By Bobby Franklin
Stephan Pastis is the creator of the very popular comic strip Pearls Before Swine that he has been drawing for sixteen years and now appears in 750 newspapers worldwide. The lawyer turned cartoonist’s latest book is Pearls Hogs The Road: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury. He is also the author of the Timmy Failure books that are now going to be turned into a movie by Disney. His characters Rat, Pig, Goat, Guard Duck, The Crocs, and many others are irreverent and funny. Judging by the very large crowd that gathered at the Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner, MA to watch him give a presentation and do a book signing he is extremely popular, and that popularity extends to all age groups. I had a chance to speak with Mr. Pastis before his appearance.
I begin by asking him if he is self-taught, he replies “Yes. Well, I don’t know what school you would go to for cartooning, but I didn’t. I think most (cartoonists) have a background in art. I don’t have any and I think that’s probably unusual.”
Mr. Pastis started drawing as a kid. He tells me, “I guess we all draw at a certain age.” When I ask him if he was good at it he responds, “I was never really good at it. I still don’t see myself as very good at it. I really struggle with the art, and I think the only reason I have a career is because of the writing. If it was because of the art I’d be in trouble.”
With a character like Rat leading the cast in Pearls I ask if many people take offense to his work. “Yeah, for sure. They’re rare, maybe one out of a hundred, but they’re certainly the most fun.”
Later in the evening I find out just how much fun he has with them. During the presentation, he gives examples of messages he has received from people and organizations that were not happy with a particular strip. These range from the International Polka Association to the Turkish Embassy. In true Rat like manner he has an answer for all of them. And his responses are all hilarious. For example, in an apology his publishers drafted for the Turkish Embassy the Greek American Pastis, he ask that they add a P.S. asking that Turkey give Cyprus back. Guard Duck may have to work on that one.
Drawing a comic strip that appears seven days a week has to be a daunting task. I ask if he writes one a day. “Two days a week I do three, two days a week I do two, Monday through Thursday. I’m six months ahead. Probably five and a half when I get home (from the book tour) which makes me scared.”
Writer’s block can be a problem but it never slows Mr. Pastis down. He tells me “…if that happens I switch to something else. Promotional stuff, or Timmy, or the movie I’m working on. I always have some other project I can go to. Just not being able to write doesn’t stop the train entirely.”
Before he had a career as a cartoonist he got to meet Charles Schulz. When he quit being a lawyer he took a part time job at the Schulz Museum where he helped them with their licensing. Eventually, he went onto the board of the museum. Mr. Pastis tells me, “…I wrote the first animated special made without Charles Schulz called Happiness Is A Warm Blanket Charlie Brown.”
Our conversation turns back to Pearls Before Swine and I ask, “Is Rat you?” Mr. Pastis tells me, “Yeah, they’re all me. I think Rat is more me than the others, but they’re all me.” How old is Rat? “I’ve never really said. He doesn’t have an age. None of them do.”
As to how he decides what characters to use each day, “I don’t really think about that. I’ll look back on a time when I do nothing but Rat. It’s probably a time when I’m angrier and more stressed, and then when I’m vulnerable and fail at something I imagine Pig predominates more.
The Crocs, which are almost a whole different comic strip just came to Mr. Pastis one night. He says, “It was just a weird middle of the night idea that struck me as funny.” Fortunately, he keeps a pad and pen by his bedside so he is able to save these ideas.
Often times in the strip one or a number of the characters will confront Mr. Pastis and get on his case. This leads me to ask if there is some self-loathing going on? At this he shouts over to his publicist who is in the room with us, “Tracy, Do I have some self-loathing going on?” Tracy laughs and responds, “With good reason.” Pastis says, “It’s fun to have them make fun of you.”
He goes on to tell me something I had not thought of but when he says it I have to agree, “People don’t want to see a strip where people succeed. They want to see losers. They want to look down on them. All comic strips are created on losers. Calvin, Peanuts, Bloom County, Doonesbury.”
Before becoming successful as a cartoonist Mr. Pastis had a career in law. When I ask about it he responds rapid fire, “Yeah, ten years. Litigation. San Francisco. Insurance defense. Never liked it. Bad job. Don’t do it.” He then laughs and says, “I’d like to see how that prints…like ten two word sentences all in a row.” Sounds like a man who enjoys words.
His advice for aspiring cartoonists? “Take two stick figures, totally unadorned art, three panels, and see if you can make somebody who doesn’t necessarily like you laugh. So, don’t show it to your mom. Don’t show it to your best friend. Coworkers are good. Stick figures make it so you don’t rely on the art. It will prove whether or not you can write funny. If you can make that coworker laugh three out of ten times you have a hit. It’s harder than it sounds.”
As I wind up my conversation with the very interesting and talented Stephan Pastis I ask if there is anything he would like to add. Referring to recent Pearls strips where his wife has thrown him out of the house leading many readers to wonder if he was getting a divorce he says, “I’m still married. People always ask that question.” He adds, “I do these Timmy Failure Books which most people know is a series of middle grade books. I’m on the sixth volume. It’s being turned into a movie. Disney bought it.”
Millions of readers look forward to reading Pearls Before Swine each day. I have to admit, I am not a big follower of the comics, but I am one of those people. Once you start you will not be able to stop. If you have the chance to see Stephan Pastis in person I urge you to do so. He is not only a talented cartoonist, but he is also a very, very funny speaker. Rat may take issue with that statement, but that just might be a case of that self-loathing.
Stephan Pastis’s latest book, Pearls Hogs The Road: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury, is published by Andrews McMeel Publishing.