STEPHAN PASTIS looks mighty healthy for the last of a “dying ” breed.
Ballcap turned backward, goatee trimmed close, Pastis is built solid, like a middle infielder. In his 40s, the California cartoonist has a youthful exuberance that defies the perception of black-and-white newspaper comics as a graying medium. Then again, sometimes he seems to need every bit of that energy to defy, too, the odds.
He's the long shot who refuses to stop hustling.
Pastis is the best-selling creator of "Pearls Before Swine," the oft-snarky comic that features a kind-hearted pig, a rat with the mind of Mencken, and suburban lions and crocs forever trying to ensnare their zebra (or "zeeba!") neighbors. The strip's sharp, attitudinal zing distinguishes it from some of its less daring neighbors on the funny pages; its panels crackle with pitch-perfect timing.
As arguably the last "rock star” creator to break into syndicated comics — "Pearls" runs in more than 600 papers, and the book collections have topped sales charts — Pastis knows even his strip's existence is entirely a matter of timing.
" 'Pearls' launched right before the window on syndication started to close," says Pastis, who will speak Saturday afternoon at Politics & Prose to promote his new collection, "Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out!: A (Freaky) Pearls Before Swine Treasury." "And it launched with the endorsement of the hottest comic-strip artist at the time, ['Dilbert's'] Scott Adams. Then a couple key strips retired ('Foxtrot' and 'The Boondocks') and a lot of spots opened up. That helped a ton.
“We need more cartoonists to truly retire when they retire, and not run repeats," continues Pastis, bemoaning the state of the industry. "Repeats are the absolute soul-crushing killers of the comics page."
(As a passionate fan of the funnies, the cartoonist also likes to spoof other, older strips by co-opting their characters. When asked whether he's dialed that down recently, he responds: "That sounds like a challenge. I'll have to throw some 'Family Circus' kid off a cliff now.")
Pastis, who graduated from UCLA's law school before embarking on his cartooning career (as a student, he would doodle characters in the margins), is constantly trying to push the envelope on how to reach new readers -- efforts that included a recent release of a deep and highly immersive iPad app. Then again, Pastis is nothing if not adaptable.
At the dawn of "Pearls," he was even willing to draw an extra week's strips on the fly -- exclusively to suit The Washington Post.
"At the time 'Pearls' launched in January 2002, the Post picked it up but needed it to start a week early," Pastis recounts. "So I gave The Post a week of dailies that no one else ever published. Thus, 'Pearls' launched in just one newspaper -- The Post -- on Dec. 31, 2001."
A decade later, Pastis works hard to keep the Reuben Award-nominated strip fresh. Case in point: an upcoming arc that takes on politics.
"Rat does run for office at the end of October," Pastis reveals. "I believe he has two main initiatives: 1) To build a giant wall along the Canadian border to prevent future Justin Biebers from sneaking into this country; and 2) To change the design of the ketchup bottle so that when you hit it on its bottom, it doesn't all come out in one big splash. Ultimately, though, he doesn't vote because he is too apathetic about the candidates -- one of whom is him."
Whether "Pearls" is skewering Pig's sweetness or the militaristic Guard Duck's hawkish ways, Pastis tunes the humor to a single funny bone.
"I mostly just try to make myself laugh," he says. "In the end, that's the only laugh I can control. I just hope others laugh with me. And not at me. As they did in fifth grade."