Ideas

the word

That’s just Bizarro!

The new DC Comics Bizarro series features Jimmy Olsen and Bizarro as road-trip buddies.

DC Entertainment

The new DC Comics Bizarro series features Jimmy Olsen and Bizarro as road-trip buddies.

Many comic book villains are famous. Who hasn’t heard of Lex Luthor, the Joker, Magneto, or Dr. Doom? And thanks to the glut of superhero TV shows and movies, more folks are also becoming familiar with Ultron, Thanos, the Reverse Flash, the Kingpin, and even the absurd Gorilla Grodd.

But there’s only one supervillain who is literally part of the collective vocabulary: Bizarro, the “imperfect duplicate” of Superman known for his unique grammar (“Me am no Bizarro!” “Am you or amn’t you not Bizarro’s worstest friend?”) and opposite approach to life that was popularized in the “Seinfeld” episode “The Bizarro Jerry.” With a charming new series at DC Comics — featuring Jimmy Olsen and Bizarro as road-trip buddies — it’s the perfect time to appreciate the weird villain whose name became an enduring part of the lexicon. We all feel like we live on the Bizarro world sometimes.

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Bizarro (also called Bizarro Superman and Bizarro No. 1, to distinguish him from additional Bizarros) first appeared in 1958, and he’s been a recurring character since. Born of a faulty duplicator ray with Superman-level powers but not much intelligence, Bizarro can certainly be a menace, but he’s usually more of a misunderstood doofus than a mustache-twirling bad guy.

He’s also more prolific. After various dust-ups with Superboy and Superman, Bizarro (along with Bizarro Lois Lane) founded an entire Bizarro Planet. Anyone interested in the comedic possibilities of Bizarro or the weirdness of Silver Age comics should check out “Tales of the Bizarro World,” a collection of Bizarro-focused stories published in Adventure Comics from 1961 and 1962.

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These stories all contain the Bizarro Code: “Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!” On this cube-shaped world, coal is money, which the IRS gives away. Instant coffee takes an hour to make. Students must give the wrong answers in school so they fail (pass). Bizarro Perry White exclaims “Little Napoleon’s ghost!” rather than “Great Caesar’s ghost!” The adventures of “the idiot of steel” and his backwards companions are some of the most ridiculous comics ever, but they laid the groundwork for a successful word.

Post-1960s, “bizarro” was used as a word for a weirdo or as a straight-up synonym for bizarre, as documented in “Green’s Dictionary of Slang” and the “Historical Dictionary of American Slang.” Famed music writer Lester Bangs used the word in a 1973 article, describing “The bizarro lushed-up Irish scrubwoman Kitty McShane.” In 1989’s “Heathers,” Veronica asks Heather, “This wouldn’t be that bizarro thing you were babbling about over the phone last night, would it?” Grant Barrett, host of the public radio show “A Way with Words,” sees a link with more elevated literature than comics: “Part of its endurance, I think, is that it’s like an informal approximate synonym to Kafkaesque, though it seems like bizarro is more for describing nouns — especially people — and Kafkaesque is more for describing situations.”

Bizarro received a major boost in popularity thanks to “The Bizarro Jerry,” an eighth-season episode of “Seinfeld” written by David Mandel (the recently announced new showrunner of “Veep”). In this 1996 episode, Elaine shows uncharacteristic frustration with the immature, petty, Waiting-for-Godot-style lives of herself and her friends. This feeling is heightened by the emergence of Kevin: the Bizarro Jerry. Like the real Jerry, Kevin is an ex-boyfriend who wants to remain friends. Unlike Jerry, Kevin remembers his appointments, spends time at the library, goes with Elaine to the Museum of Miniatures, and is a decent human being. Jerry’s explanation of Bizarro is memorable, as it both celebrates and mocks the idea:

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Much as “Seinfeld” spread shrinkage, regifting, spongeworthy, and close-talker, the show helped introduce bizarro to a new generation, while cementing its meaning as backwards, opposite, or reverse. Thanks to this episode, “bizarro” is commonly used and understood today. Recent headlines in The Nation (“Welcome to ‘Bizarro’ Thailand”) and The Wall Street Journal (“Europe’s Not Out of Bizarro World Yet”) show the word is very applicable to politics, where things are always messed-up according to someone. John McCain once dismissed a call for a balanced-budget amendment as “bizarro,” and John Yoo has referred to the Obama administration as “the Bizarro World Presidency.” Bizarro is also perfect for jokes, as @MavenofHonor demonstrates: “Inching across the couch as the sun gets in my eyes is the best part of my bizarro CrossFit workout. Also, it’s the only part.”

Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, notes that “When people use bizarro over bizarre, they seem to do so in order to highlight the fantastical and inexplicable” and that uses “run the gamut from unsettlingly uncanny to cheerily strange, from prosaic weirdness (‘a bizarro suburban world’) to things that seem otherworldly (‘bizarro horror films,’ ‘bizarro sonics from the band’).” This flexibility allows bizarro to express feelings ranging from “That’s odd” to “The world has gone to hell.”

However, bizarreness isn’t always so disturbing. Barrett noted that the reversal described by the word is sometimes an improvement: “The kid who is always hungry refuses dessert. The spouse who makes dinner for once, without being asked, and then does the dishes, for once, without being asked.” At such moments, we might look in the mirror and wonder if we’re the Bizarros. This feeling is in synch with the character who spawned the word. Much like the Frankenstein monster he resembles, Bizarro is the ultimate misfit.

“Bizarro is fun because he was never intended to be a bad guy. He just ran afoul of Superman and Superboy by accident,” says Heath Corson, who writes the humorous new Bizarro series. “He always means well, but nothing turns out right for this poor guy. So, there’s something so pure and innocent and naive about that. How could you not root for him?” And in a world where up seems to be down more often than not, how could you not feel like him too? Sometimes we all am — er, are — Bizarro.

Mark Peters (@wordlust) is a language columnist for Visual Thesaurus and author of the forthcoming “Bullshit: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press.

Related:

The Word: The long strange journey of ‘über’

A taxonomy of movie psychos

Brainiac: How experts read a graphic novel

2012: Why fiction is good for you

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