Swine Connoisseur: The Stephan Pastis Interview
Stephan Pastis—the creator of the bracingly acerbic Pearls Before Swine—talks to Tom Heintjes about lucky breaks, practicing law and why you don’t mess with Turks.
A rat, a pig and a goat walk into a bar…
If that sounds like the setup to a hoary old joke, you obviously haven’t been reading Pearls Before Swine. In an earlier era, Pearls almost certainly would not have had a chance to appear in papers, much less to be one of today’s fastest-growing comic strips. When syndicates first encountered Stephan Pastis’ creation—about a variously venal, puerile, humble, bloodthirsty, ignorant and preening anthropomorphic menagerie—they passed, just as they had on his earlier submissions of other concepts. Their rejection was no great surprise, considering the strip’s bleak, cynical point of view. It exists in its current form because United Feature
Syndicate began offering it on its website in November 2000, a tryout method with little risk—and little reward to the creator—and because the syndicate realized that the popular culture is hungry for humor with an edge. His lucky break came in the form of an enthusiastic endorsement from a fellow United cartoonist, Dilbert’s Scott Adams, which led to thousands of new readers discovering Pastis’ work, and a career in print cartooning was born. (The strip’s success allowed Pastis, 40, to abandon his legal career, the despised crucible that helped to harden his dim view of his fellow man.) United launched the strip into papers in 2002, and it now runs in 500 newspapers. Thanks to a couple of years spent producing strips for publication on the United website, Pastis is months ahead of his deadlines, allowing him great selectivity over which of his new strips see print.
Pastis suffuses his work with misanthropy that is rare on a comics page widely perceived as the domain of the inoffensive. His characters—especially the rampaging id known simply as Rat—routinely harm each other physically and verbally, and when they’re not pursuing each other for food (as his hapless and benighted crocodiles do), they are out to kneecap each other emotionally. But Pearls is built on a more substantial foundation than simply the food chain: Pastis has created a platform that allows him to expound on politics (what other strip would depict Fidel Castro shedding a tear in response to a sharply worded letter?), social norms, relationships and even, on occasion, other comic strips. But far from taking umbrage at his satire, his peers have acknowledged his work as some of the finest strip work produced today, giving it the National Cartoonists Society’s award for best strip in 2004 and 2007.
The southern California native now resides with his wife and children in northern California, where he works for Creative Associates, the company founded by his cartooning idol, Charles Schulz. While Pastis acknowledges his creative debt to Schulz—his characters are each imbued with a different aspect of his personality, just as Sparky’s were—his voice is distinctly his own. (Snoopy never drank anything stronger than root beer; Rat swills beer.) With his strip’s client list growing and a line of merchandise on the horizon, Pastis will be casting Pearls before readers for a long time.—Tom Heintjes
Tom Heintjes: When did you decide to become a misanthrope?
Stephan Pastis: In law school [laughter].
Heintjes: Let’s start there. What led to law as a career choice?
Pastis: It was a function of liking public speaking. I was one of the debate nerds in high school. I liked to write, and I liked to argue, and I wanted a career that made a lot of money. When I look back on it, I think it was those factors, the skills I had matched it. And the money made it something I wanted.
Heintjes: Would you consider yourself, in career terms, to be a pragmatic person who made an economic decision?
Pastis: Yeah. My parents never had very much money, although we lived in a rich town,San Marino, Calif., which is a suburb of Los Angeles. I never wanted to hurt for money, so I was very driven to succeed financially. I think that’s why I did it.
Heintjes: So you became a lawyer, and how satisfying did you find that career?
Pastis: Not very satisfying at all.
Heintjes: What kind of law did you practice?
Pastis: I did insurance defense. In my case, if somebody sues their homeowner’s insurance company for not paying an earthquake claim, I would defend the company. It sounds bad, but unless you work in the business and know what it is, you don’t know. I didn’t feel bad about that part of it at all. There are people who make claims that are way inflated, which costs everybody money. What I felt bad about was the process. When you’re in law school, you think you’re going to be a lawyer like Oliver Wendell Holmes, arguing esoteric points of law. But in truth, what you do is, you get in petty fights with other lawyers about who served whom and when, and how well you can bury someone in discovery, and keep someone in deposition for hours. It’s much more akin to a bar fight than it is to a Lincoln-Douglas debate.
Heintjes: Did it satisfy the part of you that liked to debate and talk publicly?
Pastis: No, not at all. You’re in front of a judge and you’re saying stuff like, “Your honor, his motion was due on February 3, and he filed it February 5, so there should be no reason.…” It’s petty. Most of the disputes were petty. Occasionally you got into a fight that was good, like causation, where you have experts testifying. More often than not, it’s just petty fights.
Heintjes: How many years did you practice?
Pastis: Nine years, from 1993 until 2002.
Heintjes: During that time, how did cartooning exert an influence on you as another career path?
Pastis: I always wanted to do it, but I knew that the odds were so slim. There was no way to count on it. Even as a kid, I knew that, and I was so driven to have money that I wasn’t willing to make that risk. But I always drew on the side. My whole life, you can find cartoons published in my elementary school gazette, my junior high paper, high school paper, and a humor magazine called the Berkeley Harold in Berkeley when I went to Cal. In law school, I did a strip called called Rosen, which was about another student in the law school [laughter]. He liked being made fun of, so he was the subject of my strip, and it was popular. So I always cartooned on the side. But when I was a lawyer, it had to get pushed back to nights, which is hard, because you’re tired. Saturdays was a big drawing day.
Heintjes: How did you develop concept and submit them to syndicates during this period? Were you always developing concepts and developing them? How did you fit this work into your life?
Pastis: I think it was 1995 or 1996, and I’d been a lawyer for two or three years. I decided to make a go at syndication. I bought Lee Nordling’s Your Career in Comics, or maybe it was the Writer’s Handbook. I got the addresses of the syndicates out of it, and I took a concept that I had developed in law school called Rat. It was a six- or eight-panel comic, whatever I wanted to do.
Heintjes: This was the forerunner of today’s Rat?
Pastis: One and the same. He walked on all fours, and there was no Pig at the time. I sent in 30 strips. But at the time, I think I only sent in 30 strips. I mailed them in to all the syndicates, although ironically, I didn’t send them to United. I don’t think United’s address was in the book I used. It got rejected by everybody, all form letters. Except for Jay [Kennedy, King Features comics editor]. I remember specifically; I still have the letter he sent me. He wrote, “You have a more captivating voice than the majority of people who send us work.” I’ll tell you, other than the e-mail announcing I was syndicated, that was probably the most exciting, biggest moment of my career. I remember the moment I read it. I was standing in our kitchen. The reason it was so exciting was because, until that point, it was purely a dream. And when the editor at King Features says something positive, even though he’s rejecting you, that’s when the light went on. That’s when I said, “Wow, maybe this is possible.” That was just crazy.
Heintjes: The life raft that every aspiring cartoonist clings to is the “encouraging rejection.”
Heintjes: So what did you do next?
Heintjes: Based on some of Jay’s suggestions, I switched up the strip a little and submitted Rat again. It was rejected by everybody again and got another encouraging letter from Jay. Then, if I’m remembering order right, I did a strip called Bradbury Road, based on the name of the street I grew up on.
Heintjes: What was that strip’s premise?
Pastis: It was about a little boy and a single mom. He had a rat as a pet, and he had a dog. He also had a jester doll that talked to him…boy, you’re asking me about stuff I haven’t thought about in years. It was a miserable comic, just terrible. It was left-brained, trying-to-be-funny crap. And that got rejected by everybody, with another nice note from Jay. I was also getting some nice notes from a woman named Susan Peters at Chronicle Features, which I think was later bought by Universal. But that was an independent syndicate at the time.
Heintjes: They handled The Far Side initially, as well as Bizarro.
Pastis: Did they? Yes, she sent me some nice notes, so I was definitely getting some decent feedback. And then I did my fourth submission, which was called The Infirm, about a law firm, playing off the title of the John Grisham book, which was out at the time. It was about a lawyer named Grossman, who was a miserable failure at his firm, how nervous he was and how he kept screwing everything up. And it had a narrator.
Heintjes: A bit of autobiography there?
Pastis: That’s where I started working in my own life, and that’s always going to help you. That the strip I showed Sparky [Schulz]. I had that one with me when I met him in 1996. I submitted that one to everyone, and it was rejected by everyone, although I got a nice note from Jay. So those were the four strips before Pearls.
Heintjes: How did you meet Sparky?
Pastis: I was in a really tough case involving a broken generator. I was outnumbered by opposing counsel by like 20 to one. I was worn out, and I decided to take a day off work. Through an interview Sparky had given to an underground newspaper in San Francisco, I had heard that he had this routine where he went to the coffee shop in his ice arena every day at the same time to get his English muffin. I thought, “I want to meet him.” He was always my idol growing up. One misconception about this—and I really paid a price for this, because everyone wants advice from me now, and they say, “How can you not do it, since Sparky gave you advice?”—is that I never went to meet Sparky because I wanted advice on how to get syndicated. I just wanted to meet him because he was my hero. My wife, Staci, was born and raised in Santa Rosa, of all places. Her family has lived here for 60 years. That’s another thing I get a lot: “Oh, you moved to Santa Rosa because that’s where Sparky lived.” My wife’s family was here long before Schulz. So she told me where the ice arena was, and I got in my little Honda and drove up north about an hour.
Heintjes: So you stalked him.
Pastis: I did. It would qualify as stalking today. So I was in the Warm Puppy, sitting at a table in the far corner from his. There was some way you could tell which table was his. I think it had a “reserved” sign on it. And I sat and waited, and nothing happened. It was just me and the little ice skating girls [laughter] doing their morning practice. So I watched them out on the ice, and I just sat there for an hour. At the end of the hour, I said, “Wow, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” I mean, it was just an article in the Bay Guardian or something. What if it was wrong? What if he’s on vacation? What a waste of a drive. And I had taken a day off work. I was just about ready to go, and lo and behold, through the far door, in walks this white-haired guy. I’ll tell you, my hands were shaking. I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous. He got his food, and I waited for him to sit down. Probably, if there had been a videotape of this, I would have looked like such a goon. I’m trying to look like I don’t care, and we’re the only two guys in there. It was so blatant. If you’re not the mother of an ice skater, you’re not there at seven in the morning. So I drank my coffee, and when he was done eating, I went over and made my big mistake. My opening line was, “Hi, Mr. Schulz. My name is Stephan Pastis, and I’m an attorney.”
Pastis: Yeah, really great. The color drained from his face, and he was probably thinking, “I’m going to get served with a subpoena. What a wonderful start to the day, with an English muffin and a subpoena.” So I immediately caught myself, and I said, “No, no, no…I also do a cartoon!” And this is not an exaggeration—I remember this crystal clear—he had the San Francisco Chronicle on the chair on the other side of the table from where he was sitting. The minute I said I drew a cartoon, he cleared the Chronicle off the chair and said, “Oh, have a seat.” That’s all it took. And I was a nobody. You hear these stories about Sparky, particularly in the [David Michaelis] biography, about how he’s misanthropic. He was not misanthropic. I’m misanthropic. Sparky invited a complete stranger to sit next to him. And he didn’t have to. He could very easily have said, “Oh, that’s nice,” shook my hand and said good luck, and he would have gotten points for being polite. But he cleared that seat. We started talking, and he said, “Did you bring your stuff with you?” And I hadn’t, because—as I told you—I didn’t go up for that reason. But I did have some work in the car. Probably in the back of my head was, if he asked me if I was really cartoonist, I could prove it. But I told him I had some work in the car, and he told me to bring it in. Now, I’m really nervous. This is Ted Williams saying, “Let’s see you bat.” I was thinking, “This was just a dumb idea at first; now look what you’ve gotten yourself into.” So I showed him The Infirm, and he looked at it with a little bit of a smile. He certainly didn’t laugh. I suspect he thought it was terrible. Which it was. It wasn’t the worst work I’d ever done, but it was bad. And he said, “You’ve got the complete package.” He said, “You certainly can draw,” which is a great irony, because it’s what I can’t do. But it shows you that he was being nice. And he said two things. He said, “You’ve got to get rid of the narrator—you can never succeed with a narrator. And number two, you’ve got change your pen.” I was using a Penstix marker. He said, “You get no variety in your line with that pen. You’ve got to use a quill pen.” Those were the two tips he gave me. We talked for an hour, I took a picture of him by the fireplace in the Warm Puppy, and I went back home. I didn’t own a computer then, so I had to go to Kinko’s and rent a computer for an hour to write my story down. I wrote down everything he said. By the way, while we were there, he critiqued the entire comics page in the Chronicle. I remember he really liked Mutts and he really liked Rose Is Rose.
Heintjes: Which ones didn’t he like?
Pastis: I don’t want to say, because he was so harsh on those, and the people he was harsh on really respect him. I’d love to tell you, but it was pretty brutal.
Heintjes: This meeting with him must have really inspired you.
Pastis: It really lit the fire. I knew it was something that had to happen. It was a weird gut instinct that I was meant for this. I just knew I had to become a cartoonist.
Heintjes: What was your next step?
Pastis: The next step was to reverse-engineer success. By that I mean to see what was succeeding and figure it why backwards. And in 1996 and ’97, Dilbert was huge. So during my lunch breaks at the law firm, I went to the bookstore in the Embarcadero Center in downtown San Francisco and sat on the floor and read the Dilbert collections. I never actually bought them. I still feel bad about that. I went through them and literally learned how to write a three-panel strip. Part of the reason I chose Dilbert is because, like me, Scott Adams didn’t draw that well, yet he succeeds wildly. So I saw that you don’t have to draw well if you can write like that. That’s a big if, but if you can write like that, you can succeed. There’s a rhythm to Scott’s strips. I’d be hard-pressed to explain it, but subconsciously I know the rhythm for writing a three-panel strip. So I went back home and I just started drawing. This was a different experience. All I was trying to do was be funny. I did not engineer the strip from the top down. I did not give the characters names. I didn’t give them a set place. I did not give them set jobs or a set background. It was basically two stick figures talking to each other. You can still see the legacy of that in my work in a couple of ways. My characters still have stick arms and legs. Some people ask me if I did that as a way to evoke Ignatz Mouse, but I didn’t know Krazy Kat at the time. I did it because it was fast. You can see those stick arms and legs in my characters today. The new characters don’t have them, but the original ones do. The other legacy you see is not giving them names. Their species became their names. The rat became Rat, the pig became Pig. My goal was, just be funny and not to create a top-down strip. In other words, I did not want to create a setting for these characters and make them work within it.
Heintjes: Was there a basic premise?
Pastis: None. I think that’s the difference between success and failure. I think that’s step one, and I don’t think there’s any coming back from that if you choose the wrong way. I’m that convinced of it. Wiley Miller has said much the same thing. You want that slate to be clean. Let’s put it this way: If you just focus on telling jokes, your characters will reveal themselves to you. The place will reveal itself to you. It will all reveal itself to you. Let it spring forth from the jokes, not the other way around. The other way around, you’re just going to limit yourself. Use the whole piano keyboard—don’t just play the middle octaves. Step two was, I didn’t just draw 30 strips. I drew 200.
Pastis: It was made easier by the fact that these were just stick figures. And I didn’t pencil them; I just whipped through them.
Heintjes: You drew these directly in ink?
Pastis: I did.
Heintjes: I assume, then, that you didn’t take the time to master the quill pen.
Pastis: I didn’t. I did try, though. I still don’t know which end of it is up. So I drew 200 of them, and I wanted to pick the best 30 from them. These strips were all different steps from what I had done before. I had studied Dilbert, not engineered it from the top down, I had drawn more than 30 strips. The next thing I did that was different was, I didn’t show it to anyone who liked me—my wife, my family. That’s a huge mistake, and everybody does that. They’re not going to tell you the truth. They’re going to tell you that you’re the next Charles Schulz. That’s not going to help you.
Heintjes: Let me guess: You went to the meanest, orneriest bunch of bastards you knew.
Pastis: I did. I took it to my law firm. Coworkers are awful. They love to tell you you suck. They love to tell you your tie is ugly, that you can’t speak, that your writing sucks. This is a great, great crowd. But you have to be careful—you can’t give them 200 strips at a time. That’s a lot of lost hours in a law firm. But there were four or five people I did show them to, and I had them pick their favorite 30. I used my own common sense too, but from them, I got a consensus 30.
Heintjes: And there was a consensus?
Pastis: It was all over the board, but there certainly were strips that were chosen by all. That still how I choose my submissions to the Reuben Awards—I show people 40–50 strips and have them pick 12. One thing cartoonists do is send their strips to someone to look at. But that’s not going to tell you shit. They’re going to sum up how they felt. Humor’s a unique thing. When it’s done right, people laugh. It’s done reflexively. If you’re not there to see it, you don’t really know. I don’t show my strips to anyone without watching their reaction. I don’t want their summary—I want to see, because a laugh is hard to fake. You know when someone’s faking. You need to show it to someone and watch their reaction. Particularly people who don’t like you.
Heintjes: Were you showing your colleagues the first generation of Pearls Before Swine?
Pastis: Yeah. I had basically taken the three-panel template and photocopied it at Kinko’s, drawn them like crazy, and took them into the firm. I think I took them in in packages of 100 at a time. All they were were Rat and Pig talking. Every single one. They were essentially like they are now, without the fuller bodies.
Heintjes: But they were identified as Rat and Pig.
Pastis: Yes. A very poorly drawn Rat and Pig.
Heintjes: So once you gathered this consensus, what was your next step?
Pastis: I took the best 30 strips and put them on a shelf in the basement, where they sat for 18 months.
Pastis: Because I didn’t want these strips to get rejected, and I knew that if I didn’t submit them, they wouldn’t get rejected. I thought this was my last chance. I thought these were good. I thought these were funny. And if they got rejected, I would probably quit.
Heintjes: I imagine that during these 18 months, you were not enjoying your law career any more than you had been.
Pastis: No, and in fact I think I’d stopped drawing. I think that putting them on a shelf allowed me to hang onto a hope, whereas if it got rejected, with all the new steps I had taken, this was the best I could do. I turned the cry of “you can’t succeed if you don’t try” and made it “you can’t fail if you don’t try.”
Heintjes: What prompted you to take them off the shelf and do something with them?
Pastis: I was at a hearing in Los Angeles. Adjacent to the courthouse was a cemetery. I don’t remember how I knew it, but I knew that a girl I had been close to in college was buried there. She had died at the age of 28 in a rollerblading accident in Central Park. Although we had been very, very close in college, I had never visited her grave. People assumed we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but we weren’t…let me back up a little bit. Where I grew up, in San Marino, it was extraordinarily conservative. It was the home of the John Birch Society. And Berkeley is as far from that as you can imagine. It’s practically communist. So going there for school was a big, eye-opening event. It was a scary time for me, living away from home in such a different place. And this woman took me to a Herman Hesse double feature. She took me to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. She took me to protests against apartheid. I ate Indian food with her. She owned a horse, and she would take me riding. We went to Europe together. Knowing her was just a huge step forward in my maturity. I just loved her, I absolutely loved her.
Heintjes: Are you avoiding naming her?
Pastis: Yeah, because I’ve never told her parents this. I know her death just destroyed them. Maybe they would like to hear this, but in the event they don’t that’s why I don’t say her name. But I was in this huge cemetery, and I searched forever to find her grave. I finally found it. It was a hot July day, and I had my briefcase and my black wool suit, and I was sweating up a storm. I was staring down at her grave, which was weird because I’d never had a peer die. You’re used to seeing graves of old people. And I just felt ashamed. I mean, God bless people who want to be lawyers, but it’s not what I wanted to be, and I felt as if I had just given up. And I just couldn’t explain to her—I think I spoke aloud to her—what I was doing? I hadn’t gone for it. How did you get to this point? What are you doing this for? Some people have interpreted this story as me being ashamed of defending insurance companies, and that’s not it. I was just ashamed of being a lawyer and not becoming a syndicated cartoonist, because she would have really thought that was cool. She would not have been so hip on the attorney thing. So I had that epiphany where I said, “I’ve got to go for it.” So I got on the plane, and the next day, I brought in the 30 strips and used the law firm’s copy machine to copy them, and I mailed them to all the syndicates.
Heintjes: You sent them to all the syndicates you know of, including United?
Pastis: I think this was the first time I sent anything to United. I may be wrong about that, but I don’t think United ever rejected me, only because they never got the chance to [laughter].
Heintjes: What was the response to your submission?
Pastis: Two weeks later, while I was eating Chinese food out of a little carton, I was checking my e-mail. One of the e-mails was from United. Now, even in 1999, you knew what that meant. Rejections are going to come by mail, if at all, and acceptances are going to come by phone or by e-mail. So I got this e-mail, and my heart starts racing. It was from Amy Lago, and it said, “I just wanted to give you a heads-up that we liked your work. There’s a chance that nothing will come of it, but you’ve already made it farther than 90 percent of the submissions that come in.” That was quickly followed by Jay Kennedy saying he was interested, and Tribune Media saying they wanted to put me in some program they had, sort of a fellowship that the Washington Post Writers Group later had. I forget what it was called. So I went from nobody being interested to three syndicates expressing interest.
Heintjes: What was your decision-making process?
Pastis: Well, the first step was dancing around the law firm and showing that letter to everyone. It was pure excitement. The next decision was to get a lawyer, and I got Stu Rees, whom everyone in cartooning gets. Then I looked at the pluses and minuses of each syndicate. They basically all offer the same things. Nowadays, everyone gives you your copyright.
Heintjes: Even then, you didn’t have to negotiate copyright ownership?
Pastis: They put it in the boilerplate, and you change it on the first phone call.
Heintjes: There was no push-back on that issue.
Pastis: None whatsoever. But what it came down to, as much as I loved Jay, he tried to micromanage the strip. For example, he wanted to eliminate Rat and replace him with Zebra.
Heintjes: On what basis?
Pastis: He didn’t think there was any appeal to a rat, and there was more marketability with a zebra. The second thing he wanted was to have the characters smile more. And they’ve never smiled. As much as I loved Jay and he was the reason I kept going, I just didn’t see the future of the strip as one that was micromanaged. As poorly as I drew—and I don’t think I draw that great now—I definitely had a vision for the strip, and I wasn’t going to vary from it. It was going to be what I had in mind, or I wasn’t going to do it. I just can’t do smiling characters. That’s just not me. But Amy left me alone. I don’t think Amy gave me any feedback, except for eliminating the bear. The smart character was going to be a bear, and she thought the goat was better for the smart character. But even that, she didn’t volunteer. I asked her what she thought. Also, Sparky, who really started me off in cartooning, and Scott, whose work I studied, were both with United. So there were all these reasons. I remember when I told Jay—I felt terrible because he really was the reason I’d gotten to the point I had, and I hadn’t forgotten that. But I went with United.
Heintjes: Was this when you began appearing on United’s website?
Pastis: United signed me in December 1999, and they put me in development. I assume your readers know what that is, but in case they don’t, it’s where the syndicate says, OK, you were funny in your submission packet, but for all we know, it took you 10 years to come up with these 30 strips. So we want you to keep drawing, and we’ll watch you. If you’re good, we’ll agree to put you in newspapers. A development period can be anywhere from two weeks to a year. Not all cartoonists have to do it, but most do.
Heintjes: They not only looked at Pearls Before Swine internally, but they also put it on the site then?
Pastis: No, they only look at it internally. And after about three months, around March 2000, they committed to putting it in papers. They picked up the option. Contractually, they were bound to put it in newspapers. At that point, the launch was going to be January 2001, and I was done being a lawyer. I literally had a count of how many days I had left being a lawyer.
Heintjes: For a pragmatic guy, leaving your job as a lawyer to become a cartoonist is a pretty big decision.
Pastis: Yeah. I think my pragmatic nature was thrown over by how much I hated being a lawyer. And then in August 2000—August 8, I can remember the date, how pathetic is that?—Amy Lago called. I’ve heard many different versions of this story from all the different people at the syndicate, but I can only tell you what I was told at the time. She said the strip was shown to the sales staff, and there was one particular salesman—whose name I will not say, because I’m friends with him now [laughter]—who said, “It sucks.” It could not sell. It’s poorly drawn, it’s too dark, and it has no demographics. That was the critical thing: It had no demographics. Nowadays, there are lots of dark strips, but there weren’t at the time. You had to a strip about teenage girls or soccer moms, or you had to appeal to a specific minority or ethnic group or gender or age. And I didn’t. I didn’t have anything. I had the rat and the pig, they didn’t move, and they mostly talked about death.
Heintjes: It seems they would have known that about your work from the first time they saw it. Why was it a problem all of a sudden?
Pastis: That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to it.
Heintjes: Did you ask?
Pastis: I assume they would say that hadn’t shown it to the salesmen. But they were committed to selling it to newspapers. They had picked up the option. But I said to Amy, “What does this mean? “And she said, “You’re free to go.” That is a verbatim quote. “You’re free to go.” And all of a sudden, everything I had was gone. August 2000 was the longest month of my life. I remember that night after night, I stayed up most of the night sitting in a pantry by the back door that had our washer and dryer. I stared out the window at the stars. That’s all I did. I don’t even know why I did it. I couldn’t sleep, and I guess it was comforting.
Heintjes: Your wife was on suicide watch?
Pastis: Yeah, it was horrible. I’ve never told this part of it, but I took all my drawing stuff—my pens, my pencils, my paper—and I packed it away. I was done. Then, Suzanne Whelton with the Washington Post Writers Group contacted me. She had been given the strip by Amy, who wanted to see me syndicated by somebody. Suzanne said she and her boss, Alan Shearer, were going to be in San Francisco, and they wanted to meet me. I thought, “Holy smokes! I’m getting plucked from the ashes!” They met with me, they said they would call me, they went back to Washington, and it was déjà vu all over again. The sales staff at the Washington Post Writers Group didn’t think they could sell it. They had another strip they wanted to launch; I think it was Out of the Gene Pool, which is now called Single and Looking. So it was thanks but no thanks. It was torture, just torture.
Heintjes: So you were contemplating your continuing law career.
Pastis: Yeah, I’m going to be a lawyer for the next 20 years! In the next month, September 2000, Amy called and said, “This isn’t the greatest deal in the world, and you don’t have to say yes, but we’d like to try something.” At the time, their website, comics.com, had only their newspaper strips. That what the site was for. But she said they were going to put me on there to see how I do. Nowadays, that’s done all the time, but it was a novel experiment at the time. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong. I’m not saying I’m the first web-to-print, but I was the first time a syndicate experimented with web-to-print for the purpose of seeing if it would make it. If I’m wrong, I’m sure someone will tell me. So they put it up on comics.com in November 2000, and it did OK. It didn’t do too well.
Heintjes: How do they assess that?
Pastis: They give you monthly stats. I was getting about 2,000 hits a day.
Heintjes: Did they make a whole group of your strips available, or were they parceling them out one a day?
Pastis: One a day, just like everything else on the site. It was neat to get the exposure. It was the first time I had been exposed to an audience.
Heintjes: Did United provide an e-mail link so readers could contact you?
Heintjes: What sort of feedback did you get?
Pastis: I would generally get two or three e-mails a day. Sometimes none. But the e-mails were all good. I look back on them now, and they were all so horribly drawn. I’m sure some people think that now, but if you think that now, you should have seen it then! It was horrible.
Heintjes: I don’t know any cartoonists who like their early work.
Pastis: I don’t ever like my past work. When I get the dummies of my book collections to review prior to publication, those strips lag my current work by about 18 months to two years, and I have never looked at one of those dummies and not grimaced. I cannot believe where I am today. The timing’s off, the drawing is really bad.
Heintjes: So what was the next step in this phase of your career?
Pastis: My next break came in December 2000. I think it was December 19. I’m in the same room I used to draw in, in the basement. And I get an e-mail from Amy. This is another misconception. Some people think I approached Scott, or I knew Scott. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything except to write him a letter once and tell him that he has a great strip. I was not friends with Scott, and I never asked him to do this. Whether United asked him, I don’t know.
Heintjes: You never asked Scott directly in the ensuing years?
Pastis: That’s funny, I never have. I need to do that. I’m probably afraid of the answer [laughter]. Anyway, the long and short of it is that it’s Scott Adams, who is the biggest cartoonist on the planet at this time. This is the cover of Newsweek Scott Adams. She said he’s been reading the strip, he likes it, and he’s going to endorse it on his website. She forwarded me his e-mail, so I saw where he also volunteered to put his endorsement in his Dogbert newsletter. At that time, I was drawing in a room in the basement that had an external door, and the room occasionally flooded, so I had to keep my drawing stuff up high. I remember running out the door into the backyard, up the stairs to the deck and into the back door. The deck was icy, and I almost fell on my face. I grabbed Staci, my wife. It’s weird the moments you pick in your life to be dramatic. Most of them aren’t dramatic. But this was dramatic. I looked her in the eyes and I said, “If I ever become a syndicated cartoonist, this is the moment it happens.” And I was right. We used to get the website stats monthly. The reports would have data for each day, like they still do. It said, “2,000, 2,000, 2,000, 155,000.” And I thought the 155,000 was a summary of the month’s activity, but it was one day. That’s how huge Scott’s audience was. United saw the figures, but they said, “If Scott endorsed Kleenex it would be huge the next day.” They watched it in January, February, March, and I’m just praying. I think in April 2001, Amy said, “We’ll put you in newspapers.” They had Rudy Park and Frazz committed for the next launch dates, so there were no spaces for me. So my launch date was going to be January 2002. They were going to put it in newspapers for real this time.
Heintjes: You must have had a large backlog of strips for them to begin selling, since you had been producing a strip a day for the website.
Pastis: I had a huge lead, and I still have that lead today. I have a seven-and-a-half month lead.
Heintjes: Of course, in the middle of 2001, you couldn’t have foreseen what would happen on September 11.
Pastis: I could not have had a worse launch date. You know, it’s funny how life works…I wonder if Amy would remember this. Amy gave me two meeting dates in New York. One was in late August, and one was September 13, and I took the late August one. I remember that the flight back was the same as one of the hijacked planes,Newark to San Francisco, and I’m on it three weeks to the day before September 11. Obviously, there were bigger problems than my strip, but it’s weird to think about. And after the tragedy of September 11, all flights were grounded for, I think, three weeks.
Most people don’t know this, but your sales period is only three months. Cartoonists have a small window. And it’s front-heavy; the salesmen are hitting all the big papers. And there were no sales trips being made until October. So that looked like it would be the end of my strip right there.
Heintjes: And there was also a recession following the September 11 attacks, and that affected newspapers’ spending decisions.
Pastis: It was terrible. And since then, everything else has fallen off for newspapers, but up until that point, it was the worst times they had seen in a long time, sales-wise. So once again, another obstacle, and it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. But somehow, those salespeople got me in 40 or 45 newspapers, including, shockingly, the Washington Post, which stunned my syndicate, because the Post had not even bought Get Fuzzy at the time.
Heintjes: From that point, how did Pearls’ sales go?
Pastis: By the standards of 1996 through 1998, it was a slow launch. But given all the circumstances, with the freeze on everything and the recession, I think it was very successful. It was at least solid enough that I was getting exposure. And picking up the Post was huge. For people trying to get syndicated, it’s important to understand that salesmen hit the big papers first, and they hit the two-newspaper towns first. So you can bet in the first couple of weeks they will run to Chicago. They will run to Denver. They know they’ll get one of the two papers in those cities. And I did: I got the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Denver Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, so I got a footing. And after that, they hope that the smaller papers outside Chicago will pick it up.
Heintjes: Sometimes a syndicate will try to partner a talented new writer with an artist. Did anyone propose that to you?
Pastis: Jay mentioned that. That’s funny—that never comes up when I’m telling this story. It got to the point where Jay said, “You pick him, and I’ll get him.” There’s a guy named Don Asmussen.
Heintjes: He does the Bad Reporter strip.
Pastis: He was my pick. There’s a scoop for you. Jay didn’t force this on me. I’m not sure how I know his work…maybe from his Time magazine cartoons. In fact, there’s a legacy of his work in mine. When I want a character to look dumb, I give them those puffy lips, and I think I got that from him.
Heintjes: Once you became syndicated to newspapers, did you feel any pressure to rein in your more provocative tendencies?
Pastis: Not at all. And I’m not just saying that to be a maverick, because I feel like I’ve sold out to some extent now. But back then, not at all. But back then, I’m throwing everything at it that will stick. If I feel it, I do it.
Heintjes: Did your syndicate editor have much input?
Pastis: Amy didn’t do anything with my development. It’s not a slight on her. She knew instinctively to just sort of let me run. He’s gonna live or die on his own. The strip is so different and uniquely his and unconventional. I think she thought you’ve just to let it run, and it will either succeeds wildly or fail miserably. It’s sort of like Dave Kingman’s approach to batting. Dave Kingman was a power hitter who swung wildly, and he would either hit a 450-foot home run, or he would fall over striking out. That was me. And I did: I struck out. When I struck out, I really struck out. When I was bad, I was really bad. But when I was good, some of those early strips—not art-wise, but humor-wise—some of those early strips were really good. I think I can say that about myself, looking back.
Heintjes: Does it surprise you, as a consumer of popular media, that Pearls is considered edgy since it’s mild compared to a lot of the rest of the popular culture?
Pastis: It continually surprises me, and it has nothing to do with me. It is a huge indictment of the newspaper comics page. There is s whole generation that lives on South Park, Family Guy, The Daily Show, Dave Chappelle. All of those are edgy, they say “shit,” they say all sorts of words, they have sex, they have graphic violence. Say what you want about them, but that’s what kids are into. I put comments in my book collections about when I received criticism. It’s not that common, but it does happen. And people think, Oh, he thinks he’s Mr. Edgy. I know I’m not edgy. I'm just saying how sad it is that on the comics page, I’m considered edgy. I can’t say “screwed,” I can’t say “sucks.” When Zits says “sucks,” it’s a media event. And yet you want this material to appeal to people, and it doesn’t. And that opens the door for someone talented, such as Nicholas Gurewitch with Perry Bible Fellowship. He’s immensely talented, and it opens the door for him to do all those things and more! And he’s tremendously popular. If I had my way as a newspaper editor, Nicholas Gurewitch is on every comics page in America, because he’s great! But you can’t do it. You cannot do it. So I can go on and on about this, but you’re stuck between a rock and hard place. You have to make that generation laugh, which requires a certain degree of edginess. They’re not going to laugh because Dagwood’s sandwich is too big. But if I go too far, I’m canceled. Ask Mark Tatulli about this. It’s a tough little line to walk. By the same token, if you’re not edgy, you’re not going to sell books. It’s really funny—the next time a paper has the ten most loved and the ten most hated, I’ll always be in the ten most hated.
Heintjes: You might be in both.
Pastis: I might be in both. Joining me in the ten most hated are typically Doonesbury,Get Fuzzy, Mutts, Non Sequitur, Boondocks, F-Minus, and Lio.
Heintjes: You would be in good company.
Pastis: Yeah, it’s practically a who’s who from Amazon of the strips that sell books. Go figure! You have to be edgy for those kids to buy the books.
Heintjes: Given those constraints, do you see it as your job to nibble at the margins and push what’s permissible in the comic strip, or to accept the boundaries as they’re established?
Pastis: I think it is incumbent upon Aaron--when he was on the page—Darby, me, Mark Tatulli, Tony Carrillo, Coverly, Piraro, Hilary—to push the boundaries. If we don’t, not one else will. I think it’s incumbent too appeal to this generation. I think that’s our responsibility.
Heintjes: What is an example of a time when you thought you were producing an acceptable strip and the syndicate asked you to pull back?
Pastis: This is another misconception I’m happy to dispel, especially among readers of your magazine because they know comics so well. This misconception that circles around the Internet; I see it on the message boards. The misconception is that it’s the syndicate who is the stop-loss. It’s not. The stop-lock in the system is the editors of the newspapers in combination with older readers. The truth is that if a picture of your mother’s ass were popular, and newspapers were buying it, they’d sell it. It sounds crass, but for the most part it’s true. They’re in the business of sales. No matter what it is—maybe not your mother’s ass—but if there’s something that sells, they’ll sell it. Consequently, my syndicate—knowing the strip is popular and it’s done well—does not put the brakes on it. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times they’ve stopped me. But it is by and large the editors—and not all editors, some are terrific and love it when you do that stuff—but a lot are skittish. But when they get tons of complaints—and by the way, tons of complaints means two—they panic. Obviously not all of them, because I’ve got 500 who have taken the heat and stuck with Pearls, but most of them panic. And that is the stop lock. If the newspapers said, “My God, we love Perry Bible Fellowship with the zookeeper’s wife screwing a monkey, we love that shit," they would sell it. So the stop-lock is those editors in conjunction with those readers who won’t let that happen. Now, in terms of where the syndicate itself has stopped me, there was one where I had the characters at a funeral, and they began giggling and couldn’t stop. Pig said the name of an old legacy strip—and I won’t tell you which one, because it would hurt the feelings of someone I now know—and he said the name of the strip, and they stopped laughing. The point was that this strip was so unfunny that just mentioning the name of it gets you to stop laughing. I know you want to know the name, but I won’t tell you [laughter]. And the syndicate told me the guy who does it would be so heartbroken, he’s such a nice guy. It was so mean-spirited that they didn’t want me to do it. So I pulled it.
Heintjes: That actually leads me to another question. You’ve often lampooned other strips in PBS. Off the top of my head, I can think of Family Circus, Mutts, For Better or for Worse, Zits, Love Is…, Baby Blues, Get Fuzzy, B.C., Garfield and I’m probably missing some. What lead you to start doing that, and what sort of reactions have you gotten from other creators?
Pastis: When I was a little kid, MAD magazine had a huge influence on me. I’m sure those Mort Drucker parodies stuck in my head. You know what else had a big influence on me? Remember those trading cards that came in packs like baseball cards?
Heintjes: Wacky Packs?
Pastis: Yeah! And SNL would do parodies, and that was a huge influence on me. So when I put that all together, it tells me that those parodies set themselves in my head. As a kid reading the comics, I loved when there were crossovers between strips. I think it was something that always entertained me, so I did it. And like anything I do in the strip, I do it because it entertains me. I think I began with the Family Circus.
Heintjes: They’re done affectionately, but there’s also some real pointed humor about some of the strips.
Pastis: It depends on the one. Nowadays it’s tougher, because I know almost all of these people, and I really don’t want to hurt their feelings.
Heintjes: You’ve gotten soft in your old age.
Pastis: I talked to Bil [Keane] the other day, and he’s going to write the introduction to my next book. He’s the most wonderful guy.
Heintjes: And his sense of humor in person is much different from his strip’s.
Pastis: Yeah, it’s sharp and fast and a little blue sometimes. In fact, while I was talking to him, I mentioned how he would open the Reuben Awards each year by saying, “It’s more than a pleasure to be here—it’s a goddamn nuisance.” And he corrected me and said, “I say it’s a damn nuisance.” But I think sometimes my satires have a biting edge. My first Family Circus one had that, and I certainly think my Cathy one had that.
Heintjes: Do you give creators a heads-up, or do they see it when the world sees it?
Pastis: I did not used to, but I generally do now. I did a Slylock Fox parody recently, and I gave Bob a call beforehand. I did a Funky Winkerbean parody making fun of that woman dying of cancer.
Parodied in Pearls—Pastis Takes on Other Strips:
Over the years, Stephan Pastis has made sport of some other comic strips. Below are some examples (click to enlarge).
Heintjes: You took on Lisa Moore?
Pastis: I did, and right before it hit, and I had no idea that story was going to get as big as it did. Talk about your awkward phone calls: I had never talked to Tom Batiuk before. I said, “Hey, Tom, my name is Stephan Pastis, and I do a strip called Pearls Before Swine.” He had heard of me, but I don’t think he had read the strip. I said, "I don’t know how to tell you this, but I do a strip where I make fun of that Lisa woman dying.” [laughter] He could not have been nicer! He asked if he could have the original. You’d be surprised how nice they are about it. The only creator I might have ticked off is Cathy [Guisewite]. But I think I was over-the-top mean to her. I had her character’s head get removed so she couldn’t talk anymore, and when she couldn’t talk, her strip started to get funny [laughter].
Heintjes: So even in a case like that, your syndicate wouldn’t try to rein you in?
Pastis: They might say something like, “Are you really sure you want to do this? I know three editors off the top of my head who are going to call.” The choice is usually mine. I had one last year where a neighbor moved into the neighborhood, and Pig welcomed them with a basket of bagels, and the neighbor turned out to be Mel Gibson, and he went into a diatribe quoting what he said to that cop that day. The syndicate said, “You can do it, but do you want to? This and that are going to happen.” But the syndicate lets me. And the cartoonists are fantastic. You’d be surprised. Francesco Marciuliano, who writes Sally Forth, said it was fine to have Ted pick up a prostitute. I had a murder in Slylock Fox, that was fine, I had Osama bin Laden in Family Circus, and I had the kids in Family Circus be foul-mouthed alcoholics. I had Rat baby-sit the kids in Baby Blues while he was drunk.
Heintjes: You depicted Scott Adams as some sort of Elvis-type freak.
Pastis: Yes. I’ve made fun of Blondie, Hagar the Horrible, all of them
Heintjes: When you do strips about, for example, the box of stupid people, readers obviously don’t see themselves in that box—they see other people.
Pastis: Yes. You’ve got to make fun of something, and stupid people are great to make fun of, because no one thinks they’re in the group. Second on that list are French people. You can go off on French people. Maybe they don’t read comics [laughter]. They’re a free target.
Heintjes: Is this your more misanthropic side revealing itself?
Pastis: Oh, yeah. I do view most people like that. And I’m right, by the way.
Heintjes: You often have Rat writing books. I know that Rat is an extension of you, is this something you would like to do? Do you see yourself working in other media?
Pastis: Oh, yeah. I’m simultaneously working on a book and screenplay. The reason I give it to Rat is, I think, the same reason Sparky gave it to Snoopy. It’s a way to make fun of your creative side. If you have a bad joke or a bad pun, you can give it to one of your characters and it’s not you, it’s them.
Heintjes: What are your noncartooning projects?
Pastis: I want to do a Pearls movie, so I’m writing a screenplay, then I want to write a book like Scott wrote the Joy of Work. Those are my two big ones at the moment.
Heintjes: So you’re not philosophically opposed to allowing your characters to be merchandised or appear in other media.
Pastis: I’ve never understood Bill Watterson’s position on merchandising. He made books that made money, and he wasn’t opposed to allowing Calvin and Hobbes to appear in reruns for three months to promote his big collection, so I don’t understand his stand on it. This is my opinion, but I think for him it was a control issue. You begin to lose control, and it’s something to be feared. There’s a risk, but you can control it. There’s a risk when you start to have your characters advertise, for example. That cheapens them. There’s a risk when you begin to let people making a product speak for the characters or soften the characters. No question, there’s a risk. But if you control the licensing, I do not see what’s wrong. In fact, I think it enhances the experience for someone to have a stuffed animal.
Heintjes: I wanted to discuss how you shaped the point of view of your strip. I’ve always imagined that Rat stands in for your worldview. But maybe there’s a part of you that’s Pig. How much of you are in your various characters?
Pastis: They’re all me. Rat is clearly the closest to my own voice. I’ll have a thought and I’ll write it down on a Post-It note and put it in my wallet, and later it will go into the strip as Rat, almost verbatim. Those who know me say they hear it when they see Rat. But there’s also part of me that’s like a little kid. Shockingly, there is a part of me that is sweet and doesn’t hate people, and who’s kind of slow. And there’s part of me that’s very detached. If you asked someone who met me on a plane what I was like, they say, “Gosh, he just sat there for six hours and didn’t say a word, and he just read.” That’s the part of me that Goat represents. Zebra in the sense that I’m fearful of a number of different things and have to be on my toes all the time.
Heintjes: And the crocs?
Pastis: I talk like the crocs. When I’m walking around the house, I’ll say to my son, “Me is not like that.”
Heintjes: The Eastern European dialect.
Pastis: There are a million guesses about what that dialect is, but I’ll talk like the crocs. Even the duck who wants to blow up his neighbors’ homes and kill and besiege. This will make me sound like a complete and total dick. Our garage is on the street, on the front of the house, like most modern homes. So it’s the closest to the neighbors. And I’ll pull into the garage and I’ll see a neighbor in the rear-view mirror in the neighborly pose of someone who wants to talk. Sensing that, when my car pulls into the garage, before I step out, I’ll shut the garage door so that when I step out he won’t get that chance. That’s who I am.
Heintjes: [laughter] Always seeking out those human connections.
Pastis: Oh my God, I just dread that so much. It’s horrible.
Heintjes: Do your neighbors know what you do for a living?
Pastis: They do, but I’ll tell you a funny phenomenon. It’s going to change now because I’m in my local paper, starting a month ago. Any cartoonist will tell you this. When you’re not in the local paper, you’re just a hobby. That’s all it is. You’ll have this conversation with any cartoonist. It goes like this: “So what do you do?” “I do a comic strip.” “Oh, no kidding? Is it in the Press-Democrat?” No, it’s not in the Press-Democrat.” “No, but it’s in the Washington Post and the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times.” “But you’re not in the P-D?” “No.” No? Well, that’s great! Do you enjoy it?” “Yeah, I enjoy it.” It’s almost like saying that I like making ships in a bottle. They’ve heard of the Washington Post, but it’s not their paper, so you’re really a nobody. You live in a vacuum. But people think a cartoonist of a star locally because of what you do, but no. You’re not. The only reason it comes up is that they see you at home all the time, and they wonder what you do. But it’s a weird phenomenon. It’s not like you’re a stand-up comics and you see the audiences get bigger every night and laugh harder. I don’t see shit. I work at home in a spare bedroom. I get e-mail, but if I don’t read my e-mail, I would be completely disconnected. One of the traits cartoonists have in common is a desperate need to connect to people, but we don’t want to do it in person. We have a tremendous desire to influence and get into people’s heads and share our views, but we don’t want to do it one on one. This will show you how pathetic our plight is: I was in a coffee shop, and the girl working in the coffee shop sees me come in at 11 o’clock dressed in shorts will inevitably ask me what I do. You’re not there at lunch, so the time of day indicates that you don’t have a regular job. So she says what do you do? In this particular case, I was across the room when she asked me, so I told her and some people heard it. And one of the women there said, “Do you do the one with the pig and the mouse?” I said yes. She said, “Are you the one who wrote the one where Rat said, ‘If your order’s as long as a Louisa May Alcott novel, I tend to tune out?’ ” She quoted the damn thing! It was just mind-blowing! You influence someone to that extent! It doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, it’s great. We have egos, probably bigger egos than most people.
Heintjes: Knowing what an influence Charles Schulz was on you, it’s interesting to hear you discuss how your characters are extensions of yourself, because that was also true of his characters.
Pastis: Yes, and he told me that himself that day we met. I didn’t really know the meaning of what he was saying then, but I now know that if you don’t understand that, you’re probably not going to get syndicated.
Heintjes: I wonder if his work made such an impression on you for that reason, even if you didn’t consciously realize it.
Pastis: That’s probably true. One type of e-mail I get frequently is asking why I don’t have more female characters. It’s because I’m not a female. It’s going to look fabricated. It’s not going to look genuine. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think Darby has the same idea—it’s why there aren’t a lot of females in Get Fuzzy. It’s hard to do, unless your name is Leo Tolstoy. To convincingly write from the other gender’s perspective is tremendously difficult.
Heintjes: You’ve developed quite a large supporting cast outside of your core group. There’s Andy the dog, Pigita, the bear…was this because your core cast couldn’t espouse all the points of view you wanted to use?
Pastis: You can’t play the same notes for 30 years. It’s not going to work. There are only so many variations. Even George Herriman, who had a solid cast of three, really had a cast of 12 characters. There are a lot more, like the stork. So what Schulz teaches you—the Gospel According to Sparky—is to have a core of three or four who are fully well rounded. Lucy, Linus, Snoopy and Charlie Brown. And then surround them with a cast of secondary characters who are a little flatter. Schroeder. A character is well rounded when he has both weaknesses and strengths. Lucy has a vulnerability in Schroeder. So she’s well-rounded. Linus has a vulnerability in Miss Othmar, so he’s well-rounded. You don’t know Schroeder’s back story. He’s a kid who plays the piano. So I call him secondary. And then, working outward, from the center circle, you have props. I would put Pig Pen and Woodstock in that category. And I think I am subconsciously doing the same thing, probably because Peanuts is so ingrained in me. So Andy the dog, who really has seemed to resonate, is someone in that secondary plateau. There’s something to him, but he’s not fully well rounded, at least until I give him a back story. So you do it because you have to: If you stay with the same four characters, you’re going to run out. You’re going to run dry, and it going to bore people. And most importantly, I do it because I get bored. I may suck from time to time, and I do. But I don’t suck for lack of effort. I can tell you that there are weeks when you don’t want to do it, but I’m so far ahead that when I don’t want to do it, I won’t. I’ll do something else. I only create to interest me. If it doesn’t interest me, I won’t go through the motions.
Heintjes: When you do hit dry spells or writer’s block, what’s your process for working through them?
Pastis: Six years into this, I’ve kind of learned what comes into play. Number one, I think to some extent I’m manic. I have super-high highs and super-low lows. I now recognize when the low is coming, and I used to try to fight through it. Now I’ve learned that that’s useless. When it’s not there, it’s not there. So you stop and get through the day, whatever it takes. So I don’t lose the whole day, I’ll draw something I’ve already written or work on a book cover. The other thing is, I’ll sometimes have a dry spell when I’m not doing much reading. You’re only as good as what goes in, and if I’m not reading, there’s not fuel. So I’ll start reading more. The third thing is, you’re trying too hard. That dry spell happened because you’re overdoing it. Patrick McDonnell said recently in an interview that creativity is like catching butterfly—if you chase it, you’re not going to catch it. You’ve got to sit still and let it come to you, so relax. Take a long shower, Take an hour-long drive. Mindless, Zen-like activities [laughter]. But more than what you do, it’s what you don’t do. You recognize when the lows are coming, and you deal with it.
Heintjes: Do you write material that you realize is just too bleak or nihilistic for newspapers?
Pastis: Oh, absolutely. I put it on the shelf and I tell myself that I won’t run it until the Saturday after Christmas. I’ll hide it. Sometimes I’ll kill it. Two months ago, I killed 12 strips, which is rare for me.
Pastis: They were too dark. The subject matter was too controversial for the comics page. So I just killed them.
Heintjes: So you have a good internal editor.
Pastis: I’m it. Rarely will someone else stop a strip. Not to be too arrogant about it, but I’m the best editor I have, because I pay attention to the feedback. I could really help a young cartoonist. I know the areas to watch out for. I can rattle them off the top of my head. If you want to avoid trouble, avoid sex, any mention of a specific religion, any mention of physical disease, any mention of a mental disease.
Heintjes: Like your Lou Gehrig’s disease strip.
Pastis: Yeah. Ethnicity, any revered figure, a tragedy, unless it’s over 200 years old, or political parties or political figures.
Heintjes: You have espoused a mainstream liberal point of view in the strip. Has that caused you any problems?
Pastis: It’s funny that you say that. You’re not right. This is really funny. There was a letter in the Miami Herald recently complaining about Pearls Before Swine and asking why we need another conservative strip. It’s more of a reflection of where you yourself are coming from. The reason people see a conservative point of view is because the duck and Rat are completely intolerant of others, and militaristic, and they think I’m Bruce Tinsley [creator of Mallard Fillmore]. Conversely, I had Rat writing a letter to George Bush telling him that if he’s going to invade all 185 countries on the planet, he’d better pick up the pace. I would never do that now. Then I had people pegging me as being on the left. So I get it from both sides.
Heintjes: So where are you personally?
Pastis: I am registered independent. I am all over the board. Scott Adams said this to me once, and he’s dead right: Why would you assign yourself a party and a particular set of viewpoints, particularly in an era when the parties are not even clear where they stand? Take an issue like immigration: What is the conservative view? What is the liberal view? I don’t know. I just resent people who have to identify people with a specific party. What does that mean? I’m this, so here are my beliefs?
Heintjes: You wouldn’t say you identify with one core set of values that would be associated with one political party or the other?
Pastis: I am my characters. I have the soft-hearted liberal leanings of Pig, and I have the fascistic leanings of Rat. I’ve got them all. You’ve seen Rat talk. Rat is me. You’ve seen Pig talk. Pig is me. It depends on the day. It depends on where you catch me.
Heintjes: So you never get complaints from newspaper editors about how you’re a bleeding heart pinko?
Pastis: Oh, I did when I did that George Bush strip, yeah. One editor apologized to his readers and promised to stop that sort of things from happening in the future.
Heintjes: What sort of reaction did you get about the strip you did that concerned a suicide bomber blowing up a commuter bus in the Middle East?
Pastis: That’s the biggest reaction I’ve ever gotten. I got close to 3,000 e-mails.
Heintjes: What prompted you to create that strip?
Pastis: That was a Friday night, writing by myself at home. My wife picks the kids up Friday nights and goes to her mother’s house. She’s done that ever since the beginning so I can have one evening by myself. I was listening to music as I sat in the bedroom I draw in, and I must have been down. I don’t remember hearing a specific news story, but it just came out. As I wrote it, I was crying. I’ve never done that before, but I made myself cry. I don’t know where it came from, but it was there. It was in the pipeline, the same pipeline everything else comes from. I knew it was good.
Heintjes: It was tough even to read.
Pastis: It hit something. There was something to that that was bigger than me. Sometimes that happens when you write.
Heintjes: Was there a consensus among the responses you received?
Pastis: Well, let me say first that it almost didn’t run. It was a back-and-forth between me and Jake Morrissey at United on what we should do. I thought it could be a career-ender.
Heintjes: So that was an instance where the syndicate tried to get you to think about your actions?
Pastis: Yeah. Like I said, they won’t stop it, but they’ll get me to think. I could see the point: My characters weren’t in it, it was black and white, and it was about the real world. But it was good. So we went back and forth about whether to run it or not, and finally we decided to run it, and I hid it at the back of December. The day before it ran, I had 50 e-mails. I didn’t even know it was possible for this to occur, but apparently some Sunday newspapers are printed on Saturdays.
Heintjes: My paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has an early Sunday edition available on Saturday.
Pastis: This episode taught me that. When I got 50 e-mails on a Saturday…I had never even gotten one on a Saturday about a Sunday strip. When the first few were angry, I thought it was over. Not to be too dramatic, but I thought the strip was finished. I did not sleep that night.
Heintjes: What was waiting for you when you checked your e-mail the next day?
Pastis: Hundreds more e-mails, but now much more positive. Many of them were from Israel, because of the Web. It had caught fire there. There were a fair number of parents or relatives of people living in Israel who had died. One was the parent of a girl who had been hurt but not killed at a pizza parlor. These are the most heart-wrenching letters you’ll ever read. And of course all the newspapers ran letters about it, but the ratio there was 50-50. The ratio I got was 90-10. It was probably the most courageous thing I’ve done and will do. I would not do it again. It was too great a risk. But I’m more proud of that strip than I am of any strip I’ve ever done. I’ll still read it now, and sometimes I’ll get sort of misty-eyed. It still retains some power.
Heintjes: You did a sequence in which Pig was going door to door looking for a baby Jesus from a manger scene, and he was asking people if had “found Jesus.” Did that generate any controversy?
Pastis: No, very little. You’d be surprised what will hit. The one where I named a llama Ataturk was the biggest backlash I’ve ever faced. It was a stupid little strip, and I wanted to make fun of the fact that llamas spit when they get angry.
Heintjes: What bothered people about that?
Pastis: The fact that I named him Ataturk. It was just a funny word to me, like “attaboy,” and it conjures up a world leader, so I thought it was a good name for a diplomat. I can’t say I had not heard of him. I knew he had something to do with the founding ofTurkey, but for all my reading of history, I had not studied the guy. So I did the strip and named this llama who spit Ataturk. By the way, if I had wanted to do a characterization of a Turkish person, I would not have chosen a South American animal. I know there are no llamas inTurkey. As I always tell people, if I’m going to make fun of you, you’ll know it. I’m not that oblique. The reaction was just a few e-mails, nothing out of the ordinary. Then I said to one guy what I just said to you: I didn’t mean any offense, I didn’t know much about the guy, to be honest with you. I just liked the name because it sounded funny. That e-mail got printed verbatim on the front page of the largest Turkish-American newspaper in the country. I knew about it first from a cousin of mine who knew someone who knew someone at the Greek embassy, who said, “Holy shit, this guy’s walking into a firestorm.” My cousin told me that this guy is revered by Turks, almost like Jesus. In Turkey, it’s a crime punishable by 10 years in prison to make fun of him. When the strip gets printed, it goes to Turks in Turkey who are up when you’re asleep. In the middle of the night, hundreds of these e-mails poured in, and they were all horrific. Some of them were telling me how they would shoot me, with what gun they would shoot me, and that they knew where inNorthern California I lived. More typical was that their grandfather had raped my grandmother and how proud of it they were. And it all happened because I’m Greek. Now, I’m as Greek as you are. My grandparents came here 100 years ago. Their dispute is not my dispute. If you want to have some fun, go onto YouTube and type my name in quotes and watch the video someone on turkey made. These e-mails are going to town. They write to me, the newspapers I’m in, the syndicate, the syndicate officers, Doug Stern, Scripps, because it owns United, the Scripps board of directors and CEO, Yahoo’s people because I’m on Yahoo! And then, believe it or not, the Turkish ambassador to the United States. I guess it was a slow day at the embassy, because he decides to write me a six-paragraph letter demanding an apology. It was out of control.
Heintjes: Did you apologize?
Pastis: We said we were sorry for the offense, but there was no harm intended, which was the truth. I didn’t know who the guy was! It was a funny word! If his name had been “Smith,” I wouldn’t have used it. “Hussein” is not funny, so I wouldn’t have used it. It’s the same reason I use “Bob” or “Fifi” or “Gigi.” I don’t know what makes those words funny, but they’re funny. But for the first time ever, I was scared. It’s the first time I ever discussed having Staci and the kids leave the house.
Bringing Bill Back
Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson made an uncredited surprise appearance in Pearls Before Swine in 2014. Below are the four strips he worked on (click to enlarge):
Heintjes: So the passage of time allowed the furor to die down?
Pastis: I just waited. And boy, it was a lot of waiting. It was a crazy thing to get up every morning and see 300 e-mails in your box, because they come in the middle of the night. So I will never visit the country ofTurkey.
Heintjes: I guess you won’t pick up many papers there, either. You said before that you’ve changed over time, that you’ve mellowed. What did you mean by that?
Pastis: As you get more and more papers, you are more and more conscious that you’re in areas that are not as edgy. When someplace in Iowa or Kansas picks you up, you’re conscious of it. When Bill Amend stopped doing a daily Fox Trot, I picked up a lot of newspapers in a lot of regions of the country you would not think I would run. This is a very interesting thing, and I’m not proud of it, but I might as well admit it. A few things happen. One, you are conscious of the weight of those newspapers. It’s a different environment, and you don’t want to get cancelled. You’re exposed to a much larger audience, and now a controversy is a much larger one. When something works, like the crocodiles, which works wildly and takes your strip to new heights, it may not be what you’d originally intended for the strip, but it’s tough to walk away from that level of success. So to some extent, you’re a prisoner of your own success.
Heintjes: How do you combat that in your own work?
Pastis: I never want to bore myself, so I’m never going to put stuff out there for that reason alone. But to say it doesn’t influence me would not be accurate. It does influence me. That said, I’m not doing strips about a family smiling around a coffee table.
Heintjes: And you’re not putting the crocs in there every day despite their popularity. You’re aware that they’re more effective if you limit their appearances.
Pastis: There are people who say they’re in there too much now. I know how much they’re in there. I keep a chart of it on the wall, and they average eight a month. I try to keep to that average. Some people would like only croc strips, and some people only want Rat and Pig. But by and large, the crocs are the most popular characters. I do want to make something clear, though. I have a cat in there now who collects WMD, and the series involves Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Syria. It’s not like I’m doing Hi and Lois, but I’m not throwing caution to the wind like I did in my first two years. I’m not making jokes about Lou Gehrig’s disease. I’m not doing the Jerusalem bus bombing strip. So those who want to say I’ve softened, it’s true. I think to some extent I’ve softened. But the strip has changed in a number of ways, and that’s only one of them. But I will never make it so soft that it bores me.
Heintjes: Do you see yourself becoming more like Rat over time?
Pastis: No, he doesn’t influence me, but I do influence him [laughter]. It’s an interesting question. I think if anything, as I’ve gotten older, I realize I don’t know everything, and I see more shades of gray. Most of all, I have young kids. I think I’ve softened. Part of why you soften the strip is because you soften. You’re not the brash Young Turk you were the first couple of years. So the strip evolves with you. If you’re doing it right, it does. Take, for example, Andy the dog. That’s not a character you would have seen in the strip’s first couple of years. He’s a hopeful little guy.
Heintjes: When you create a character like Andy the dog, are those philosophical underpinnings in your head, or do you realize them later?
Pastis: Later, always later. That would be top-down creation, and it will look left-brained, it will look unfunny, and it will look thought out. You’ve got to do it right-brained, and it will either resonate with you, or it will resonate with fans, and then you can look at it and say, “Why does that work? Why does that stupid little dog work?”
Heintjes: He’s a somewhat tragic character.
Pastis: He is tragic, but that chain is a great metaphor, and I think that’s why he’s resonated.
Heintjes: He’s tragic in the same way Sid the fish is in Mutts. It’s a doomed existence.
Pastis: As is yours. As is mine. We all have chains, whatever they may be called: a mortgage, kids, family, jobs, bills. We all have those chains, but we operate as though we don’t because we have to. We have to go on. If you ask the average person if they will have traveled the world by the time they’re 70, they’d say yes. I’ll bet that dream is in your head, right?
Heintjes: Actually, I hate to travel, but I see your point.
Pastis: [Laughter] The truth is, most people who dream it won’t do it. So like Andy, that chain is there. You think you’re going to do it, but you’re probably not. And yet, he persists. Not to get too esoteric, but there’s a great book called You Can’t Go Home Again. You’re from North Carolina—you know that book.
Heintjes: Sure, by Thomas Wolfe.
Pastis: At the end of the book, he’s writing a letter to his editor in which he basically concedes that life is nasty, brutish and short. His editor wants to give in to that, but Thomas Wolfe’s main character says, “You have to fight it.” You have to fight it even though you’re going to lose. It’s a doomed fight, but you have to fight it. And that’s what life is about. And I think that’s life’s highest beauty. To me, one of the most beautiful images is of that marathoner from the Olympics who broke his ankle while he was running, and hours after the marathon had ended, after almost the entire crowd has gone home and they’re about to close the stadium, here comes this guy hopping on one foot. I can’t watch that without crying. That is the essence of life. That is the beauty of life. You’re thrust into this situation that you cannot win. You will lose. You will die, suddenly and unexpectedly. Against your will, you will face many tragedies, but you have to go on. That, to me, is the definition of beauty and life, and it’s the essence of everything.