A decade ago, Stephan Pastis abandoned the corporate legal career that he loathed for his dream job of syndicated cartoonist. Pastis launched Pearls Before Swine, a smart, snarky comic strip featuring a misanthropic Rat, a naïve Pig and a nest of Crocodiles with disastrously poor judgment, among other critters.
In the latest storyline, Rat ran for president because he hated Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. He openly mocked voters he thought were too stupid to understand him. In the end, he was too lazy to bother voting for himself.
Pearls is syndicated nationally and runs in the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Pastis, 44, lives with his wife and two children in Santa Rosa, Calif. His first children's book, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, will be published early next year. He is scheduled to appear Saturday at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort to promote his newest Pearls collection, Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out: A (Freaky) Pearls Before Swine Treasury.
He spoke with the Herald-Leader this week about comics — his and others'.
Question: Pearls Before Swine is unique on the comics page in that it's angry — and also in that it's funny. Not lame-golf-joke funny, but actually funny. Since there appears to be demand for it, why don't we see more comic strips with an edge to them, like yours and Dilbert?
Answer: It's a fine balance. If you come into the comics page and you have that edge, it is a very tough uphill climb. Because there is a large readership out there that simply likes to see the same characters they've seen for 40 years, even if the joke is sometimes not really a joke, it's maybe just an observation. But it comforts them. You're crashing this familiar party with characters who are these smart-aleck loudmouths who may not be welcome.
Q: You're a big fan of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, right?
A: Yes. ... And strangely enough, I co-wrote the last Peanuts animated special that Warner Brothers produced. It was on Fox last Thanksgiving, called Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown. I think that would surprise most people, to learn that I wrote a Peanuts animated special.
Q: When you read those early Peanuts strips, those were as dark-humored as anything you've ever drawn. The punch line is one of the little kids saying "I hate Charlie Brown" or Charlie Brown saying, "I'm so lonely and miserable." Yet in the 1950s, this was a hit, wasn't it?
A: Oh, God, yeah. Absolutely. The very first strip is two kids saying nice stuff to Charlie Brown's face, and the moment he walks away, they say, "How I hate him." You know what else was dark? Early Family Circus. The dad was sort of this hard-nosed boozer who would come home a little drunk. And early Dennis the Menace, there were some vaguely sexual jokes there where Mom would be in the bathtub and a salesman comes walking in.
I don't know what it is. Maybe everything starts out edgy and then those edges get rounded off over the years.
Q: I look at the comics page today, and much of it is the same page I read as a kid. Not just the ancient strips but the tired gags — Hagar the Horrible hates his mother-in-law, General Halftrack leers at his hot secretary. Why?
A: We are such a strange anomaly. I tell people that if TV networks ran themselves like the comics pages are run, you would turn on your TV tonight and it would be nothing but I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners and The Milton Berle Show.
I wish it were different, but obviously there's a market for it. The average reader of an American newspaper, the last I heard, was 58. Those people who are in their 60s and 70s and 80s, there must be a fair number that like those old strips. If it were up to me, I would have a lot of newer strips and younger cartoonists in there.
Q: Should there be a lifespan for comic strips? Some continue in reruns long after the creators die. Others get handed down over the generations. Space never opens up for someone new.
A: I say this over and over: When the original creator is gone, the strip should go.
The habit of handing off strips over the years waters them down. It's insulting to the art form. I know we're not fine art, but you would laugh if somebody said, when Picasso died, "Ah, it's OK, we've still got his son, his son can just keep doing his paintings." It would be ridiculous.
The killer of killers — the soul-crusher of soul-crushers — is repeats. No strip should be in repeats. There's no other section of the paper that runs old news, that runs something you've seen before — except for, I don't know, maybe the horoscopes.
Q: I love that you get hate mail. From whom and why?
A: It's crazy. I'll share some of it at the show in Frankfort. What surprises people is the level of hate it contains. It's not just "I really don't care for your comics." It's "You're Satan, I think you're the worst thing on Earth and I want you out of my sight."
I have no idea where it comes from. You would have to ask them. Because if there is something on the comics page I don't like — and believe me, there's plenty — I don't demand that the editor remove it from my sight. I just don't read it.
Q: What's the complaint? That you're an awful person and the Crocs shouldn't try to eat their "Zeeba Neighbas"?
A: It's the violence, it's the swearing, it's the beer drinking, it's the deaths. It's any reference to drugs, sex, politics, nationality, ethnicity, political party, physical or mental disorder or disability. The list is so long, you would be shocked.
Q: Am I nuts or didn't I used to read, long ago, a strip called Andy Capp, about a jobless, drunken wife-beater who cussed at his church vicar?
A: That's what I tell them! I bring up Andy Capp and I bring up Bugs Bunny! I tell them, "I seem to remember growing up with Elmer Fudd shooting a duck in the face. And I don't think I turned out that bad." Those people who did the Bugs Bunny cartoons were as dark as dark can be. They were all World War II vets who came back with this dark sensibility, and the kids just loved it.
Q: My wife complains that comic strips about anger, envy, loneliness, humiliation and death are inappropriate for our 3-year-old son, who reads the comics with us. I say the boy is going to learn all this anyway, so it may as well be funny and have cute animals in it. Which one of us is right?
A: You are. You are 100 percent right. I'm on your side in this. That was an easy one.