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Comics: Meet the Artist
With Stephan Pastis
"Pearls Before Swine" Cartoonist

Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor

Friday, Aug. 9, 2002; 1 p.m. EDT

Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin was joined by "Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan Pastis. The comic strip is basically a tale of two friends: a megalomaniacal Rat who thinks he knows it all and a slow-witted Pig who doesn't know any better. Together, the pair offers caustic commentary on humanity's quest for the unattainable.

Tobin and Pastis were online Friday, Aug. 9 at 1 p.m. EDT to discuss "Pearls Before Swine" and the art of cartooning.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Suzanne Tobin: Welcome, comics fans, to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is a bright new talent in the cartooning business, Stephan Pastis, creator of "Pearls Before Swine," which first began syndication in newspapers this past January. In case you missed our last chat, Scott Adams of "Dilbert" is one of Stephan's biggest supporters. He's written, "I'm a big fan of Stephan's comic. It's one of the few that makes me laugh out loud."

Stephen Pastis: Hi, Suzanne. Thanks for having me.

Bethesda, Md.: I really don't know how long you've been producing the strip, but the Post started publishing just a few months ago. Never before had I become hooked on a comic strip from day one, and never has it let me down. The characters are simple but well defined, the drawing is also simple but expressive and cute enough, and the humor is apparently simple but delirious.
Every single strip has been great, but I remember the pig's "fruit buddies" series as particularly sad and touching... and roaringly funny at the same time. Keep it up!

Stephen Pastis: Well thank you very much. That is very kind of you. If you liked the
"Fruit Buddies" series, you may also like a similar series that's coming up
in September where Pig makes friends with Tooty the Gingerbread Man. Tooty
doesn't fare much better than the poor Fruit Buddies.

Copenhagen, Denmark: I only have one question:

Aren't you getting bored with all those reruns of old strips yourself? We all love pig and his friends, but IMHO there has been FAR to many reruns over the last two years.

I'm looking forward to pearls every day, but it's getting boring reading "cap o'imortality, mister underwater guy, nativity scene and fruit buddies again and again.

A rerun of the tepanyaki chef would be OK since it's extremely funny, but otherwise we could use some new strips. Cheers.

Stephen Pastis: Here's the scoop. Pearls started as a Web-only strip in November,
2000. When Pearls was launched in papers in January, 2002, the syndicate
(and me) did not want the newspaper readers to miss some of the better
strips that had appeared in Pearls' first year on the web. Hence, reruns.
I know this has been a big drag for long-time Pearls fans, and for that I
apologize. Thank you for sticking with the strip through the reruns. The
good news is that the reruns are winding down. In fact, starting on August
19, there is a new 2-week series where Rat gets a (gasp) girlfriend. Also,
from October through December, the vast majority of strips are brand new.

Additionally, throughout the reruns, I've been drawing at least 7 new
strips every week. The result is that I'm nine months ahead of deadline.
The strips I'll draw today will not be seen until next May.

Buzzard Breath, Wyo.: Hi Stephan. I'm a big fan of yours. I think the work you do on Garfield is just great. Tell me, how do you come up with such zany ideas?

Your fan
Andrew Nutz

Stephen Pastis: It's not easy. But between the lasagna jokes and my
crushing-the-spider gags, I've managed to make a pretty good living.

Catatonic: Hi Stephan! Are you gonna finish that grilled cheese?

The guy next to you at Denny's.

Stephan Pastis: Don't touch my food.

Edinburgh, UK: Which character is most like you?

Stephan Pastis: When I started writing the strip, it was the Rat. Now I would say it's the Pig. I think the Pig's defining characteristic, in addition to being dumb, is that he's pretty good-hearted and happy. I don't think I'm too dumb.

Columbia. Md.: "Pearls Before Swine" is one of the most original and unique comics that i've read. Instead of some dumb punchline the scenes before the last punchline in the comic strip seem to be funny as well. Was there any other cartoonist or person who influenced you?

Stephan Pastis: My first and strongest influence is Charles Schulz of "Peanuts." In fact, a lot of my style is derivative of "Peanuts." Almost all of my scene backgrounds are taken directly from Peanuts...the wall, the curb, the TV scene. And I was influenced by the deadpan nature of a lot of the humor, the simplicity of the line art and the fairly static nature of many of the strips. In terms of humor, I was heavily influenced by "The Far Side," "Bloom County," "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Doonesbury."

Silver Spring, Md.: How did you come up with the idea and title for the comic strip?

Stephan Pastis: I have been drawing Rat since law school in 1991. I drew him in a number of different strips that were rejected by the syndicates. I paired with Pig in 1997 and it just seemed to work better. I think the mean cynicism of Rat, when juxtaposed with the simple, sweet stupidity of Pig, just happened to be a good formula. I drew around 200 of those strips in '97 and I let them sit on my shelf for 18 months, during which time I drew nothing. I did not want to send them to the syndicates for fear of the strip being rejected again.
Then in July 1999, I got up my courage and sent the best 40 of those strips into the syndicates and it immediately drew interest from three separate syndicates.
As for the name, it was a result of me brainstorming about a title that would have a Pig reference in it. I thought of all the expressions I could that refer to pigs or food that comes from pigs, and finally came upon the expression "Pearls Before Swine" and I thought it was perfect for the strip, because the expression means don't waste your wisdom on people who aren't listening and the Rat thinks he's saying a lot of smart things that are wasted on Pig.
A lot of readers have written to me that the title implies a joke on the readers themselves. Like I'm the one who's smart and I'm wasting my talent on the comics page readers. And that absolutely is NOT the case. There was actually a letter that was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution complaining that the title was demeaning to the reader. That misinterpretation never even entered my mind.

Arlington, Va.: You have got me reading the comics again. Thank you.

Stephan Pastis: Well, thank you very much. You've made my day!

Nuremberg, Germany:
Hello again Stephan,

You just wrote that you're nine months ahead of your deadline. That means you could take some time off and pursue other projects in the meantime, if you wanted to -- do you?

Are there any plans to come up with a second strip, or an album perhaps? (Not to say that I'd have enough of PBS, certainly not! ;-)


Stephan Pastis: For reasons unknown to me, I absolutely HAVE to write and draw seven new strips a week, despite the amount of time I'm ahead of deadline. Maybe I should see a psychiatrist to see if I have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The first "Pearls" book is scheduled to be released next spring in 2003. I think it will contain the first eight months or so of the strip.

Law School: Was drawing Rat a diversion for your during law school, or did Rat remind you of anyone at law school?
Not Rat (honest)

Stephan Pastis: Here's how Rat was born. I was sitting in a class on European Economic Community Law and was bored to tears. I was doodling like I always did and I just drew this animal who happened to be a rat. He was a quadriped at the time--walking on all four legs. And I would do these little strips in class that were very, very dark humor. I still have them. In the first strip, Rat dies. And maybe it was just an outlet for all the anxieties and cynicism that a competitive law school environment tends to breed. He wasn't inspired by anyone in particular at law school, although I was not fond of the law school community as a whole.
I'm tempted to dedicate my first book to the professor of that European Economic Community Law class. Little does he know what his teaching inspired.

Ft. Washington, Md.: Were you pleased to be rated #16 in the Washington Post comic survey?

Stephan Pastis: I was just thrilled. I couldn't believe it. To see Pearls up there
with all these big name strips was a dream-come-true.
I'd been waiting with bated breath for those poll results, since The Post is so huge. When it finally came out, being the cynic that I am, my eyes gravitated straight to the bottom of the list. I was just praying "Don't let Pearls be last." Then I scrolled up, and I wasn't in the bottom five!And I kept going up and up, and I wondered if I'd been accidentally excluded from the poll. Then I saw I was 16th, and I was ecstatic. I ran upstairs to tell my wife..."You're not gonna believe this!!!"

Harrisburg, Pa.: Love your comic strip. People can identify with your strip because we know people and situations just like what you portray, and this brings out the levity in the situations we all face. Are your characters based after real people, or are they based after generic people, or based after something totally different?

Stephan Pastis: They are all based on aspects of my own personality, although I'm not quite
as mean as Rat nor as stupid as Pig.

College Park, Maryland: Why are you wasting your time doing a comic strip? It's not funny, it's stupid. You shouldn't make fun of Pig and you oughta make your illustrations better as well. But if I were you (which thank God i'm not) I'd just give up altogether.

Stephan Pastis: Mom??? Could we have this discussion after the interview.

Arlington, Va.: What's the biggest complaint you get about your strip?

Stephan Pastis: The reruns. For people who were reading it on the Web in 2001, they hate the fact that they're seeing the same strips now in print, because it wasn't launched in newspapers until 13 months later.
All I can say is that the new strips are just right around the corner, so please hang in there.

Arlington, Va.: "Pearls Before Swine" is unique in the type of humor it provides. Have you come up with all of the jokes -- from those involving mimes to plastic Jesuses to pregnant cows? Or, on the other hand, does your wife, your fellow law firm associates and partners, and other folks come up with some of this stuff as well?

Also: How do you manage to balance "billable hours," draw a daily comic, and raise a child? Sounds difficult.

Stephan Pastis: They're pretty much all me. When I write, I just go down to my
basement, turn on my stereo very loud, drink 2 large cups of coffee, and
write for about 3-6 hours at a time. Some days are great. Other days are
not so great.

As to balancing hours, it has always been very difficult. My wife helps a
lot by taking care of a lot of stuff that has to be done. There's not a
lot of free time, though. At the same time, I enjoy cartooning so much,
that it doesn't really feel like a job.

Washington, D.C.: Why do you always pick on the Zebras?

Stephan Pastis: Because I watch a lot of nature shows on TV, and they're the ones who always die. Them and the water buffalo.

Lyme, Conn.: Why Rat and Pig instead of, say, a giraffe and an elephant? Is there any symbolism or reason for your pick of animals? Also, is there any reason why they have generic names Rat and Pig?

Stephan Pastis: It was just different. Not a lot of strips pair a rat with a pig.
Also, I can't draw a giraffe.

In addition, a rat and pig as animals each have such negative connotations, making my strip sort of an anti-strip, a big departure from all the cute, cuddly animals that normally populate the comics page.

The lack of names is part of the overall simplicity of the strip. Adding names just seemed sort of unnecessary. The rat is Rat. The pig is Pig.

Arlington, Va.: First, Thank You for the "Pearls!" In the definition of pearl we find this: "usually around something irritating (as a grand of sand)." Do you look for that grain of sand in your strips? Pig seems so kind and gentle -- is this more your personality?

Stephan Pastis: I look for what I would call a heavy situation, situations involving death, a lot of pressure, anything that's gallows humor in nature. And I just stick Pig in the middle of it. And then the jokes write themselves. If I told you I was going to put Rat in the middle of an IRS audit, I bet any regular Pearls reader could actually write a few of the jokes themselves.
Pig is what I strive to be, in terms of the kindness, although I don't succeed a lot.

Washington, D.C.: Any plans for a new character? A duck, perhaps?

Stephan Pastis: No. But I'm thinking of introducing a guy who lives permanently in an egg costume. Pig got a job working in promotions for a poultry company, where he dressed up as an egg. I'm thinking about putting someone else in the egg suit and making him a regular character.

I love the pig!: In fact, I am the pig. We have the "big box o'stupid people" posted on the fridge to remind me not to get blindsided all the time by those who are not, in fact, essentially good at heart like I keep assuming everyone is.
I really enjoy the way you have the idealists and the cynics play off each other -- even if rat gets the last word, the idealist line gets airtime too, which makes the strip both funny AND poignant. Keep it up!

Stephan Pastis: Thank you very much. If you liked "box o' stupid people," you may like "pit o' useless blowhards" which will be coming up, I think, in the fall or winter.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Would you consider being my cartooning mentor? I'm told its good to have one
-Comic Stripper

Stephan Pastis: I get a lot of e-mail from people asking me for advice and I try to give them the best advice I can. I was helped tremendously by both Scott Adams and Darby Conley. And I feel like it's my job, in turn, to do my part and help some new people.
I also was fortunate enough to meet "Sparky" (Charles Schulz) a few times. And he was also very helpful. In fact, in 1996, when I was still just a lawyer, I took a day off of work and drove 60 miles north to his ice arena in Santa Rosa, Calif., where I'd read he'd go every morning for an English muffin.
I sat in the ice arena's coffee shop and watched him walk in, waited for him to finish his food, and then slowly walked up to his table. (As I retell this story, I realize I sound like a stalker of some sort.) The first thing I said to him was, "Hi, Sparky, I'm Stephan Pastis and I'm an attorney." His eyes got as big as saucers and he looked absolutely certain that he was about to be served a subpoena. As soon as I noticed that, I quickly said, "No, no, no, I'm also a cartoonist." His demeanor instantly changed and he invited me to show him my stuff, which was in my car. I ran out and got it, and breathlessly brought it back, expecting him to give me maybe five minutes of his time. Instead, he spent close to an hour talking to me about my strip and cartooning, treating me as a full-fledged member of this cartooning community, when in fact, I was just a nobody and he was a giant in the field. He had a genuine soft spot in his heart for any struggling cartoonist and would go out of his way to help people that wanted to be in the field.
When we were done, I had someone take a picture of us together and that photo still hangs above my drawing board.

Berkeley, Calif.: Pastis:

How could you leave a life in the law to pursue cartooning?

Stephan Pastis: Who is this? You sound suspiciously like one of my coworkers at the law firm. What are you doing on the Internet? You're supposed to be billing. Go back to work and leave me alone.

Flint, Mich.: Are you really as good looking as your picture?

Stephan Pastis: BETTER looking.

Potomac, Md.: You mentioned liking to keep the animals simple, and I don't think you need to, but have you ever considered using an artist or illustrator to make the drawings more life like?

Stephan Pastis: No, because I think the simplicity of the drawing highlights the stark directness of the dialogue and does not distract from the no-frills, stripped-down humor.

Hastings, Mich.: Hi Stephan,

I've noticed you mix some sort of religion into the comic on various occasions -- such as the strips with the order of the fruit buddies and Pig's stolen nativity. Are you a religious person?

Stephan Pastis: Yes, I'm Greek Orthodox. Though, I didn't do the nativity series because of my beliefs, I did it because I thought it was funny for Pig to go door to door and say "Have you found Jesus?"

Concerned: Has Pig ever taken an IQ test?

Stephan Pastis: No, I don't think he'd be able to find his way to the testing center.

Harrisburg, Pa.: How do you maintain the pace of a daily comic? Do you do anything in particular to remain so fresh and funny on such a consistent basis? Do you ever get writer's block and, if so, how do you overcome it?

Stephan Pastis: I spend a tremendous amount of my time writing, and only writing. During those writing periods, I don't draw any of the characters. I sit with a notepad with my music blaring and write and write and write. I think I come up with some jokes that some cartoonists would be happy to have published, but I'm pretty demanding of myself, and so, for the most part, I won't put a strip out unless I'm sure I'm being as funny as I can be.
As for dealing with writer's block, I break furniture. I really did. One day after eight hours of sitting in my basement trying to come up with ideas and finding the well dry, I broke my chair into about 100 pieces. My wife thought I was nuts. But since I only have one chair left, I guess I'll have to target something else next time.

Holmes, N.Y.: So when are we going to see current strips on the Web (Ucomics.com) again? I miss them and our local paper -- Gannett --doesn't carry it.

Stephan Pastis: Well, I'm sure it was just a typo, but it's comics.com, and as I said above, I think you'll see a new 10-day series beginning on Aug. 19, and then throughout the fall and winter you'll see an increasing number of new strips.

Chilliwack, British Columia: After you make a cartoon, does it sit around for the right moment to put out into papers or does it go right in to the papers as soon as possible to poke fun at current events?

Stephan Pastis: I almost never comment on current events. If it appears that a strip is commenting on current events, it's purely coincidental. Because I'm so far ahead of my deadline, if I were to comment on current events, you wouldn't read it until May, 2003, and then it wouldn't be very current anymore.

Suzanne Tobin: Well, Stephan, I know we're running out of time, and I just wanted to ask you to comment on your new "day job"? I think our readers would be interested to hear about it.

Stephan Pastis: I quit my law job at the end of July. I was very fortunate in that I got a new job, at, of all places, Sparky's studio, Creative Associates in Santa Rosa, Calif. It's a part-time job, Monday through Wednesday, that will replace my law job.
I get to look at proposals from licensees that want to use "Peanuts" characters and determine if the usage is consistent with the spirit and history of the strip. This isn't any kind of a law thing, it's more of a creative quality control job, where I try to assure that the integrity of the "Peanuts" characters stay intact.
So now, my weekly schedule is: Look at "Peanuts" characters Monday through Wednesday, and draw a Pig and a Rat Thursday through Saturday. It's just the ideal situation for me.

Suzanne Tobin: Thanks so much Stephan for taking time out from Pig and Rat to answer questions from all their fans. We wish you much continued success with the strip, and look forward to your first book, coming out in Spring, 2003. from Andrews McMeel Publishers. And for all you devoted fans, if your question didn't get answered here today, feel free to e-mail Stephan at spastis@earthlink.net. Stephan does answer all his e-mail, so don't be shy. And, if you have any questions about The Post's comics, specifically, you can always e-mail me at tobins@washpost.com. Join us again on Aug. 30 when our guest will be Chris Browne of "Hagar the Horrible." See you then.

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