The National Cartoonists Society met a week ago and finally acknowledged what it should have years ago: "Bizarro" by Dan Piraro is the best comic strip out there these days.

Launched in 1986, Bizarro stood out immediately for its relatively detailed artwork and its, well, bizarrely inventive writing. It's often utterly surreal, mixing in unrelated and unexpected concepts. Yet it's also often very real-world, making sharp commentary on current events worthy of any editorial cartoon, but disguising it in Bizarro's quirky humor.

Bizarro was nominated for the National Cartoonists Society's highest honor, the Reuben Award, every year since 2002, yet was defeated every time until last week. The writing and art have been top-notch, as good or better than the competition... so why was Piraro always a bridesmaid, not a bride?

Perhaps because at its core, the NCS has been a group of successful, established "” and establishment "” cartoonists. Guys who served in or at least lived through World War II, created suburban comic strips, grew wealthy and played golf. It has been a group personified by the creators of Peanuts, B.C., Hi and Lois, Beetle Bailey, Marmaduke and Dennis the Menace.

Dan Piraro, by contrast, is a highly eccentric vegan with liberal politics; he and his wife Ashley sport various tattoos and piercings. In other words, Piraro may have just been too way out there for some of his more conservative colleagues. "Foxtrot," "Luann" and "Rose is Rose" "” among the strips that beat him out for the Reuben since 2002 "” are more conventional strips by more conventional creators that fit more comfortably in the NCS mold.

Perhaps they finally gave him the award to get him off the ballot after so many consecutive years on it; the rule (at least since multiple-winner Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes") for the Reuben Award is once-only per creator.

In any event, this is overdue recognition of a strip that is among the best drawn (for me, up there with "9 Chickweed Lane" and "Non Sequitur") and inventive (for me, up there with "Lio" and "Zits"). Bizarro has also given the world of comic strips signature icons, such as his ongoing placements of eyeballs, pieces of pie, aliens in space ships and somewhat menacing bunnies. It's the comics world's closest brush with the world of surrealist paintings (and by the way, Piraro is an excellent surrealist painter as well).

To me, Bizarro hits heights of offbeat creativity and daily surprises that haven't been seen since Gary Larson and his "The Far Side" panel. And speaking of panels, Piraro is one of the few creators who makes his daily offering into both a horizontal comic-strip space and a squarer panel format in order to fit more newspapers' space needs.

I don't tend to cut out very many comic strips and stick them on my refrigerator "” this is considered a comic strip's badge of public recognition "” since I not only see cartoons all the time but create them all the time. But I do have Bizarros (more than one) on my fridge.

As they say in the comics world, "Nuff said."


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