THE FIRST call of concern came from the real estate agent.
She phoned Staci Pastis, who lives in Northern California, and spoke of the matter at hand both personally and professionally. The agent had read what was up, and sympathized with Staci, and also thought perhaps her realty expertise might soon be of service.
That’s because Staci is married to Stephan Pastis, the sometimes mischievous creator of the comic “Pearls Before Swine.” Which means her life is also intertwined with “Stephan Pastis,” the cartoonist’s meta-persona who appears IN “Pearls Before Swine.”
“Our real estate agent called Staci and said: ‘I have to tell you, I saw what you’re going through here … ,’ “ recounts the cartoonist. “For a moment, it took us aback.”
The agent had read the cartoonist’s January strips that had a running comic premise: Stephan Pastis — or rather, “Stephan Pastis” — was being forced out of his house by the never-pictured “Staci Pastis.” The cartoon couple was separating, and perhaps divorcing.
“We had to say to the agent: ‘No-no-no! That’s not real,’ ” the cartoonist tells Comic Riffs. Only Pastis’s comic alter-ego was suddenly single.
It might have ended there, but then: Last Sunday’s strip appeared. The first panel advances the fictional action: “Stephan Pastis’s wife has left him. As a result, he has started dating again.”
“Staci forwarded me an e-mail from our accountant … ,” Pastis tells us. “I read through the e-mail quickly and then saw the bottom line: ‘I’m really sorry if this is intruding, but are you OK?’ “
“Then I got a Facebook message from this guy who’s an Orthodox monk,” Pastis continues. “He said he was praying for me because of what had happened.”
For the record, Pastis notes, of those three respondents, only the monk expressed concern specifically for the cartoonist.
“So if we divorce,” he jokes, “I see where the sympathies lie.”
Pastis admits that he, of course, brings this all upon himself. He has created this snarky, paunchy version of himself as comic persona, he says, and the lines have blurred with readers.
“The character is such a weird hybrid,” Pastis tells ‘Riffs. “Half of me considers him about as real as [the characters] Rat and Pig. But I do sort of use him as a real [stand-in].”
Pastis points to one time he brought true life into the strip, when Staci’s father died. “That was so serious — it was the correct assumption that it was [taken from my own life],” the cartoonist says.
But do Pastis’s loyal readers really think he would joke about a real-life divorce in his strip?
“I guess that’s how little they think of me,” he says with a laugh. “But I don’t think anyone’s mistaken to think that” given his hybrid stand-in.
Pastis also sees an upside or two to walking this gray-area tightrope between fact and comic fiction.
“This is engaging readers — and anything to get people talking about the comic [is good],” he says.
“It’s a productive alley. For a guy doing book signings in 2014, it’s a perilous thing for strip cartoonists,” says Pastis, noting the times he has spoken to far more empty chairs than full ones — although he mostly draws large audiences these days. He says the hybrid character, in an odd way, has made him more famous.
“There’s a ‘meet the cartoonist’ curiosity factor [when I do book signings],” says Pastis, adding that people wonder: Does he look like how he draws himself? Specifically, he notes, with a large stomach and always smoking.
“You’re always branding yourself” as a creator, the cartoonist also points out. “What better way to brand yourself than to make yourself part of the product?”
Then, Pastis notes, there’s the personal satisfaction that comes from storylines like his divorce arc — and the reader feedback that they generate:
“I like that I disrupt Staci’s life.”