Stephan Pastis is the cartoonist behind “Pearls Before Swine,” which in the past nine years has established itself as one of the funniest, most idiosyncratic comic strips in the newspaper. The often absurd humor of Pig, Rat, Zeebra, Goat, the Guard Duck, the Lions and the Crocodiles of the fraternity Zeeba Zeeba Eata stand out amongst the ranks of syndicated strips for their unapologetically dark humor. In the early years, Pastis was best known for mocking other comics, creating strips where Osama bin Laden lived with the cast of “The Family Circus,” for example. In recent years, as Pastis has mellowed a bit and readers have become accustomed to his style and approach to the strip, Pastis has come to be recognized for his skill as a humorist.
Twice winning the award for Best Newspaper Comic Strip, this year Pastis has been nominated for the Reuben of the Year Award once again. In addition to the many collections of the strip, including the recent treasury collection “Pearls Blows Up,” Pastis is working on an ebook and a book for children. He also added animation writer to his resume, co-scripting the recent “Peanuts” animated special “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown.” Pastis spoke with CBR News from his home in Northern California.
CBR News: Could you take us through one of your days and talk about your creativeprocess?
Stephan Pastis: Today is a good example. I drive to Calistoga, which is a town in Napa Valley about fifteen minutes from here. I put on my iPod and I sit at the counter looking outside. I sit there for a while writing nothing and then eventually — hopefully — I come up with something. I will stay for probably two or three hours. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Hopefully at the end of it I’ve got three strips written. Then I go home, as I did today, check email and do all the stuff that I’ve got to do and then begin drawing. In a typical day, if I write in the morning, I can draw two or three in the afternoon. I will repeat that the next day, sometimes writing at home, sometimes going to a cafe here in Santa Rosa. If on any day I write four or five strips, I don’t have to write the next day, I’ll just draw the whole next day. And at the end of three days, I’ve got seven or eight strips. I shoot for eight.
When you’re writing the strip, do you know what the final product will look like?
Yes. So many of my strips are just two of them talking, so there are many times when it doesn’t matter. It could be almost anywhere. If it is dependent upon something visual, or wherever there’s a visual element that I need to remember, I will typically just sketch it out just to remember that this character has to enter from the left and here’s the expression I want him to make.
Sometimes an idea starts with a doodle. I’ll draw some goofy looking guy, or Pig with a box on his head. In that case, the sketch is instructive, but generally speaking, it’s not necessary. There are stage directions, just like you would see on a script. I’ll say: “Rat (angry)” or “Rat (entering from left)” or “Pig (holding newspaper upside down).”
If you’re writing and drawing eight strips a week, you must be ahead by a pretty good amount, right now.
I’m about seven and a half months ahead, although I don’t submit them all at once. Right now, for example, I think I’m submitted through the end of July, but on my shelf is four months worth of strips. I used to submit them all, which was really kind of dumb. You can have a character that people turn out to like and you think, oh, I should put him in more. But if you’re submitted seven months out, that means subbing him in for seven months worth of strips which is pretty laborious, so I try to avoid that now.
Holding strips back like that, do you read through them and toss this one because it’s too similar to another or that one because you just don’t think it’s as funny?
Oh, definitely. What I do is, when I come to be just two months ahead, I will take that four or five months of strips and will lay them out all around the condo that I work out of. I’ll put the Sundays in one spot and the dailies in another spot and I look at them. Invariably I go, wow, have I been terrible the past few months. I haven’t been funny once. I always look back on my past work and marvel at how bad it is. So then what I do is I take the worst and I try to tuck them in on Saturday. Although I’m often wrong. Last Saturday’s was really popular. I try to put the bad ones on Saturday with the thinking that most people aren’t reading the paper. Maybe it’s a myth, but it’s what I cling to. [Laughs] I always look back at my past stuff and think it’s terrible. I think I like maybe one out of a hundred. But when I’m doing it, I think it’s great. I tell myself that because otherwise, I won’t be able to complete it.
You’ve talked and written about how you became a cartoonist, how you were working as a lawyer. Were you always drawing?
I drew as a little kid. My mom swears that it was because of how sick I was. I would generally miss about two to four weeks of school a year due to bronchitis and she said that I started drawing because I needed something to do laying in bed. She gave me one of those beanbag desks. I do remember that, vaguely. I would just lay there and draw. I don’t remember if that that’s how I started, but that’s the story she tells, so I’m encouraging that mythology. [Laughs]
How much effort do you put into each day as far as writing vs drawing? You’ve made light of how you’re not the greatest draftsman, but you’re good and you’ve clearly gotten better over the run of the strip.
I think I have gotten better. In fairness, if you took the two hundred guys that are syndicated and you said draw a horse or draw a car, I think I would finish in the bottom ten. If you said, draw an expression, maybe a little higher. Bottom fifty. [Laughs] But I think in fairness I’m fairly low. That doesn’t mean I don’t try. I really do try. I don’t take the drawing lightly, it’s just hard for me. Particularly anything round, like a wheel. Or square. Or triangular. [Laughs] It’s hard for me.
That said, if you give me the chance to have an artist [draw the strip], I wouldn’t say yes. In the end, it is what I want it to be and if it’s not, I won’t do it. I’ll change it so that you can’t see that which I don’t draw well. But I think all it means in the end is that I spend a lot more time doing the strip than someone like Dan Piraro would have to. Dan Piraro, if he imitated one of my strips, he’d probably do it in fifteen minutes, while it takes me two hours.
I’m also very, very particular about the lettering. I think the lettering is good. I will spend forever getting the lettering correct in Photoshop. I hand draw it, but then I scan the strip in and then fix it up so that each line is centered. I didn’t used to do that, but it’s become a bit of an obsession. I would probably save a lot of time if I stopped doing that, because nobody probably gives a shit. [Laughs]
What drove you to do that?
Just because I’m not good in terms of the art it doesn’t mean I’m not incredibly particular, the lettering included. I want it to look exactly as good as it can look. What ends up happening is you start doing it, and then where does it end? An “R” is touching an “N,” and they run together, so you go in and separate the two. Or a “B” is not as good as it could be. It sounds stupid, but I actually do that. It bothers me. I’ll notice it when I go back and see the tear sheet that the syndicate sends. I’ll go, how could I leave that so un-centered? And I will spend the time fixing it. Then I look back on the early strips, and it wasn’t that way at all. It’s all slanted to the right or the left and looks really bad. But I think the lettering now looks good. I do it by hand and then fix it in Photoshop. I don’t like fonts. I know they can do them from your lettering, but I still don’t like them.
Speaking of the earlier strips, in its early years, it was known for its willingness to mock other strips–
No one’s mentioned this to you before, I’m sure. When you do this, do you know the cartoonists? Do you ask permission?
Asking permission is a big mistake, because they might say no. It’s better to do it and apologize. That’s the way to do it. I do know them, now. You do this for ten years, it’s a pretty small world. There’s not a lot of cartoonists I haven’t met. In fact, I can’t think of any. By and large, I know most of them and so just out of courtesy, I will tell them. Now, even more than that, I do these same day crossovers where I try to have them do something in their strip on the same day that sort of references what I’m doing in my strip. For example, a series I did a couple years ago had Rat on a hunger strike to get Ziggy to put on pants. I called Tom Wilson and asked him, at the end of it, Rat’s going to declare victory — could you put pants on Ziggy that day? I had never spoken to him before. He was very nice. He said yeah and did it. I did the same thing with “Dennis the Menace,” though that hasn’t run yet, and the same thing with “Sally Forth.”
Because that involves cooperation, I call them. Sometimes I need art. For example, I was doing a Hagar gag and I don’t have any Hagar books and I couldn’t find what I needed online, so I called Chris Browne and he sent me some. I guess as a matter of course, now, the way that I do things, I end up talking to them in advance. Somebody like Jeff Keane, I wouldn’t have to call. Jeff and I are friends. He wouldn’t care. In the early days, I didn’t know anybody, so I didn’t ask anybody. That’s probably just a function of youth. You start out throwing stones and doing your thing. It’s a little more punk rock, so to speak, when you start. And then, to some extent, the industry co-opts you. It’s hard to be rude to someone who knows your family and sees you at the Reubens. It’s probably best left to the newest guys. Of course, the way this industry’s going, I still am the newest guy. [Laughs] I’m still one of the youngest guys at the Reubens.
I know that you work for the Charles Schulz estate. How did that end up happening?
As of December, I don’t work there anymore. It started out as a three day a week job to get me through. I quit being a lawyer and I didn’t want to depend on the strip full time. I knew the director of the Schulz Studio and she gave me a job doing licensing. The job morphed over the years into what it became at the end, which is writing the Peanuts animated special which just came out from Warner Brothers, “Happiness is a Warm Blanket.” That was really a thrill.
The job changed and they moved to a different studio and said you can’t be two days a week anymore. I couldn’t give any more days than that, so that was that. Now I’m five days a week on the strip, which has been great. It’s given me the chance to speak in places — I’m going to Southern California tomorrow and I went to Dallas a couple weeks ago — and then work on other stuff. I’m doing a “Pearls” ebook for the iPad and then I’m doing a non-Pearls book for kids, sort of in the “Wimpy Kid” category of books.
What was it like working on “Happiness is a Warm Blanket?”
I tell people it’s ninety percent pure, meaning that ninety percent of the dialogue comes verbatim out of the strip and the only things added were to move the plot along. That’s quite a challenge. You’ve got to fill forty-four minutes. It’s almost like putting together a puzzle. Seeing what strip can connect you to what strip, using the series as much as possible. It’s more like building a puzzle than writing a script.
Even in a connected series of strips, it’s far more episodic than anything that could work on television.
Yeah it’s a real challenge to not make it look like comic strip, comic strip, comic strip, commercial break, comic strip, comic strip, comic strip. [Laughs] That was a definite challenge. But it was a big honor. It was a lot of fun. And very interesting. It helps me with my own stuff in terms of getting “Pearls” animated. Knowing the steps, what’s required with the storyboards and the animatics and the voices. If you’re a control freak like me, and you want to control your own animated movie, you have to know what these steps are and where you need to exert control. I now feel like I know those steps. Had I never done this, I wouldn’t have known.
You mentioned that you were working on a “Pearls Before Swine” ebook…
It’s my 250 favorite strips. I’m doing it with not my normal publisher but with Chronicle Books in San Francisco. We’ve been filming for the last two weeks. Basically, you’re going to see a strip on the screen and then you’ll be able to touch the screen to get audio commentary from me or video commentary. The video is sometimes informative. Sometimes it’s a little skit. There’s some animation. It’s something you can only do with an ebook.
And the kids book you mentioned?
The kids book is about a little kid who is a detective, but as I pitched it, he’s a detective who can make any mystery more mysterious. He’s a total moron. He screws up everything. He’s got a polar bear as his partner. I’ve written the first seventy pages and I have an agent and we’re going to begin the process of pitching it to publishers. It’s a fun thing to do because all the characters are new. It’s neat, for a change, to fool around with other characters and characters you don’t know super well yet. It’s like meeting new people, in a weird sort of way.
“Pearls” is coming up its tenth year. How has your sense of the strip and characters changed over time and do you think about the strip differently from when you started?
I think you change in some respects. A lot of things change you. Your age. Family. Having kids of a certain age. Success. More newspapers. All those things change you. Part of it is just natural and so, as you change, the strip changes. Your viewpoint changes to some extent. As long as you’re being honest with yourself, the strip is going to reflect that. In terms of how I go about the strip, I think I’m a little more particular. I look at the early stuff and I think some of it went out the door in too haphazard a fashion.
I don’t know. Maybe being more fly by night is better. Maybe when you get more successful, you get more conservative and less good. Maybe you get better. I don’t know. But you definitely change. How could you not?
Are there things in the strip you want to do more of or less of going forward?
I’m always trying to surprise myself. I’m always thinking, what new thing can I do? What haven’t I explored? Me, in the strip as a character that interacts with my characters, gives me lots of room in which to work. Doing these types of crossovers that involve the other artist working with me on the same day. I’m trying to go into areas that are more or less new to me. You can only do so many “Family Circus” parodies and you can only do so many jokes about death. I’m always looking for new characters. I’m always looking to keep myself interested. If I’m not interested, the strip’s not interesting. That’s my goal. To entertain myself. My hope is that that entertains other people, but you can’t make entertaining other people your goal. It won’t work. You’ve got to entertain yourself.
You have a pretty decent record of introducing new characters that have caught on, like the Guard Duck Andy, the chained up dog, the crocodiles and the way the crocodiles have changed over the years.
Maybe so. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t work. As the strip gets more established, it becomes harder to introduce newer characters. Everyone seems to like the Guard Duck now, but I remember when he started, he got a lot of resistance. As long as you like it, you just pursue it. I haven’t really introduced a new mainstay character in a while, so I’m probably overdue. He has to have some life to him. There has to be some spark to him, something that reflects honestly some personality type or some notion or concept. I don’t know what makes a character work or not. That’s always a mystery.
This year, you’re up for the Reuben of the Year Award again. You’ve won the Reuben before.
I’ve won a Division Award. There’s twelve division awards and then there’s the big Reuben. Technically, the division awards are just that, division awards and I’ve won the one for best newspaper comic strip. But there’s only one Reuben, so to speak, and that’s Cartoonist of the Year and that can come from any discipline. Matt Groening has won it. Mike Luckovich, Gary Larson, Trudeau, Schulz, Sergio. It’s really our Hall of Fame. It’s the highest award you can get if you’re a syndicated guy who’s not political. If you’re political, you can win the Pulitzer, but short of being political, that’s the biggest thing you can win.
What goes on at the Reuben weekends? Is it just cartoonists drinking and black tie affairs?
I think by and large the dynamic is this: most of us are hermits that don’t get out of the house and get very little recognition for what we do personally because our fame, if we have any, is totally anonymous. No one knows me when I go to the grocery store. You’re as anonymous as anybody else. So when you go to this event, for many cartoonists, it’s the one time of the year where other people know who they are and what they do. Even if it’s just their peers.
I think we’re probably awkward socially as a group. The portrayal is this drunken thing, but that also implies we’re cool. We’re not cool. [Laughs] It’s a lot of guys who have pasty white skin because they’ve been indoors 364 days and they probably don’t have, me included, the best social skills. We get together one weekend of the year, say hi, reacquaint ourselves with everybody. If there’s a pool, I try to sit by it. You definitely drink at night. And then it all builds up to this black tie event on Saturday night where they give out the Reuben. It’s social, more than anything.
I know that you’re doing something for the Team Cul de Sac fundraiser.
I’m doing a “Pearls” strip that incorporates the “Cul de Sac” character Alice. Richard [Thompson]’s a great guy. He’s so genuinely nice. I think that’s probably a big part of why this effort has gotten such a large response. Everybody just wants to help. Plus, the other thing is, at least among cartoonists, Richard’s a real czar. We all see how great he is. I think it’s a comment on the newspaper industry that he’s not in a thousand newspapers. A strip like that should be. I try to promote it whenever I can. I’ve done it in the strip. I think he’s great.
To wrap up, I have a question I need to know the answer to: where did crocs come from?
That’s one of the few questions I can answer in terms of character derivation. I always write in the morning, so this is why this stands out. The crocs were a “very late night turn on the lights at 3 AM cause I got this great idea” idea. To introduce these new characters that would talk this way, they would live next door to zebra and would be completely inept. Probably a legacy of Wile E. Coyote cartoons in my head. That same night, I had two other brilliant ideas. One was a toaster who could predict the future. That bombed. And second, I don’t know what it was, but it was another idea as bad as the toaster. And then the crocs. So one out of three. If I was a baseball player, they’d put me in the Hall of Fame, so I’m happy with that. But it’s funny, I thought the crocs were a good idea right when I came up with them, but I also thought those other two were good ideas and they were not good ideas.
You envisioned them, their sensibility and ineptness? It was all fully formed in your head?
Yeah. The fraternity, the way they talked, their attitude. That never happens. The crocs were planned form the start. Really it’s Wile E. Coyote. The only difference is the crocs talk and Wile E. Coyote, for the most part, does not. Bugs Bunny was huge for me.
Is there anything else that stands out in your mind as far as affecting the strip and your own sensibility?
Oh yeah. Early “Saturday Night Live” with the original cast. Early eighties Letterman was huge. Kurt Vonnegut. Every time I do this, I always leave stuff out. Bugs Bunny. “Peanuts.” “The Far Side.” “Dilbert.” Mr. Bill from “Saturday Night Live.” “Airplane!” was a really big influence.
Laurel and Hardy. Laurel and Hardy were huge for me. I still watch that. That dynamic between the two of them is the dynamic in comedy. It’s probably what’s in the back of my head with Pig and Rat. That is the template.