What to do This Weekend: Cartoonist Stephan Pastis talks about 'Pearls Before Swine.'
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There was this guy sitting on death row for committing a double homicide. Sitting in his cell, he wrote a letter to the local newspaper complaining about its coverage.
And he included a P.S. for the editor: "Please run 'Pearls Before Swine.'"
For artist Stephan Pastis, the creator of the comic strip, every reader is important. Even those who are running out of time.
Tonight and tomorrow, Mr. Pastis will be at The Toonseum, Downtown, meeting readers who follow his characters -- Rat, Pig, Zebra, Goat and the Crocodiles -- in the pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"I have a funny connection with Pittsburgh," Mr. Pastis said this week in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. "When I was a little kid, my godparents lived in Verona, and I always had fun when we visited. This was the heyday of Pittsburgh sports, with Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw, and I adopted it as my sports town. I had the pennants in my room. And I'm still a fan."
Mr. Pastis started out as a lawyer, but he hated his job. All the while, he was doodling on the side -- with a misanthropic Rat expressing his frustration.
His characters came to life on the Internet, where he caught the attention of "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams. The strip, which he started in 1997, started in syndication in 2002 and is now carried in 650 newspapers worldwide.
Mr. Pastis' trip here is part of a book tour, which already has included stops out west. Pittsburgh is the first stop on the east-coast leg of the tour.
"It's different in that now I'm standing in front of a crowd that likes me," he said. "When I was a lawyer ... now that was a tough crowd."
He is making his mark in a field that -- like the newspapers that print comics -- is struggling.
"I am ridiculously lucky in that if you launched post-2002, odds are you aren't still in papers," he said. "Between the loss of newspapers and the shrinking of comics sections, it has really taken a toll. I just made it under the wire. I almost literally am the last new comic."
It doesn't help that newspapers reprint old comics after the original artists have died or retired. Or that many original artists have passed their strips on to their children.
"I've always been against that," said Mr. Pastis, who at the same time maintains friendships with some of those cartoonists. "I think it keeps the comics from being fresh.
"I don't think that it does the medium any favors. I mean, if Picasso dies, you don't just have his son take over. How is it that our art form is so low that just anyone can just step in?"
The Internet presents another challenge.
"It's a double-edged sword for me," Mr. Pastis said. "I'm syndicated because I started on the Internet and it drew a big crowd. So I owe the Internet my career. And people can read it in cities where I don't run.
"But the downside is that in the old days, a newspaper would cancel you and a reader would write and complain. Now, the writer says, 'OK, it's no big deal, because I can still read you online.' But it is a big deal because we make our money from the newspapers."
Mr. Pastis said his comic world consists of animal characters who bring various aspects of his own personality -- in varying degrees -- to life. His humor can be edgy. Yet, faced with pleasing his syndicate, the subscribing newspapers and the readers, he has carved out an audience.
"Because of my age -- I'm in my 40s -- I generally write to a juvenile group. I think I'm 14 in my own head," he said. "The biggest check is me. I am always striving to make myself laugh."
The result is more than making people laugh. Sometimes, he said, he makes people angry.
"You're always throwing stones," he said of his art. "And sometimes you hit something or someone on a point that they're sensitive about.
"Cartooning is inherently unfair, I have such an advantage. And at the end of the day, I can say '(A) It's ink on paper. (B) They're talking animals. And (C), it's a comic strip, for God's sake. It's like getting into a fight in front of your house with a circus clown. It's never going to end well for you. Either the clown beats you up or the neighbors all criticize you for beating up a clown."
Not that he aims to please. If people don't complain every once in a while, he said, he wonders if he's going soft.
One of the beauties of his profession, he said, is how many people consider the morning comic strips part of their daily routine.
"It helps to have regular characters. A lot of people like to have them around, almost like friends," he said.
"Short of the Sports section, the comics are the section. Editors know: If you mess with the comics pages, you have hit the third rail with the readers. That draws the strongest reaction. And I can't explain why that it is."
Mr. Pastis' appearances at The Toonseum at 945 Liberty Ave. are popular -- tickets to tonight's session are sold out. You can still attend the noon Saturday event for $13 -- which includes a copy of the artist's latest book. ($35 gets you a signed print as well.)
First Published June 22, 2012 3:36 pm