Supporting Cast: The Secret Symbols of Bizarro

By Tea Fougner

Whether it’s a grizzled old pirate or the smilingly sinister Mr. Toothy, pretty much every member of the weird and wonderful revolving cast of Dan Piraro’s brilliant madcap masterpiece, BIZARRO, is a supporting one.  But there’s one thing that every BIZARRO fan loves to see day after day: the secret symbols hidden away in the art of each strip.  Is it a code spelling out a secret plot for world domination, or something much more innocuous?  Dan Piraro was kind enough to offer us some illumination as to the meaning of his secret symbols.

I get a lot of strange questions about my cartoons ––“Is that a wombat in the salesman’s pants?” “Why didn’t you use stars from the Cassiopeia constellation, instead of from Ursa Major?”––but the most common is about the odd, out-of-place images I toss around the backgrounds, the so-called “secret symbols.” Some readers have long made a game of spotting them, others suddenly notice them after a decade of reading Bizarro. Here is the semi-official list of symbols, more or less in order of frequency of use: eyeball, piece of pie, alien, dynamite, K2, upside-down bird, bunny head, crown, single shoe, arrow in the back.

They began in 1996 when I decided out of boredom to draw a little bird sitting on a shelf where it didn’t really belong. I suspect this amused me because I always enjoyed “hidden picture” puzzles when I was a kid. You know the type; a complex illustration asks you to find the following list of objects hidden in the picture: shoe, hairbrush, cudgel, IUD, etc.

After dropping the bird into a few more cartoons, I randomly decided to flip him upside down. Almost immediately, readers began asking what it meant and if anyone else had noticed it. This made me realize that all that extra drawing I had always done in the backgrounds of Bizarro cartoons was actually being scanned carefully by certain readers. Inspired by this new level of observation, I decided to add to the objects and place a few in virtually every cartoon. Readers reacted well and reported enjoying looking for the hidden “Easter eggs.”

In response to questions about what the symbols meant, I developed an absurd philosophy for the project, complete with instructions about how to reach a higher plane of “<a href=”http://www.bizarro.com/symbols/index.htm”>Ultimate Bizarro Awareness</a>.”  I was hoping this would start a new religion and lead to a mass suicide on a remote ranch somewhere,  giving me national exposure and a trip to the Oprah show. But alas, it seems my readers are smarter than the average cult member.

Though most of the symbols mean nothing at all, a few were developed as a shout-out to specific people. “K2” is for my two daughters, Krapuzar and Krelspeth. Around 1999, I designed the crown for my then girlfriend who shall remain nameless because she hates my guts and insisted I stopped using the crown after we broke up in ’02. I later reinstated the crown with an “R” in the middle of it, as a symbol for my good friend and bodyguard, Rey. (In the dangerous world of internationally syndicated cartoons, you have to keep your bodyguard happy.) The dynamite arrived in 2002, when I met the woman I would marry later that year, Ashley Smith. She is, by all accounts, explosive. But because the UBA web pages were developed before I added the dynamite, I’ve never gotten around to adding it to the list of symbols there.

For sticklers: a tiny number above my signature tells readers how many symbols are in the cartoon, just like Al Hirshfeld used to do for his hidden “Nina”s. Happy hunting.

Thanks, Dan!  We’ll be keeping our eyes out! In the meantime, you can all check out more insider tips into the world of Bizarro on Dan’s blog.

Every Friday, we put the spotlight on a supporting character from one of our comics!  If you have a favorite secondary (or even tertiary) character whom you’d like to see profiled, please leave a comment here or in our forums.