Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stephan Pastis and "Pearls Before Swine"

Recently, the powers that be at The Patriot-News decided to boot Dilbert to the business page, leaving a hole open on our comics page for a new strip. The winner turned out to be Stephan Pastis' "Pearls Before Swine." To herald the new arrival, I did a feature story on Pastis and the strip which ran last Sunday. Enjoy.

A couple find a sick seal washed up on a beach. They take it to a hospital, nurture it, play with it and hold a big party when the seal is well enough to return to the sea.

Then, as the seal makes its way back to the ocean, it is quickly eaten by a large killer whale.

“He didn’t get the memo” says a largish rat to his pig friend, as the couple wail in the background.

Welcome to the deliciously twisted world of “Pearls Before Swine,” the new daily comic strip that will join the comics section of The Patriot-News starting tomorrow.

Created by Stephan Pastis, “Pearls” features an anthropomorphic cast of characters that includes an arrogant, sharp-tongued rat, a slow-witted pig, a peaceful zebra and a trio of incredibly stupid crocodiles who would like nothing better than to eat the zebra.

Debuting in January 2002, the strip has proven to be one of the more successful new newspaper strips of the past few years, appearing in 300 newspapers worldwide, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post.

A large part of the strip’s success is due to its almost relentless clever wordplay. (Waitress: “Would you care for a cup of coffee?” Pig: “If it needed me and no other family member would take it in.”) Not to mention its delightfully simple, cartoony art style and the aforementioned sardonic point of view.

Pastis is quick to point out, however, that such morbid musings are all in service to his sense of humor.

“I write what I think is funny, and what I think is funny happens to be dark,” Pastis said from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“I don’t want complaints any more than the next guy. If the humor wasn’t there, I wouldn’t go there.”

Cartooning has been in Pastis’ blood since he was a kid, though it took time and effort before he was able to realize his dream.

“I was a big ‘Peanuts’ fan. I always wanted to do what Charles Schulz did,” he said. “When I got to be about college age, I realized the odds of that happening were very slim, so I went to law school and became a lawyer for nine years.”

But Pastis found he loathed the legal profession and started drawing on nights and weekends, submitting strips, usually involving smart-aleck rats, to the comic syndicates.

It wasn’t until he paired the rat with a good-natured pig that the strip took off.

“When I started out, it was a hard sell. ‘I got a rat and a pig and they talk about death. Hope you like it,’¤” he said, adding that the pig “sort of makes rat more palatable. That seemed to be the key.”

“Pearls” is one of several newer strips, along with “Get Fuzzy” and “The Boondocks,” that is clearly aimed at a younger audience.

“That seems to be the core group. People in their teens, 20s and 30s,” he said.

That is noteworthy since most strips tend to skew toward an older audience. In fact, “Pearls” has been quite merciless in the past in poking fun at beloved, long-established strips like “Family Circus” and “Blondie.”

“There’s a huge divide in the profession,” Pastis said. “If you’re young, you see one strip after another handed off from father to son, and it just goes on ad infinitum and no space clears up on the comics page. If you’re a young [cartoonist], that’s really hard to deal with.

“You don’t even have to hold a poll. I know among older people, I will be one of the least-liked [cartoonists] and among younger people I will be among one of the most liked.”

Writing an allegedly “edgy” strip for a family-friendly newspaper can be a bit taxing at times for Pastis.

“It’s almost like playing the piano and someone says you can’t use the black keys,” he said. “It’s not to say it’s not doable, but you’d rather have all the keys.”

Despite his outspokenness, Pastis isn’t in a hurry to head back to his old legal firm. Cartooning, he says, is where it’s at.

“How can you beat staying home and drawing goofy pictures?” he said. “It’s a good thing.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


At 11:05 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

You might enjoy this audio interview with “Pearls Before Swine” cartoonist Stephan Pastis.

At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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