ED. NOTE: For the holidays, Comic Riffs has decided to count down the comics-world elements and developments for which we’re most grateful. Because that lengthy list could carry us clear till the years-away debut of the next Spider-Man film — if not at least till the #SonyHack of the next Spider-Man film script — we’ve also decided to cull our list to “The 12 Days of Gratitude.” So consider this akin to the “12 Days of Christmas” song (though we vow in advance not to resort to “10 Star-Lords a-leaping” or “7 Curt Swans a-swimming,” lest we then stoop to “3 Renee French Hens”). So without further ado or to-do…
THE 12 DAYS OF GRATITUDE:
No. 12: A comics community that takes craft seriously — but not itself.
As a surveyor of comics purveyors, I appreciate daily how highly dedicated this or that gifted artist is to her or his craft. In their work, it’s easy to find inspiration anew, on the page or screen, as visual storytelling continually redefines itself — grasping the reins of tradition while hurtling toward creative reinvention.
People who work in comics keep pushing the industry’s various art forms to new levels — all while enduring social-media trolls and those convention doldrums and even the occasional media (a-hem) columnist. Even as markets shift and mutate, these creators are committed to excellence, yet retain the self-effacement necessary to soldier on through the cutbacks and drawbacks (if not aching backs). For that, this columnist offers a sincere “thanks.”
One such recent example of that involves two comic-strip cartoonists. Here is their story:
IF IT PLEASE the court, I have a theory about Stephan Pastis:
For the lawyer turned cartoonist, his “Pearls Before Swine” is more than a multi-panel comic. It is also a courtroom. One in which he, the trained attorney who can’t resist turning a deliciously pained phrase, can preside as judge, jury and persecutioner.
And once again, the barrister of the barnyard is slinging his, um, ink at a comics colleague. To very funny effect.
Insightful as he is about the mechanics of humor, Pastis knows that much comedy derives from levels of power: Who’s got it, who lacks it, who strives for it — and how the tension plays out in these verbal (when not slapstick-violent) tugs of war.
And so it was with a certain glee that in recent days, Pastis cycled back to return to the “Pearls” stage his character Jef the Cyclist — and to have him face off against another character who, too, exhales an air of superiority: Victor the Vegan.
But before we dissect Pastis’s latest word-salad, a few words about Jef, who was formerly “Jeff.”
Several years ago, the California-based cartoonist decided he wanted to introduce a cyclist into the strip — one whose habits and manner he could prop up for puncturing — a ready comedy piñata. “Just the fact you’d wear those tight clothes … ,” Pastis tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, letting the implied invective hang in the air for a moment.
Pastis, of course, needed to name his new creation. So, as is often the case, he looked among his friends and compadres of the comics page. His comedy eye settled on Jef Mallett, who draws the strip “Frazz” when he isn’t, say, logging his personal-bests in various endurance sports
“I knew that Jef was into triathlons and that little [race] — whatever that is,” Pastis says slyly about marathon events that involve moving for multiple hours at a time. “We as cartoonists all share [a delight in teasing]. It was a last-minute decision to put his name on it.”
That’s all it boiled down to: “I needed a name, and I knew Jef was into fitness. It struck me as funny, too.”
The character was an immediate hit, Pastis says: “I think it hit some people on an unspoken nerve. Kind of like: You know one or two people who think they are just better than you. It just bubbled up.”
Among the amused: Jef Mallett himself.
“Sure! It makes my day every time I see Jef the Cyclist show up in ‘Pearls,’ ” Mallett tells Comic Riffs. “And not just for my own ego’s sake — those jokes are really funny.”
Mallett, naturally, had to respond in kind.
“He put a rude lawyer in his strip and named him Stephan,” Pastis recalls of “Frazz’s” returned volley in 2012 (which included visual nods to the “Pearls” character Rat, as well as to Pastis’s home of Santa Rosa). “So I fired back.”
That’s when Jeff the Cyclist had a consonant-ectomy — to make the “Pearls” avatar’s first name hew more closely to the appellation of his inspiration.
“Endurance athletes are always trying to make weight, so I dropped the ‘F’ — so his first name weighs that much less,” Pastis says of his flying “F.”
The “Pearls” creator also began to sneak in more telling clues. “If you look really carefully, I’ll write the beginning of the word ‘Frazz’ on his sleeve,” Pastis tells Comic Riffs of the character. “Then I gave him a cape at some point, because he thinks of himself as superior.”
“It’s fun to throw it back at him, too, which of course he highly encourages. Though he’s got it so much easier,” Mallett says about Pastis. “Full-of-ourselves cyclists are such a target-rich environment, while cartoonists are just too darn perfect.”
Also target-rich — if not lycopene-rich — are people who are proudly vocal about their self-imposed restricted diets, Pastis says. He notes that his vegan character has proved so popular, Pastis is ready to train his aim on another group that he says needs its sense of superiority leveled.
“I just drew something: I’m going to introduce a fruitarian — someone who will only eat it if it falls from a tree,” Pastis says, laughing.
In other words, as the cartoonist satirizes another group he finds to be a mite too high and mighty, he’s also ready to find great material in his favorite target:
We can’t wait.