Stephan Pastis is more of a zookeeper than a cartoonist. He oversees a menagerie of dysfunctional talking animals – and the odd human – in his popular comic strip “Pearls Before Swine.” The strip appears in more than 700 newspapers nationwide, including The News Tribune and The Olympian.
On Saturday, Pastis will appear at the Puyallup Library to promote his first children’s book, The New York Times best-selling “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.” He will talk about “Pearls” and “Timmy Failure,” and sign books.
Timmy Failure is a clueless, self-confident, but inept kid detective with a sidekick polar bear. The second book in the series, “Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done,” is scheduled for publication in February.
Pastis, 45, gave up a career in law to pursue cartooning and signed on with his syndicate in 1999. He spoke with the newspaper in advance of his appearance.
Q: You live in Santa Rosa, Calif. – the home of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz. Did you ever meet him?
A: Yes. When I was a lawyer in San Francisco, I took the day off from work to see if I could meet him at his ice arena here in Santa Rosa. Sure enough he was there and he talked to me for an hour about cartooning. This was before I was even syndicated. Before I quit the law job in 2002, I actually worked part time at his studio. He was deceased by then, but I helped out with their licensing. Over the years that job morphed. Somehow I ended up co-writing their last animated special on FOX.
Q: That leads me to the issue of legacy comics – comics that are in reruns like “Peanuts” or written by people other than the original creators such as “The Family Circus.” Do you think newspapers should run these?
A: I’m outspoken on this and I always get myself in trouble with my syndicate. It’s a complicated personal subject for me because I’m friends with a lot of those guys. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan with Jeff Keane, who is the son of the guy who did “The Family Circus” (Bil Keane). Some of them are like brothers to me. But I remove the personal from the situation and just answer analytically. First and foremost, no strip should be in repeats. I don’t know any other part of the paper that runs the content they’ve already run. Secondly, I don’t think any strip should go past the creator’s life. Does the second generation have the vision, courage and inspiration that the original creator does? Maybe sometimes. But by and large probably not. You’re preventing the next “Peanuts” from getting in the paper.
Q: What did the Keanes think when you had Osama Bin Laden hiding with “The Family Circus” family in your strip because they were the only people in America clueless enough to not know who Bin Laden was?
A: They are the greatest sports ever. Standing in (Bil Keane’s) kitchen, I said, “Do you mind when I do (parodies)?” And Bil said, “No, as long as you are funny. So be funny.” He had a great sense of humor. I know it’s sort of a rip on them, but in order for me to do it, everybody has to know them. And having been to war zones with Jeff, I’ve seen soldiers walk up to him and say how much “The Family Circus” means to them.
Q: Who are these characters in “Pearls”?
A: I think they are all parts of me. You don’t know anyone else as well as you know yourself. I’m mostly Rat. My natural voice is Rat. There’s a sweeter part of me that’s like Pig. I will sometimes go around the house talking like the crocodiles. And then I’m actually in the strip.
Q: Yes, I’ve seen photos of you. You’re much more well groomed and fit than the slob you portray yourself as.
A: Put that in the article so my wife can see that. Yeah, I’m more in shape than that, but it’s not funny when you’re in shape. Homer (Simpson) has a gut for a reason.
Q: You have the longest, most torturous set-ups for puns I’ve ever seen. How do you come up with those?
A: The hardest part is coming up with a quote that everyone will know. Then I just work backwards and see if it sounds like anything. I tend to hear words that way. In terms of the response, they split the audience in half. One half thinks it’s a complete waste of the strip and the other half think it’s the only great thing I do. The crocs have the same effect. People say, “Why do you do that? It’s so stupid.” Or they say, “I don’t really read your strip. I only read it for the crocodiles.”
Q: What was your big break?
A: I didn’t like being a lawyer so I would draw on the weekends and submit the stuff to the syndicates. They would all get rejected. And then finally I did a strip they liked. And the guy who does “Dilbert,” Scott Adams, told all his readers to go read it and that was a huge boost to the strip. I really owe Scott my whole career.
Q: Do you freehand the strip?
A: I’m in the minority now of guys who just use pen and paper as opposed to a tablet. But I scan it in to the computer and fix errors. I like the dialogue to be centered, which not one person cares about. I spend an inordinate amount of time on that. It’s got to be an OCD thing.
Q: Let’s talk about Timmy Failure. Your humor is adult oriented. What made you want to write a book for kids?
A: If you went to a “Pearls” signing, you would see tons of kids: 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds. Girls at that age are particularly dark, so I’m already writing to them. The constriction on you as a cartoonist is so profound. You have to be in and out in three panels. And you’re supposed to assume that no one read the prior day’s strip. So the minute you say to me “Here are 250 blank pages – just tell the story you want to tell,” that was wonderfully freeing. For the kid angle, I wrote three rules down: No beer, no swearing, no smoking. That was it. I wrote what entertained me. Which is all what I ever do.
Q: Timmy’s not your typical heroic type. What do you hope kids will get out of the book?
A: The first goal is to make them laugh. If I can sneak in something that tugs at a kid’s heart in addition to that that’s great. I think Timmy does that. It’s a different reaction than “Pearls.” Timmy’s situation makes him think emphatically despite his arrogance. His circumstances of having a single parent not particularly close to him, no father, not many friends, a bear that most people view as imaginary. Just the presence of the bear at all is a measure of how alone he is. There is something to get out of that, emotion wise.
Q: Are your kids at the same age level that the book is aimed at?
A: Julia is 12 and Thomas is 15. Julia never liked “Pearls.” Thomas did. Thomas was effectively my editor. I’d run the seven strips by him every week and then he’d rank them 3, 2 and 1. Then we’d get in big arguments as to what was wrong with the other four. I had both kids read “Timmy.” Not only have they read them, they have read every page with me in the room. Thomas reads a page and he laughs and like a vulture I swoop in. “What was that? What were you looking at?” What they learn to do is to read and not laugh so I don’t annoy them. So it’s a big challenge to get them to laugh. I really know where the funny parts are. When my editor comes down on me, I say, “Hey Thomas loves that. I’m sticking with that.” They are a key, key part of it. They are shockingly, insultingly honest: “It’s just not funny at all. There’s nothing funny about it.” And you go, “Ow. Come on!”
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Puyallup Public Library, 324 S. Meridian, Puyallup