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Stephan Pastis: Animal Attitude

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Stephan Pastis (Photo courtesy United Features Syndicate, Inc.)

Law school hardly seems a hotbed of creativity. But in 1993, a strange creative force in the form of a rat with a nasty attitude emerged during an otherwise boring class at University of California Los Angeles law school. Stephan Pastis, who drew the rat instead of taking notes, eventually became a lawyer defending insurance companies. But the rodent, who in time would be known as "Rat," never ventured far from his mind. Neither did Pastis' childhood dream of becoming a cartoonist. After syndicates rejected several comic strips, Pastis concentrated on his Rat character while seriously studying the comic timing of other cartoons. Soon a loveable but slow-witted Pig became roommates with the megalomanic Rat. A few other members of the animal kingdom including Goat, Zebra and the Crocodiles rounded out what became the popular comic strip Pearls Before Swine.

Pastis ditched his dark lawyer's suit and briefcase after a syndication deal with United Media in 1999. Pearls Before Swine now appears in about 200 newspapers worldwide as well as on Comics.com. The 37-year-old Pastis, who lives about an hour north of San Francisco with his wife and children, uses the strip to create a dark but humorous commentary on the mostly futile search for the unattainable. But Pastis will also occasionally veer from humor to make a serious statement. One controversial strip showed a television screen reporting the deaths of Israeli school children during a bus bombing. "They were little kids … with backpacks filled with sandwiches and juice and gym shoes and math books," said the television voice in the cartoon to punctuate the tragedy. Another focused on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- the Wall. Pastis' willingness to tackle big issues is one of the reasons Pearls received Best Newspaper Comic Strip honors in 2004 from the National Cartoonists Society.

Crescent Blues: Did you dream as a kid of being a cartoonist?

Stephan Pastis: From the very beginning I wanted to do it. I didn't think it would come to pass, [because the odds against getting syndicated are so great].

Book: stephan pastis, this little piggy stayed home
Crescent Blues: Would you say working as a practicing attorney helped or hindered your craft as a cartoonist?

Stephan Pastis: It helped me in the negative sense in that I wanted to get out of law really bad so I really tried hard with my cartoons.

Crescent Blues: What possessed you to invent and develop Rat as a character?

Stephan Pastis: When I wrote for him it seemed pretty honest. It was the first character where I could really say what's on my mind. When I put it on paper, it's my voice. So it works for me.

Crescent Blues: How did Pig evolve?

Stephan Pastis: He is from a [rejected] strip I did about lawyers where a lawyer visited a pig farm. He was everything that Rat wasn't -- sweet and loveable.

Crescent Blues: Does Pig's, ah, taste for pork freak anyone out?

Stephan Pastis: I get a lot of comments about it, but it doesn't freak anyone out. The biggest comment I get is from people who say I kill a lot of characters off in the strip.

Crescent Blues: You named the strip after the passage from Matthew in the New Testament, which says "do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you." You write that many people use the phrase to mean that your wisdom should not be wasted on those who don't listen. Rat feels Pig squanders his wisdom. Of course, Rat's intelligence also leaves something to be desired. Does Rat compensate for his substandard intellect with arrogance?

Book: stephan pastis, pearls before swine
Stephan Pastis: That's a good analysis. He definitely thinks he's smart. The truly smart one in the strip is Goat. The one with the biggest heart is Pig.

Crescent Blues: Syndicates rejected several previous strips you submitted. You write that when you were an attorney, you took the Pearls strips to your law firm colleagues and had them select the best ones. Then, you selected the forty best, but instead of sending them in to be syndicated you let them sit. What moved you to overcome your fear of rejection?

Stephan Pastis: I was a lawyer and I was in Southern California on business. I visited a grave of a girl I knew in college. I had never visited her grave before. It was so sad. She was a real free-spirit and made me more free-spirited. It was a time in my life when I was examining what I was doing. So that visit made me get off the dime and gave cartooning a shot.

Crescent Blues: Scott Adams, who draws the comic strip Dilbert, asked his fan base to support you. How did that come about?

Book: stephan pastis, lonely hearts club
Stephan Pastis: Before the strip was in the newspaper, I was only on Comics.com. The syndicate did that to see how people would react to it. It did okay, and I got a letter from the syndicate that said Scott Adams wanted to endorse the strip. I didn't know him or had never met him. After he did it, the thing went through the roof.

Crescent Blues: Get Fuzzy cartoonist Darby Conley also contributed to your development of Pearls. How did he help?

Stephan Pastis: We both had the same syndication attorney is how we met. He taught me how to add tones to the (daily cartoons) -- the shades of gray. He also taught me how to color the Sunday strips. I had never done any of that. He was big help. He showed me the ropes.

Crescent Blues: You've said you identify with Rat. Why?

Stephan Pastis: He is probably closest to my personality. If I could I would just write for him, but people like my other characters. But Rat is really my voice.

Crescent Blues: You say that Pearls is using a lot less puns than in the past. Why is that?

Stephan Pastis: You will probably see a huge decrease in the number of puns over the last couple of years. If you do a pun you will have 20 percent of the audience who will love it no matter how bad it is. But you will also have a big chunk of audience who will set the strip aside. You will not be a great cartoonist if you depend on puns. You'll be a hack. Scott Adams taught me that.

The night before it ran I thought I had thrown my career away. But I'm glad I did it. I really don't know what's going to work before it runs.

Crescent Blues: Past interviews indicate that your writing ritual includes locking yourself in a room, turning the music up loud, drinking a lot of coffee and reading Ernest Hemingway. Does that capture your writing process?

Stephan Pastis: Well, I have changed that some. I bought an iPod and I created a list of 300 songs I can listen to. It's portable, so I can take it to the cafes in my area or on a drive or to the beach. It's opened my world. But I've got to have isolation, coffee and music. Those are the three ingredients.

Most cartoonists will tell you it has to be quiet. But I have to have music in my ear. It's like I don't really hear it. It kind of surrounds you and pulls you into its world. Loud enough music is not a distraction for me.

Crescent Blues: What kind of music do you play when you work?

Stephan Pastis: I listen to a little of everything -- mostly rock -- U2, Coldplay, Radiohead, Pink Floyd. But U2 is far and away my favorite.

Crescent Blues: Why do you like Hemingway?

Stephan Pastis: His sentences are really short. His writing is economical. It's important for a comic strip to do that with words because of space. You can get across words more. It sort of teaches me how to do that. Besides he's really good.

Crescent Blues: You have cited Edward Hopper as one of your major artistic influences. What do you like about Hopper's work?

Stephan Pastis: I think the tone of it. It's like my strip, kind of dark and lonely. The people are kind of detached. The cover of my latest book is based on one of his paintings.

Crescent Blues: Does the simplicity of drawing Pearls add to its appeal? Would the strip be any better if the complexity of your drawing expanded?

Stephan Pastis: No. The funny thing about that is if I could draw better there are certain things I would do, like draw a better table. I would not add expressions to the characters' faces because I don't think that's funny. But I would like a good understanding of art.

Crescent Blues: Your strip uses death as a recurring theme. Why do you think death makes good comedic fodder?

Stephan Pastis: That's a tough question. Gallows humor has been around since day one. The comic strip's animals look cute and huggable. When I talk about death there's an incongruity. Incongruent is funny.

Book: stephn pastis, nighthog
Crescent Blues: What kind of reaction did you receive from your strips that made serious statements such as Pig visiting the Vietnam Wall or the Jerusalem bus explosion?

Stephan Pastis: The Wall strip -- I got a ton of people who served in Vietnam or whose family members served in Vietnam who wrote, thanking me. The Jerusalem strip was a phenomenon on its own. I had 2,500 e-mails, ten times the number I had on the Wall strip. A lot of them were from Israel -- parents of those killed in a bombing or bombing victims. Ninety percent of it was positive. The other 10 percent said it did not belong in the comics or that I should give the Palestinian perspective.

The night before it ran I thought I had thrown my career away. But I'm glad I did it. I really don't know what's going to work before it runs.

Crescent Blues: Do you like to think such strips get people to talk about problems?

Stephan Pastis: It's kind of hard but if I can do it, it's good. My first role though is to make people laugh.

Crescent Blues: In addition to drawing the strip, you also work several days a week for the estate of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz. What do you do for the estate and how big an influence was Schulz?

Stephan Pastis: I work at the [Schulz] studio three days a week. I look at products with Peanuts characters and say if the companies marketing them can do it or not. I learned everything from reading his books as a kid.

Crescent Blues: Did you get to know Schulz very well?

Stephan Pastis: I met him three or four times. He got to see Pearls. He told me I should use a new pen. Every one of the young cartoonists wishes they had met Schulz.

Crescent Blues: What other cartoon strips influenced you?

Stephan Pastis: I think The Far Side, Dilbert, Bloom County, Doonesbury, Get Fuzzy and also Calvin and Hobbes.

Crescent Blues: Do the smart characters, Goat, and Zebra -- who tries his best to just stay alive -- bring a balance to the strip what with the extreme personality differences between Rat and Pig?

Stephan Pastis: I think that's true. Goat acts more as a straight man. Zebra is almost a strip within a strip.

Crescent Blues: The Fraternity of Crocodiles have as their primary pursuit the destruction of Zebra and other prey. What makes the dimwitted crocodiles with strange accents funny? And what kind of accent do the Crocodiles, who stalk their "Zeeba neighba" have?

Stephan Pastis: They are not without criticism. But I think for every 25 positive comments I get a negative. The positives of the Crocodiles far outweigh the negatives. They have increased [web] hits, increased sales, and increased interest in the books. I can't explain it.

I don't know. I hear them speak Russian when I start. I have had people say everything about that accent, even accuse me of being racist.

Just one night, I thought, "I've got to bring the predators to the neighborhood." I think it was missing a non-PC voice in the strip. Something like a Frankenstein.

Crescent Blues: Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro recently made the news after he sent out alternate cartoon strips to newspapers because he thought some publications might balk at gay marriage as a subject matter. Do you find the so-called "culture wars" exasperating?

Stephan Pastis: I just saw an article in The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger saying that I am the most polarizing figure in comics. People who love the strip, love it. People who hate it, hate it. I watch TV shows like The Daily Show and South Park and I think I'm pretty tame. Yeah, it's a little frustrating.

(Image courtesy United Features Syndicate, Inc.)

Crescent Blues: How old are your children? Do they yet appreciate that their father is a cartoonist?

Stephan Pastis: They are 7 and 3. The 7-year-old does a little but the 3-year-old has no concept of a cartoonist. But the 7-year-old is starting to talk about it with his friends and they read it. That's kind of neat.

Crescent Blues: Most cartoon characters do not seem to age. Do you foresee Rat and Pig aging?

Stephan Pastis: No I don't think so. They age in what they say. They age as I age. But physically they won't change because I don't know how to draw it.

Crescent Blues: What makes politics such a target-rich environment for laughs?

Stephan Pastis: That's a good question. It's probably because politicians are lying so much. We're always lampooning them. That's why I had Rat running for office several times in the strip.

Crescent Blues: Must you be thick-skinned to be a cartoonist?

Stephan Pastis: Yeah. You get used to criticism. The only thing that bothers me is when someone says something, and I know I'm right. If I know where things are at, then I don't worry about it.

Crescent Blues: What legacy would you like Pearls to leave behind? How would you like to be remembered?

Stephan Pastis: I want it to be a strip that when people look back and I'm retired that I want people to say I counted.

Richard L. Smith

Richard L. Smith lives amidst the humid, sub-tropical climate of Beaumont, Texas. He recently started a freelance career after almost twenty years as a Texas newspaper reporter and columnist. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era. Afterwards, he worked his way through college as a firefighter. When he's not working and the heat index isn't 110 degrees outside, one may find him hiking in the pine forests of East Texas.

Click here to learn more about Stephan Pastis.

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