Answer Man: 'Secret symbols' appear in Bizarro comic strip

News-DemocratFebruary 18, 2014 

I really get a laugh out of your Bizarro comic strip on Sundays, but one thing puzzles me: Why does he stick a small piece of blueberry pie in so many of his cartoons? -- Bill Hearty, of Cahokia

No matter how you slice it, Bizarro creator Dan Piraro is unquestionably one out-there dude.

How else could you describe someone who found a woman as excited as he was to be married by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas in 2002? Not to mention he had only met his in-laws the day before. (His wife, by the way, is Ashley Smith, daughter of cartoonist Ralph Smith (Through Thick and Thin) and stepdaughter of Chris Browne (Hagar the Horrible).

"What a surreal day it was," the 55-year-old Piraro once told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the start of his second marriage. "The electricity was out in the chapel so there was only candlelight and Elvis had a battery-operated boom box and he was singing at us.

"Our families were in various stages of coma and stunnedness. And it was tax day, April 15. ... I thought April 15 is already a crappy day on the calendar, so being married that day wouldn't ruin anything if the marriage doesn't work out."

Sounds like just another normal day in the life of this, well, unique cartoonist who thanks Catholic education for honing his genius -- but not in the way you might think.

"It just bored me out of my mind," he said of the Latin Masses and classroom lectures during grade school. "I would fall into this zone where my mind would just wander. Nothing will bring out the creativity of a kid like Catholic school."

This wandering through the mental desert continued as the Kansas City native and one-time Washington University art student (he didn't graduate) searched for his niche in life. He eventually became a commercial illustrator and designer for Neiman Marcus in Dallas, but in his spare time, he was dabbling at cartooning.

Finally in 1985, when he was just 26, Piraro's Bizarro panel was picked up by King Features Syndicate to replace The Far Side, which Gary Larson had moved to Universal Syndicate. So for nearly 30 years now, life has gotten ever more Bizarro-er in the strip that is carried daily in hundreds of papers around the world.

"One day I can do a puzzle," he says of his glee in depicting the "surreal distortions of real life." "One day I can do talking furniture or Genghis Khan. Anything goes."

Anything, indeed. While you are to be commended on spotting the recurring piece of pie, that's just the tip of the iceberg. If you study his panels carefully, you can go on an off-the-wall "Where's Waldo?" kind of treasure hunt in his creations.

About 10 years after he started the strip, Piraro began adding "secret symbols" to his panels.

"I started on a whim in 1995 -- just to entertain myself," he once told the Houston Chronicle.

The first was the upside-down bird, which you also will find on the far wall of the House of Rope in last Sunday's panel. Since then, he has added an alien, an eyeball, a rabbit, the pie -- and six others.

He has explained some of them over the years because, of course, eagle-eyed fans started to ask him about their meaning. The firecracker/stick of dynamite, for example, represents his current wife.

"(She) changed almost everything about my life instantaneously, like an explosion," he said of the woman who turned him into a vegan and with whom he now proudly sports self-designed animal-rights tattoos. "She made me aware of the plight of animals and the environment at the hands of our rabid consumerism, and I've not seen the world the same since."

The other symbols he now explains as signposts on "The Road to Ultimate Bizarro Awareness." He even gives you tips on how to improve your life through his little drawings. An example:

"Print out dozens of copies of the bunny and hide him in unlikely places throughout the day. Whenever someone comes across the bunny and asks about it, encourage them to abandon self-consciousness and act childishly along with you. A good place to begin is by playing naked in a public fountain."

And that piece of pie? He calls it "The Pie of Opportunity."

"Opportunity is like a piece of pie underfoot. We must watch for it, for if we do not see it, we may step in it and get sticky fruit and crust between our toes. ... But we must not jump hastily at found pie; what at first looks like a scrumptious dessert on the floor may actually be something the cat found under the house."

For more enlightenment from this man who can get a week's worth of cartoon ideas by taking a subway ride from his Brooklyn home, click on "Symbol Secrets" at

Today's trivia

Name the two cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics twice.

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: If the United States wins a gold medal in hockey this year, it will continue a tradition that all U.S. gold-medal teams will have had at least one player from Warroad, Minn. (population 1,781). In 1960, it was brothers Bill and Roger Christian. In 1980, it was Bill's son Dave. And this year it would be the St. Louis Blues' T.J. Oshie, who once helped Warroad High School to the state hockey championship.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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