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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 07/31/2008

The Interview: 'Pearls Before Swine's' Stephan Pastis

By Michael Cavna

Stephan Pastis: Will Larry the Croc go Hollywood? And more important: Will Stephan let us invest?

The Washington Post, it seems, likes to ask a bit more of "Pearls Before Swine" creator STEPHAN PASTIS than do other papers. When United Media launched the strip to comic pages more than six years ago, the lore goes, The Post had a gap in its comics page a week prior to the feature's print debut. So what did the good Mr. Pastis do but draw a bonus week's worth of custom strips for the Post. (Belatedly, we say "thanks," Mister Pastis -- Rat's next cold one is on us.)

This time around, though, we knew we were pushing our luck. In Comic Riffs's recent rant "Bucky Katt v. Garfield," you'll recall, we called for a showdown/throw-down between the comic-cat titans and wanted to draft Pastis to illustrate the Catfight of the Century.

Stephan, gentleman that he is, returned our call promptly to discuss his attempts at getting a "Pearls Before Swine" feature film off the ground; his success at getting Rat and Pig plush-toys to a store near you soon; and that little matter of trying to draw tiny little boxing gloves on Bucky and Garfield...

MICHAEL CAVNA: So what's your cartooning schedule like, day-in day-out?
STEPHAN PASTIS: I write for three or four hours and then hopefully I'll have something. Then I draw for the rest of the afternoon. ... I literally block out Wednesday-Thursday-Friday -- I more or less disappear. If I delay even an hour, everything gets screwed up. ... Sticking to my schedule, I've gotten over seven months ahead, which allowed me to write a "Pearls Before Swine" movie script for the big screen.

Congratulations. So what was that like, trying to adapt your strip for a screenplay? And how did that come about?
The script came out decent. The trigger was a producer who contacted United, but I don't think they wanted me to do the writing. But they let me take a shot at it. I really like it. It's centered on Larry the Croc, which most people would find unusual. But crocs are the most marketable -- they're the favorites.

Some of our readers asked about "PBS" toys -- when are we going to see stuffed Rat and Pig in a toystore near us?
The stuffed animals are supposed to come out in February 2009. Rat, Pig, Zebra and one of the crocs all at once. I think that's pretty cool.

You've cited "Calvin and Hobbes" as one of the '80s strips that inspired you. Now that "Pearls" will have plush toys, what do you think of [Bill] Watterson's decision not to market his characters?
I don't really understand that. I think it's fine as long as you don't affect the integrity of the strip. I think it furthers the like or love of the strip, as long as Pig doesn't seem to be inconsistent. I know he'll be on my shelf in the office.

I know Sparky [Schulz] felt the same way, about separation of marketing and the integrity of the strip. David Michaelis's recent biography about Sparky describes your meeting him. What was that like -- and how did it happen?
It was simply a result of me being signed by [their shared syndicate] United near the last month of Sparky's life. [Comics Editor] Amy Lago was literally picking me up on the way to see him. We showed up at his ice arena and there were two tickets ...and it just worked out. It was odd, how that happened. Crazy.

And did "Peanuts" inspire you growing up?
If you're from a certain generation, you basically learn to read with "Peanuts." It's sort of the template for the modern strip. Its influence ceased to be noticed because it's in everything.

"Pearls" pokes fun at some of the cartoonists from Sparky's era -- had you met Bil Keane, for instance, before you started spoofing "Family Circus"?
No, I hadn't met Bil yet, but I've since been to their house. and I was talking to [his son] Jeff yesterday. ... Some of the [strips that people might consider] the most offensive, Bil has on this walls at home.

Are there times you poked fun at other strips that you now regret?
I was too mean on "Cathy." I would go back and take some of those back. [Cathy Guisewite] seemed hurt -- rightfully so. You can have fun with a strip, but it's beyond my right to declare a strip unfunny.

Some of our readers want to know whether you've been amazed by the strip's rise in popularity?
It's always amazing. There's always always a sense of un-reality because you're just a guy who draws something in a room in your house. You don't see it -- it's like you're in a vacuum. But I'm thankful every day that I'm not a lawyer.

Were you doing the characters when you were in [UCLA] Law School?
Yeah, Rat came first. Law school in 1991 -- I mostly did it in class. It probably was just [out of] the frustration and burnout of law school.

Your lettering and some of your characters' features have changed considerably over the years. What's that progression been like?
It's hard for me to even look at the first ones. It just makes me cringe. I look at them and I can't believe where I am now. The lettering was just a matter of learning to line it right, which I learned after looking at a Berkeley Breathed original. ... As for the art and coloring instructions, ["Get Fuzzy's"] Darby [Conley] taught me a ton.

So, more questions from our readers: Are you left-handed like your cartoon avatar?
(Laughing) I get asked that a lot -- no, I'm right-handed. The only reason I [draw myself left-handed] is because i can't draw right-handed characters. I don't like drawing characters facing right. If I tried to do that at a book signing, I'd have to pencil it first.

Is it true, one reader asks, that you gave your wife a rake for your anniversary -- as you depicted in the strip?
That is not true. Wait -- I've got to think about that. I know I got her something really practical. Ah, I bought her a lawn edger. That won't make me look too good -- but she asked for it.

So you've been drafted to draw a showdown between Garfield and Bucky Katt into your strip. Would you ever consider it?
I tried putting Bucky in a strip three years ago. It took two hours. I can imitate a lot of characters, but doing that fight would end my career because it would take me six years to draw a week of dailies. Can you imagine the action poses? I'd have to find someone who can draw to do it.

Say you're a betting man -- who would win the showdown between Garfield and Bucky?
Don't they say in prison: "Never fight crazy"? You can fight big, but never fight crazy. If you went by the old prison axiom, Never fight crazy -- Bucky would be my pick. And why I know prison axioms, don't ask me.

COMING SUNDAY IN THE POST'S STYLE&ARTS SECTION: We chat up some of the nation's leading political cartoonists.

By Michael Cavna  | July 31, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The Morning Line: Garfield -- Bring on the Crazy
Next: The Morning Line: "Beetle's" Buck[Naked] Privates


Thanks for the interview with Stephan Pastis-- "Pearls" is required daily reading! Pig, Rat, Zebra, the crocs-- they're all great. Can't wait to introduce our baby (due in March!) to this wacky animated world.
all best,

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I absolutely love Pearls Before Swine. Most of the time it makes me laugh out loud and people on the subway look at me funny. It's fantastic and I'm so happy the Post runs it every day!

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