Having fun keeps 'Pearls Before Swine' cartoonist at the drawing board

wscott@herald-leader.comMarch 29, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Stephan Pastis discusses and signs 'Pearls Falls Fast: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury'

    When: 7 p.m. April 1

    Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green, 161 Lexington Green Cir.

    Admission: Free

    Learn more: (859) 273-2911, Josephbeth.com

Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, long ago staked out his territory on the comics page: sarcasm, cynicism, extreme cartoonish violence and really bad puns.

Also: undisguised contempt for the "legacy" strips, whose creators long ago retired and/or died, and handed off the lucrative gigs to other cartoonists or, in some cases, their children.

Pearls Before Swine has been a syndicated comic strip for 12 years and is now in 725 newspapers nationwide, including the Herald-Leader.

Pastis, 46, is having too much fun to fall into the trap of keeping a comic strip going past its expiration date.

He will sign his books Tuesday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington as part of his "Running From the Law" tour.

It's a great job," he says. "I know what a real job is, and I don't have a real job."

Pastis' Lexington visit is part of an extended road trip.

"It feels super to go out there and meet all these people who like the strip," he says. "And then you get to go to all these new cities.

Pastis, who lives in California, has experienced the Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry from both sides: watching a University of Kentucky men's basketball game at home ("They can wear a lot of blue") and speaking to Louisville fans in Louisville.

"Man, oh man. You guys go at it," he says. "I think that exceeds Duke-North Carolina."

Unlike many cartoonists, who chronically struggle to make deadline, Pastis has eight months' worth of strips drawn and awaiting publication. That gives him the freedom, he says, to draw strips during creative bursts, rather than trying to force the creativity because a deadline looms.

When he gets ideas for the strip, he says, he sets everything aside and draws comics.

"When those moments come, you've gotta run with it because they might not come back," he said.

Creativity, he says, is "like a fickle little nymph that floats around. Sometimes she sits on your shoulder and sometimes she doesn't. And if you struggle to get her to come near you, so to speak, you just drive her away."

He says he can tell the difference, even if readers can't.

"People will write, 'Boy, you really phoned it in.' That's not true" he says.

"When I suck, I suck because I couldn't tell the difference. I thought they (the strips) were good. Whereas some guys, I think, turn them in knowing they suck but having no choice because they're on deadline. So my suckiness is more deliberate."

Pearls has evolved in ways Pastis couldn't have predicted. It remains centered on the characters of sweet, slightly dim Pig; crude, cynical and often violent Rat; and Goat, who tries in vain to raise the strip's intellectual level. It also prominently features crocodiles, who were intended for a one-time gag but now have starring roles.

"I don't think I expected them to be the hit that they were," Pastis says. He has given up trying to predict which new characters will have staying power.

"Sometimes you create characters that you think are great, and nobody but you likes them," he says.

His prime example: a killer whale. He killed off the character because it seemed that few people liked the whale. Then people began telling him they liked the whale, so he revived it. Again, though, "nobody had anything good to say about it," so he killed it a second time.

Another one-off gag that has become a regular feature is inserting himself — or an alternative version of himself — into the strip.

"Comic strip Stephan Pastis" smokes, has a pot belly and looks like a slob; real-life Pastis doesn't smoke and is well-groomed.

Sometimes, however, the differences are less clear. Both versions have a wife named Staci. Some recent Pearls strips had his alter ego looking for a place to live because his wife had thrown him out of the house.

That didn't happen to the real-life Pastis, but he and his wife were touched by the concern expressed by readers who thought it had happened.

The benefit, he says, was that it brought new interest and energy into the strip. That has helped him avoid the ignoble fate of many longtime strips: boringness.

His skewering of the older comics does have its awkward moments. Pastis says he recently visited Jim Davis, whose strip Garfield is approaching its 35th year. Pastis warned Davis that he did a week's worth of strips portraying Davis as "the king of the world," giant throne included.

"I wanted to tell him in advance so that he wouldn't think it was based on anything I saw during the actual visit," he says.

Pastis says he'll retire the strip rather than hand it off to someone else, but he's having too much fun to consider when that will be.

He has other projects. He has written two children's books, both about child detective Timmy Failure.

He says he would like to try his hand at a novel and a screenplay, possibly a Timmy Failure movie.

Any of those interests might someday prompt him to end Pearls, but he doesn't expect that to happen soon.

He figures a run of 20 to 25 years might be about right, but he says every cartoonist should recognize the moment it's time to stop: "If you're boring yourself.

"I hope I see it before other people see it."

Will Scott: (859) 231-3246.

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