Five Questions with Dan Piraro

Dan Piraro is a man of many talents — cartoonist, comedian, activist — and he approaches each with a quirky take on the world. Before his signing at Big Planet Comics U Street and performance at the Riot Act Comedy Theater on Sunday, Piraro was kind enough to take time to answer my questions via email.

Comicsgirl: Bizarro Heroes is a collection of your cartoons skewering superheroes. Are you (or were you) a superhero comics fan? What appeals to you about the subject?

Dan Piraro: Though I am a regular reader of various kinds of literature now, I hated to read as a kid, so my interest in comic books was entirely about the art. I bought tons of them but only followed the stories by looking at the pictures. I still had the same fantasies of super powers that attracts most people to super heroes, of course. I think the contrast between those childhood fantasies and the reality of an adult world are what amuse me about the topic now, and many of the comics in this new book deal with that aspect of fantasy world meets real life.

CG: Why comics? What is your creative process when it comes to creating them?

DP: Good question, I wish I had an answer. I’ve always loved comics, especially single-panel ones like I used to see in magazines when I was growing up. Back then, all magazines were peppered with cartoons, not just The New Yorker. As an adult, I was inexplicably drawn to creating them and still am. It’s just a creative urge that has remained constant all these years. I suppose it is the way I am wired.

My process when creating them is frequently to surf the web for other people’s comics. Looking at good comics makes me want to create ones of my own. I find the same thing to be true of fine art; when I go to a museum or gallery, I want to rush home to paint.

CG: Most of your comics are one-panel comics. Do you find it hard to express a joke clearly given those constraints? Do you ever have ambitions to do longer-form work?

DP: Single-panel comics have always been my favorite because the story is not spelled out for the reader. You have to put it together in your head –– what just happened before this picture and/or what is going to happen after? –– and that little feat of mental gymnastics is what makes you chuckle. I sometimes think of long-form comics and use them in my Sunday panel, where there is room to expand. But for the most part, my brain works in the single-panel form and I have no trouble getting my idea across that way.

CG: You also do standup comedy (as you are at the Riot Act Comedy Theater on Sunday). How do you approach performing standup differently than creating comics?

DP: Stand-up comedy is entirely different. What is funny in speech is not always funny in print and vice versa. I’ve tried, however, to combine elements of both in my comedy shows. I don’t do strictly stand-up, I also show images of cartoons and other things that bring visual humor to the show.

I learned to do live comedy by trial and error, just like everyone else. You start by tossing out one-liners in school as a kid and if you can make people laugh, you just build on that skill over the years until you have the courage to try it in front of a roomful of strangers in a comedy club. There is no quick way to learn it, you just have to gut it out, fail, and build on the few things that work. Eventually, you learn to make people laugh one way or the other and your performances are relatively successful most of the time. If you have the basic talent and you practice enough, you can actually get to a place where you never fail in front of an audience.

The bottom line is that you become addicted to the adrenaline. Stand-up comedy is one of the scariest things you can do and it feels like dying when you fail. But when you succeed, it is exhilarating!

CG: You are very openly vegan (which is awesome) and I admire your activism there. Your comics dealing with animal rights are both funny and thought-provoking. What advice do you have for someone who’s interested in becoming vegan?

DP: Thanks, glad you like my activism cartoons. I’d say if someone is interested in veganism, they should comb the web. There are so many great resources out there now: how to begin, how to shop, recipes, how to stay healthy, how it benefits your body, mind, and the environment, how animals are treated in the food industry, etc. There is no one way to do it, but if the idea appeals to you, you should have no trouble finding plenty of info. For practical info, I’d start with Nutritionfacts.org.

Piraro will be signing copies of Bizarro Heroes at the Big Planet Comics U Street location (1520 U St. NW) on March 11 from 6 to 7 p.m. He then will be performing at The Riot Act Comedy Theater at 8 p.m.

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