You get the impression that Stephan Pastis, one time insurance claims litigator and now irreverently funny and über-successful cartoonist of hit comic strip Pearls Before Swine, is the kind of man who doesn’t like to play it safe.
Well, not any longer, anyway.
Realising after one year of law school that life in the legal world wasn’t really a good fit for his square peg in a round hole mentality, he nevertheless soldiered on, choosing a safe career as opposed to following his lifelong dream of becoming a cartoonist, a goal that at the time seemed a little too unattainable, as he told NY Daily News:
“To get syndicated as a comic strip artist is as likely as winning the lottery. I was realistic, so I became a lawyer to make money.”
But after his childhood love of drawing kept asserting itself, and he ended up meeting with Charles Schulz, creator of the legendary comic strip Peanuts, he realised he had to at least give cartooning a shot.
Alas his first attempts to get the attention of the comic strip syndicates came to nothing – it was felt that Rat was a tad too acerbic on his own, which led to him creating sweet-natured and somewhat gullible Pig in an attempt to give the strip some warm and fuzzy overtones – he admits he shelved his plans to secure a deal until a visit to the grave of a close college friend forced him to re-consider what he was doing with his life:
“She was so meaningful to me in college, made me go see movies I wouldn’t otherwise go to, attend protests and things like that.
“For her to see me as an insurance company defense lawyer was so crushing to me. I stood there feeling bad. Really bad.” (source: NY Daily News)
And while the road to success was not a straight forward one with an initial deal with United Feature Syndicate falling through before Scott Adams, creator of another brilliantly successful comic strip Dilbert sang Pastis’ praises, there’s no denying now that Pearls Before Swine is a hit, drawn by a man who refuses to take the safe route any longer, happy to stick his neck out if it means being funny.
You can see this willingness to be himself and draw what feels right in every strand of Pearls Before Swine‘s creative DNA.
One of the lead characters in the strip, Rat, is a smoking, heavy drinking, midget-throwing, wise-cracking, often uncouth figure who likes to tell it like it is, and then some.
Dispenser of blunt wisdom to those he doesn’t agree with, the uninterested and the Darwinianly-challenged slack-jawed morons of the world, the sometime attorney of dubious integrity and writer of the Angry Bob series of stories, Rat embodies everything all of us would like to say but are too polite to actually articulate.
Which of course makes his profanity-laden arrogance – he once noted that “Profanity is the key to any good motivational poster” – often delivered from the Chair O’ Great Authority, such a sublime joy.
He is rude, uncouth and dismissive to a fault about what is politically correct and thus of course a conduit for all of the natural impulses we all have to be brutally honest, which are usually swept under the carpet of polite, bland social interaction.
Pig is his absolute polar opposite, an endearingly dimwitted fellow who take things on face value, interprets pretty much everything literally – he once took a ham out of the freezer and waited for it to come alive again after Rat explained cryogenics to him – and assumes that everything he puts his mind to will lead to untold success and good fortune such as the time he carts a large cardboard box into the room, telling Rat it is for all the money he will make when he starts blogging.
He is the loveable, caring yin to Rat’s cynical yang, friends with the imaginary Bob and Larry, who is convinced the world is full of “so many interesting people, people who’d like to meet you, people who’d like to talk to you” and uses memories of his childhood home or Christmases past to perk himself on those rare occasions when he gets a little down.
Together Pig and Rat are the ultimate odd couple, roommates who rarely see eye to eye but who are perfect for each other, and somehow manage to stay together through thick and thin, and depressing messages from mothers printed on popsicle sticks.
Rat and Pig are not alone in the Pearls Before Swine universe, kept company by the rather more sane and sage outlooks of Goat, an intellectual with well-considered opinions on just about any topic going who finds Rat and Pig equally hard to take at times, and idealistic Zebra, known as “zeeba neighba” to the hilariously stupid crocodiles of the Zeeba Zeeba Eata fraternity next door, who believes that with enough persistence that the chasm between predator and prey can be broached.
Of course the idiotic crocodiles next door, who gave Zebra a terrorism-inclined criminally-predisposed cat called Snuffles to kill him so they could, naturally enough, eat him, test this natural idealism to the limit, although Zebra is friends with the divorced male lions next door, Max and Zack, bachelors who happily dispense advice that Zebra is usually wise to ignore.
Along with other off-the-wall characters like the overly militaristic Guard Duck, and yes even a raunchier, chainsmoking, paunchy version of Stephen Pastis himself – whom readers often assume is a direct reflection of Pastis himself leading to some interesting situations for the cartoonist and his wife Pastis such as the idea they were divorcing – Pearls Before Swine is almost the anti-comic comic strip, a deliriously pleasing blend of sweet, heartfelt thoughts and politically incorrect musings.
It is everything that many strips like The Family Circus and Garfield are not – two strips, which along with Cathy and Hagar the Horrible are routinely and affectionately parodied by Pastis – which is probably why it appeals so much to so many people.
People who, it should be added, quite happily consume the sweeter sentiments of superlative comic strips like Mutts or Peanuts, but appreciate that life is really that neatly-ordered or consistently well-mannered and needs an outlet somewhere.
In that sense he is an heir to a tradition which includes the intelligence and wit of Calvin and Hobbes, the blisteringly funny commentary of Dilbert, and the delightfully wacky observations of Bloom County and The Far Side, all strips that Pastis happily admits inspired him in one way or another.
Running in something like 650 newspapers, Pearls Before Swine is unpredictable, warm and fuzzy, dark and cynical, testament to the fact that not playing it safe and following your heart, no matter how happily twisted it may be (I am looking at you Rat) is probably one of the saner decisions you will ever make in life.
It’s not just children’s books and a bewildering array of fun merchandise that has received the Pearls Before Swine stamp of approval.
Stephan Pastis has also gone into animated cartoons thanks to Ringtales, a company that specialises in short form animated tales and which is owned in part by a cartoonist Michael Fry (Over the Hedge).
And they’re an utter delight, perfectly capturing the wit and anarchy of the comic strip.
And here’s an interview or two with Stephan Pastis …
Oh and if you’ve ever wondered what it looks like when Stephan Pastis draws Rat, Pig and the others, wonder no more for behold I have found a YouTube video of him at work …