing so I began sending my scribbles off to newspaper syndicates in hopes of getting a contract.

After a couple of years of mailing stuff out every few months, in 1985 I got a contract with Chronicle Features, a small syndicate that is no longer in business.

I was thrilled to get signed but profoundly disappointed by two things:

1. How little money there is in a syndicated cartoon feature until you have a LOT of client newspapers.

2. How long it takes to build up a decent list. (Usually quite a few years.)

So suddenly I had a full time job in advertising that I hated and a full time job writing and drawing seven cartoons a week in my spare time that wasn’t making enough money to even pay my electric bill each month.

I was working my ass off and barely getting by.

Back to your original question, I look back at my early work and honestly wonder how I got syndicated and what people saw in it.

To my mind, the first couple of years of Bizarro were half-assed jokes badly drawn. And yet, somehow I was fortunate enough to garner some regular readers and stay in the few papers I had until I could build a more lucrative client list.

Around year three I began to hit a better stride with my artwork and I can see a marked improvement. Over the long haul, I also began to better understand how to write and draw funnier, and I think I continue to improve in both of those areas.

I guess the key is that I’ve never been satisfied enough with my work to “phone it in” so I continue to improve, and that’s the important part to me.

In other art forms, I’ve created a few oil paintings that I’m very proud of but haven’t painted enough in my life to really hit my stride and find out who I am as a painter. I just don’t have the time.

I hope to do that in the next few years as I transition toward retiring from syndication and becoming a full time fine artist.

QUESTION #2:

As an artist who frequently challenges conventional & status-quo thinking, what advice would you give to other “creative-types” who struggle with finding and sharing their voice?

DAN:

In the olden days, newspaper cartoonists had to worry about offending their readers so unless they were editorial cartoonists, most felt is was better to keep their opinions to themselves.

I’ve never been very good at that and have lost a lot of readers with my political and social opinions, but fortunately, the market has changed.

These days most readers experience comics through the internet, so by expressing strong opinions you can attract others with similar viewpoints and develop stronger and larger audiences.

I’ve come to believe that online, being opinionated is actually a better way to build a large, faithful audience than trying to be neutral.

Dan Piraro

Founder, Illustrator, Provocateur Extraordinaire, Bizarro Comics

Either way…

I personally think the best creators of any kind of art (music, literature, drama, cartoons, etc.) are those who share themselves honestly and courageously and don’t try to do what they think will be popular or acceptable. 

A word of warning: 

You will get hate mail, so you have to develop a thick skin to the insults of strangers.

QUESTION #3:

If you could travel back in time to give your younger self some words of wisdom, what would you say? 

Create regular characters that people will fall in love with and mindlessly buy any product you slap them onto.

Stay in art school longer, take more drugs, have more sex, enjoy yourself.

Travel more, don’t settle down so young.

Definitely don’t marry your second wife.

Dan Piraro

Founder, Illustrator, Provocateur Extraordinaire, Bizarro Comics

QUESTION #4:

What advice would you give to aspiring artists who want to make a living with their art? 

DAN:

Good luck. Making a living from the arts is one of the hardest things to achieve, so don’t get your hopes up.

Instead of angling for money, create things you love and enjoy the process without a lot of attachment to the end result.

If your work is fresh and honest, you might get lucky, find an audience, and make some money from it someday.

In the meantime, you’ll need a job that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself every Monday morning.

QUESTION #5:

What do the first 60 minutes of your day look like? Do you have any daily rituals or anything of that sort?

DAN:

These days the first thing I do when I wake up each morning is fight off the dread I feel about the unbelievable insanity of a Trump presidency.

And I’m not exaggerating.

I truly wish that were not the first thing on my mind each day, but it is.

Next, I summon the courage to get out of bed and go to my studio where I drink a hot beverage and try to write gags.

First thing in the morning is the only time I can write new material. After that I read emails, surf the web for news stories that interest me, that sort of thing.

I spend the rest of the day actually creating the art for my next set of comics.

QUESTION #6:

Who is someone that comes to mind when you think of the word, “successful” and why?

I’ve always envied Matt Groening…

…because he is one of the very few artists in the modern era who has experienced the highest levels of success America has to offer for an extremely long period of time by producing consistently smart, high quality work.

Usually, “smart” and “high quality” accompany terms like “cult following”.

I can’t think of anyone else who has managed that.

Dan Piraro

Founder, Illustrator, Provocateur Extraordinaire, Bizarro Comics

thanks for your time, dan - Last QUESTION:

Is there anything you’re currently working on that you would like people to know about?

DAN:

I’m working toward finding a way to monetize my 32-years-worth of cartoons so I can retire from the 365-new-ideas-per-year grind of syndication and spend what time I have left on fine art.

But that’s not what you had in mind when you asked that question.

I recently published a book of what I think is pretty wonderful art under the guise of it being a coloring book for adults.

Even if you don’t want to color it, I’m confident anyone who likes surrealism or cartoons will get a lot out of every page.

I really poured myself into it.

You can get it pretty much anywhere books are sold online or off but here’s a link.

Thanks for reading this interview - we hope that it has inspired you and that you’ve gleaned some wisdom from Dan’s many years of experience in the creative field.

We regularly put out content to help creators and aspiring creators learn better ways to bring their art into the world.

Feel free to subscribe below and we’ll be in touch soon.

Have an awesome day and keep creating!

BONUS AWESOMENESS: Dan was kind enough to send us a photo of himself with a mug that we designed as a thank you for the interview!

“I use this mug every day and it has neither injured me nor failed to hold the liquid I give it.” 

- Dan Piraro

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