Bizarro Among the Savages

by Dan Piraro

Back in 95, good friend Roger "Spleens! You're It" Shuman and I spent a number of months chatting happily with syndicated cartoonist Dan Piraro, creator of Bizarro, over e-mail. Using the marvels of the United States Postal service, he signed some of his books for me. Inside one cover was a Bizarro-styled cow saying "Hey Larson! Draw THIS!". The cow was wearing a T-Shirt that had a perfectly drawn Far-Side cow, face deadpan, flipping me the hoof. A second book had the following inscription: "Read to learn, learn to play the accordion. Relaxing as many muscles as is socially acceptable, Dan." At the time, I had no desire to learn to play the accordion and I soon forgot the inscription. Two years later, a desire began to form within me and within months, I had myself an accordion. Such is the power of Dan Piraro and his Bizarro cartoons.

It was about this time in 1995 that Dan was wanting to have a book tour for his latest collection of comics, creatively titled Bizarro No. 9 (hey, after titles like Sumo Bizarro, Post-Modern Bizarro and Glasnost Bizarro, he's entitled to a break). However, his publisher was not in the mood to foot the bill. It was about this time that he had an idea, an idea he openly admits was "intercepted... on it's way to someone else's head." Why not write to all my e-friends and mooch, beg, and sponge? He was surprised at the reception. Offers for free plane tickets, lodging, and meals flooded his intray like a toddler, a gallon jug of milk, and a small cup. It was only as the day of departure neared that this normally shy fellow realized that he was putting himself into the hands of people who could be murders, weirdos, or serial killers.

Thus this book, detailing these strange and pleasant adventures "among the savages" began. Part travelogue, part autobiography (he eats some past-prime fruit which sends him into a series of hallucinogenic flashbacks, starting with his birth. "It was the first (and I wish I could say the only) time I appeared in a room full of strangers, soaking wet and buck naked" and continuing on through his Catholic School upbringing with Sister Pterodactyl). As a fellow member of those with hair that gets "bigger" instead of "longer", I particularly enjoyed his account of high school in the 70s where he "discovered the hairstyle [he] had been BORN to wear: the Afro."

He wakens from this fruit stupor on an airplane to the west coast. Upon his arrival, he realizes that he and his first ride had not arranged a way to recognize each other. Seeing a young man with a huge sign taped to his back that read "Dan Piraro Your Fly Is Open", Piraro figured this was the guy. Like nearly everyone he met on his book tour, Piraro learned that his shy-biased fears of lunatics was unfounded and he hit things off instantly with his host. Just hours into this first experience, Piraro encountered a strange phenomena that he would encounter again and again on this trip: "As will often happen with strangers who meet under unusual circumstances... we began to share with each other some of the more intimate details of our lives." Piraro thus heard over a dozen "life stories" on his trip and began to crave them like a soap opera junkie. He was rarely disappointed and shares them with the reader.

Other episodes involve nearly being jumped by two sexy and flirtatious school teachers who were "dressed to the nines in tight sweaters, high-heeled shoes and gigantic, matching Louis the XIV hairdos... determined to live life to the fullest... at least for one afternoon". Happily married, though, he turned them down but it provided the ego boost that "a goofy little dork like me" needed at that part of the tour. Later excursions led him to Florida where "the humidity is such that you need only to take a deep breath to quench your thirst." In Florida he met up with a group known as SLOTH, Sarcasm Lost on the Humor-Challenged who extended an honorary membership to him after reading his comics. These were individuals in highly specialized scientific fields. While he states that he has no formal education in this field, Piraro enjoyed the company of these "scientific, intellectual nerd types" very much, if only because it is easy for him to imagine that "even if [he] couldn't beat them at JEOPARDY, [he] could probably kick their asses."

Throughout the entire book, he is guided by lackadaisical guardian angel Pat Sajak who appears on bad fruit, smudges in chrome, and everywhere else, urging him to "spin the wheel" instead of being his usual spectator. To say that the book is a spiritual journey would be to underplay the enjoyment of the various travels, but there is this aspect. Near the end of his tour, Dan finds that his wife (to whom he had dedicated every one of his books. Example: "[To my wife] who keeps me motivated, teaches me history, and made me see the inherent superiority of women. With the following exceptions: The first two words on the far left of page 72 are dedicated to my extended family. All the punctuation on pages 18 through 25 ...") is being unfaithful and the last few chapters of the book deal with Dan dealing with this blow to reality as he tries each day just to "make it to bedtime without committing a felony." The book ends with a lengthy, slightly preachy chapter wherein he and his dog discuss philosophy, what he has learned from his tour, the divorce, and Pat Sajak. Even here, though, Piraro is unable to restrain from his usual humor, which keeps the chapter from turning into a sermon.

For me, what with knowing Dan Piraro in a quasi-e-mail friendship way, reading this book gave me the guilty pleasure of reading someone's diary. For a first book, the story is especially well told and compelling. Piraro manages to hook the reader in the first chapter and strings them along until the very end (and yes, I would say this even if he WASN'T a quasi-e-mail friend). As I have come to expect from his comics and letters, the humor in this book was so dry that I chaffed regularly while reading it. I have subsequently sicced my lawyers on Mr. Piraro to collect for the extensive hydrotherapy required to return me to my normal, supple state.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, February 1999.