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Greek-American Cartoonist Stephan Pastis Explores Sublime, Ridiculous

Stephan Pastis
Greek-American cartoonist Stephan Pastis now has his work syndicated in more than 650 newspapers worldwide. Credit: Facebook/Stephan Pastis

First generation Greek American Stephan Pastis once was a high-powered lawyer in San Francisco — before he chucked it all to become an author and one of the US’ foremost comic strip artists.

Now, with his “Pearls Before Swine” syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate, his cartoons, featuring Rat, Pig, the Zeeba family and their neighbors, the “Dumb Crocodiles,” are seen in 650 newspapers worldwide.

Pastis is at times acerbic, with his constant observations about the unending failings of human nature, and at others sweet, such as when Rat finds himself under a raincloud and his friend Pig comes and shares the rain with him, asking “What are friends for?”

Stephan Pastis
Comic strip artist Stephan Pastis gives his barbed insights into human nature via his comic “Pearls Before Swine,” which is syndicated nationwide. Credit: Facebook/ Stephan Pastis

Pastis portrays minutiae of everyday life in cartoons, books and film

Absurdities are often plumbed in Pearls Before Swine, such as the scene showing one of the Zeebas and Rat settling down to watch a disturbing television nature series involving the grisly death of a zebra by crocodiles, and their neighbors — who are of course crocodiles — are seen celebrating through the window.

He also writes children’s books, with the “Timmy Failure” series, beginning with “Mistakes Were Made” all the way through the seventh book, “It’s the End When I Say It’s the End,” which debuted at #4 on The New York Times Best Seller list for Children’s Middle Grade Books.

He also has a blog in which he shares more musings, such as the 11-hour-long airport hell he was subjected to recently, and a range of calendars, such as this gem, which sums up how many are feeling about the new year: “The 2022 Pearls Before Swine ‘Crumple-Up-Each-Day-and-Hurl-it-in-Anger’ Rage Control Calendar.”

The son of Greek immigrants, Pastis was raised in San Marino, California. He started cartooning as a child; idolizing the brilliant author and animator Charles Schulz, his mother brought him pens and paper to amuse him when he was “sick a lot” and had to stay in bed.

He attended the University of California at Berkeley, earning a B.A. in political science in 1989. Pastis attended law school at UCLA, but kept drawing all that time, coming up with the first Pearls Before Swine character, Rat, during a boring class in law school.

“When I wrote for him (Rat) it seemed pretty honest. It was the first character where I could really say what’s on my mind. When I put it on paper, it’s my voice. So it works for me.”

Pastis is known for his forays into other comic strips, combining unlikely characters who sometimes take their own speaking bubbles into the strips drawn by other creators. One such recent compilation is when Pig and Rat get into a political discussion about millionaires and political power in the United States — and the “Family Circus” characters, not known for their countercultural leanings, bring home the point.

Notwithstanding the seemingly incongruous nature of the two comic strips, their creators are quick to reassure readers that they are both good friends in real life.

From 1993 to 2002, Pastis was an insurance defense litigation attorney in the San Francisco Bay area, but he quickly became disenchanted with the legal profession. In the mid-1990s he revisited his earlier ambition of becoming a syndicated cartoonist by submitting various concepts to agencies.

Pearls Before Swine borne out of earlier comic strip called “Rat”

The character of Rat came from Pastis’ earlier strip, Rat. The character “Pig,” who is Rat’s opposite, had been featured in “The Infirm,” a strip about an attorney who numbered an evil pig farmer among his clients.

One day in 1996, Pastis drove to an ice rink in Santa Rosa, California where Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, had his coffee every day. That turned out to be one of the major turning points of his life.

The meeting did not begin auspiciously, however, as Pastis blurted out: “Hi, Sparky (Schulz’s nickname), my name is Stephan Pastis and I’m a lawyer.” Schulz turned pale, thinking Pastis was there to serve him with a subpoena. But he recovered, and Pastis remembers Schulz’s graciousness:

“I was a total stranger to him, and he let me sit down at his table and we talked for an hour. I took a picture with him. He looked at some of the strips that I had been doing and gave me some tips. Man, I was on cloud nine,” Pastis recalls.

In addition to the universally-beloved Peanuts strip, Pastis drew inspiration from the iconic workplace comic strip “Dilbert.”

“What worked for me personally was to study the writing of Dilbert,” Pastis says. “I just bought a bunch of Dilbert books and studied how to write a 3-panel strip. Then I showed them to a group of people who were acquaintances in order to get their honest assessment of which ones were funny and which ones weren’t.”

Pastis selected 40 of the best strips for the new strip, but fearing more rejection, let them sit on his counter for the next two years. Only in 1999 did he overcome his fears and submit them to three different syndicates, including United Features.

United took the unprecedented step of first running the strips on Comics.com to gauge reader response. When Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, endorsed the strip, the response “went through the roof” Pastis states.

Eight months later, he gleefully quit his law practice. He considers his dissatisfaction with law helpful, however, insofar as “humor is a reaction to and defense against unhappiness.”

Fifteen years later, Pearls appears in more than 650 newspapers worldwide.

Pearls Before Swine books

Pastis’ first compilation of strips, or “treasury,” called Sgt. Piggy’s Lonely Hearts Club Comic, was published in 2004. In addition to the content of the previous books, “BLTs Taste So Darn Good” and “This Little Piggy Stayed Home,” and Sunday strips in full color, Pastis included responses from readers in that work.

He continues to release the treasuries about every year and a half. Each book in the series is subtitled “A Pearls Before Swine Treasury.” Recently, treasuries became the main format for the Pearls Before Swine books.

Pastis lives in Santa Rosa, California, with his wife Staci and two children, where he is on the board of the Charles Schulz Museum.

“Schulz is to comic strips what Marlon Brando was to acting. It was so revolutionary. Before “Peanuts”, the writing was physical, over the top, but Sparky goes inside the soul. His influence on me is enormous. I’ve taken his backgrounds, the front porch, the beach and the TV beanbag. Rat is Lucy, Goat is Linus and Pig is Charlie Brown. Sparky is a template. Whether or not you know it, he’s the template,” the Greek-American author states.

In 2011, Pastis co-wrote the Peanuts special “Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown.”

Pastis’ “Timmy Failure” book series

On February 25, 2013, Pastis released his first book aimed at younger readers, called “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.” Modeled after the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Timmy Failure follows the exploits of a young detective-to-be and his polar bear friend, Total, as they solve crimes in their neighborhood.

A sequel, “Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done,” was released on February 25, 2014. Subsequent books in that series include We Meet Again, Sanitized for Your Protection, The Book You’re Not Supposed To Have, The Cat Stole My Pants and It’s The End When I Say It’s The End. Pastis says that this latest work was the last in this series.

In April 2017, Disney started work on a Timmy Failure movie with Tom McCarthy directing and co-writing with Pastis. The movie, which was filmed entirely in Portland, Oregon, was released on Disney’s family-oriented streaming service Disney+ in January 2020.

Pastis was nominated for the National Cartoonists Society Newspaper Comic Strip Award for  2003, 2006. He won the 2003 and 2006 awards. He was also nominated for The National Cartoonists Society Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year for every year since 2008. Pastis won the 2018 Reuben Award.

One recent Pearls Before Swine cartoon represented the zeitgeist of these times in our weariness over the pandemic, punctuated by a panel that ended that harkened back to a familiar scene from Peanuts, with Lucy taking the football — once again — after she promised for the umpteenth time to hold it so it could be kicked.

“So the pandemic is really over?” Pig asks Rat. “No more new waves, new strains, new lockdowns?” Rat answers in the affirmative both times. After Pig asks for further confirmation, saying “So we can plan ahead again? Weddings,  parties, meetings?” he is again reassured that all is well.

After Rat says that indeed things are just fine this time, Pastis goes into Peanuts mode, showing Lucy taking away the football at the last second, with Pig landing, dizzy, at her feet.

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