To newspaper comics fans, Stephan Pastis, the creator of the popular strip PEARLS BEFORE SWINE, needs no introduction.
PBS, which features Rat and Pig, is a certified hit. Syndicated in 600 papers, the strip has spawned numerous best-selling compilation books. Here’s hoping it becomes a licensing bonanza, too. I’d love to have a little plush Rat suction-cupped to my car window.
Stephan was gracious enough to answer my questions via phone a few weeks back, especially so because my cheap microphone/headphone setup made it difficult for him to hear me (curse you, Best Buy!).
Nominated four times for best newspaper comic strip by the National Cartoonist Society, Pearls has won the award twice, in 2003 and 2006.
My favorite PBS strips are from the weeklong arc in June 2005 featuring Osama Bin Laden and the Family Circus. Truly inspired!
Check out PBS daily, buy the books, read more about Stephan at his web site, and follow his blog, which is updated far more frequently (and humorously) than this one .
20 QUESTIONS WITH STEPHAN PASTIS
1. When you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist? Did you draw?
Oh, yes. When I came home from school, my mom would provide me with paper and it gave me something to do.
2. What was your first paying cartoon job?
I submitted a cartoon when I was 11 to the Pasadena Star News for the little children’s section of the comics page. They bought it and they paid me two dollars.
3. Describe the process you went through to get PEARLS BEFORE SWINE syndicated.
I submitted three different strips to the syndicates, maybe four, before PEARLS. They rejected all of them. And then I submitted PEARLS in 1999 and both United and King were interested and I went with United. Then Scott Adams endorsed the strip and told all his fans to read it. And that’s when it sort of took off.
4. Why doesn’t rat smile more?
Maybe I should use that Johnny Cash answer. When people asked, "Why do you wear black?" Johnny said, "When the world’s a better place, I’ll stop wearing black." Maybe that’s the answer.
5. What’s your favorite rejected strip or gag?
I once had Rat and Pig at a funeral, and they had the giggles. Rat was trying to make Pig stop giggling, so he said the name of a comic strip and immediately everyone stopped laughing. The implication being that the comic was so unfunny, it could actually make people stop laughing. No I can’t tell you the name of the strip, but that’s why they nixed it. They said, "Oh, the creator is such a nice guy, you’d really hurt his feelings."
6. Where do you stand in the print comics vs. web comics debate?
I think it’s an artificial distinction. To me there are two kinds of strips: funny strips and not-funny strips. I don’t really care how it gets transmitted to the world; I lump them into those two categories.
7. Newspaper comics are considered pretty tame compared to TV and other media. Do you find this limiting or do you welcome the challenge?
I think the challenge probably makes you a better writer, but it’s very limiting. I would much rather have the whole keyboard of comedy open to me rather than just the black notes on the piano. It’s like we have just one set of keys and everyone else gets the whole keyboard. So sure, that’s limiting.
8. Name five of your favorite comic strips or cartoonists.
THE FAR SIDE, 1960s-era PEANUTS, GET FUZZY, DILBERT, PERRY BIBLE FELLOWSHIP — that’s a great one.
9. Do you think Ziggy shaves his head or was he born without hair?
Bigger question: Why doesn’t he wear pants?
10. How do you develop ideas? Which comes first, words or pictures?
Sometimes pictures, but almost always words. I’m much more a verbal cartoonist than a visual one – out of necessity.
11. Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?
No, I really don’t. I mean there are days when I don’t have anything, but there’s always stuff to make fun of. And if there’s not, I’ll just do a FAMILY CIRCUS joke.
12. Who do you want to play YOU in the PEARLS BEFORE SWINE live-action film?
Oh, I think there’s only one person who could play me: Brad Pitt.
13. What kind of editor do you prefer, hands-on or laissez-faire?
None, so I guess that would be laissez-faire.
14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)
Books: Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole, funniest book ever. Then the ones I re-read every couple of years…Death of a Salesman, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Great Gatsby, and Hemingway’s short stories.
TV: The British version of The Office, the other Ricky Gervais show, Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Concords.
Songs: I’m a big U2 fan with my favorite song ever being "Bad" from the Unforgettable Fire.
Films: Kill Bill is probably my favorite single film, followed closely by 8 ½ by Fellini, Ran by Kurosawa, and Lawrence of Arabia.
15. What are your tools of the trade?
Physically how I create the strip? A pen and paper. Does anyone really care about this stuff? (laughing) Does anyone really care what type of pen I use? I’ll tell ‘em. It’s a Kuretake pen and just Strathmore Bristol board. I’m very simple. If you looked at my desk you’d see pen, pencil, eraser, and paper. I use the computer to clean up the strips and add the grayscale.
16. What’s the worst job you ever had?
Well, I didn’t like being an attorney, so I’ll say that.
17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols? Under what circumstances?
I‘ve been really lucky there. Schulz, just by stalking him and showing up where he ate breakfast; Berke Breathed, just by being on a panel with him in New Orleans; Scott Adams, because he lives not too far from me. Never met Watterson; never met Larson. I would love to meet Larson. Two people on earth I want to meet more than anybody else: I want to meet Bob Dylan and Gary Larson, neither of which will probably ever happen, but a man can dream.
18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?
Entertain yourself. Sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s much harder than it looks. You think you are, but more often than not, you’re playing to an audience, trying to entertain others. When you try to do that, you entertain no one. Just try and make yourself laugh. I once asked Scott Adams that question. I said, "You’re so funny when you write; how do you do that?" He said, "I write to my brother. I imagine my brother reading it."
19. How important are awards?
When I lose, not very important. When I win, they’re everything.
20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?
I’m afraid of dogs. If there’s a barking dog in someone’s house, I won’t visit them. That’s the first question I ask. When someone invites me over I ask, "Do you have a dog?" If they say, "Yeah," I don’t go.