Stephan Pastis casts 'Pearls' before everyone

Stephan Pastis, Pearls Before Swine cartoonist
Cartoonist Stephan Pastis says his life is much better since he quit being a lawyer and began "Pearls Before Swine." He did not comment on the impact of the career change on his dress sense.
Andrews McMeel Publishing

If you are one of the people who have to start their day with the comics page, you'll know "Pearls Before Swine." It follows the misadventures of the unworldly Pig, the misanthropic Rat and a host of others.

The strip's creator, Stephan Pastis, came to cartooning later in life. He started out as a lawyer, suing insurance companies.

"And when I announce that at book signings, they always boo. Like inevitably. Always," he said with a wry laugh.

Pearls Hogs the Road cover
"Pearls Hogs the Road" cover
Andrews McMeel Publishing

He hated it himself. His escape plan was to buy a book on cartoon syndication. In the back he found addresses of various syndicates, and the recommendation that he submit 30 samples of his work. This he did, for years, and was rewarded mainly with form rejection letters or silence.

Then one day: "I paired this rat with the pig, and I sent it in, and lo and behold there were three different syndicates that wanted it. And it was one of the best moments of my life, it was so unbelievable."

Seven months later he quit lawyering. It was 2002 and he has been casting "Pearls Before Swine" ever since. He believes most strips face limitations by being what he calls top-down: building the daily story around the characters.

"So I started to build one from the bottom up," he said. "Which means, basically, draw two stick figures and let them tell jokes, and the jokes will determine who they are, and the jokes will determine what the setting is, and that way it's more limitless." Even after a decade and a half of doing the strip, Pastis said, his characters still have stick arms and legs, in part because they are quicker to draw.

Pearls Before Swine
Pearls Before Swine Comic
Andrews McMeel Publishing

He has a huge cast of characters now, including a malevolently stupid and always hungry family of crocodiles trying to eat their neighbors, the zebras. He's in the strip regularly himself. The cartoon Pastis is lampooned and occasionally beaten by the other characters, particularly for his use of toe-curlingly bad puns.

"I get away with it because I have a final panel where the characters make fun of me," he said. "So it becomes a little more post-modern. I don't end on the joke. If you end on the joke, that's when you have trouble."

Pastis said doing a daily strip is unlike almost any other art form in that there is the creative imperative of a daily deadline.

"When you do a comic strip, you are committed to 365 a year," he said. "Generally speaking there are no vacations, and no breaks, and nobody much cares if you are sick or something happens."

Many cartoonists complain about the pressure to produce. Pastis doesn't. He gets mathematical.

"I'm looking at my board," he says. "I'm six months, 12 days ahead. That's how anal I am about it. I know the exact amount. So what I do is I create 10 a week. That gives me three extra a week." Those extra strips leave him free almost five months a year.

He uses that time to write the latest in his "Timothy Failure" children's book series. He also travels, including his visit to the Magers and Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis at 7 p.m. Wednesday. He'll read from his latest anthology, "Pearls Hogs the Road," which contains 15 months of strips.

The book includes three that caused an international sensation. Like many people his age, Pastis grew up reading "Calvin and Hobbes," written by Bill Watterson. That strip ended in 1995, and Watterson has pretty much kept out of the public eye ever since.

Pastis sent Watterson a message including a published strip in which the cartoon Pastis pretends to be the author of "Calvin and Hobbes" to successfully impress a woman he's trying to seduce. To his delight, Watterson responded, saying he liked the strip.

Pastis often is punished for his bad puns in the last frame.
Pastis said he realizes from online responses to the strips that half his audience hate the puns. But he believes that being punished in the last panel for those jokes makes it OK.
Andrews McMeel Publishing

"But then he said, 'Hey, what would you think if I drew your strip for a few days?' Bill Watterson was going to return to the comics page for the first time since the last 'Calvin and Hobbes' strip, and it was to draw my strip," Pastis said. "And, holy smokes, you talk about mind-blowing."

Pastis was sworn to secrecy until the publication of the third and final strip. Then he revealed the truth to the Washington Post, which ran the story on the front page. In fact, Watterson's return became a front-page story across the United States.

Pastis is particularly glad to be coming to the Twin Cities, the hometown of his other great hero, Charles Schulz, who he says revolutionized cartooning with "Peanuts."

"If comic strips had a Mecca simply because of Schulz's role in the profession, it would be where you are, truly," he said.

Pastis said he'd like to follow Schulz's example of doing his strip for 50 years, although — with 15 years under his belt now — he'll probably settle for 25.

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