By Sue Botos
Cartoonist Stephan Pastis is the first to admit that one of the best parts of his job is getting complaints from those who are offended by his edgy, often politically incorrect comic strip, “Pearls Before Swine.”
But his fans outnumber his critics, judging from the standing-room-only crowd of over 400 at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, where Pastis spoke April 2; the roars of laughter that punctuated his nearly hourlong presentation; and the line that wove through the halls of the church waiting for him to sign copies of his books afterward.
Pastis was stopping off in Rocky River as part of a 10-city, cross-country tour, which began on March 24 and will wind up April 5, promoting his newest collection, “Pearls Falls Fast.” His appearance was sponsored by Joseph-Beth Booksellers and the Rocky River Public Library, which received proceeds from the evening’s book sales.
Although Pastis had always enjoyed drawing, the California native practiced law from 1993 until 2002. “I was a full-fledged litigation attorney. You can boo now,” he instructed the crowd, urging them to boo louder when he revealed, “I defended big insurance companies. The good news is, I didn’t like it, so I continued to draw.”
It was during this time that Pastis created what became his first “Pearls” character, the “angry, egotistical” Rat.
Pastis shopped around his first strips to comic syndicates, noting to the audience, “Out of 6,000 submissions a year, they will pick one to publish.” He added that there was a greater chance of getting hit by lightning, 1 in 6,250, than becoming a successful cartoonist which, according to his accompanying slide show, was 1 in 36,000.
After numerous rejections – “One syndicate wrote, ‘Please go away,’” Pastis recalled – he decided in 1997 to study the most popular comic of the time, “Dilbert” by Scott Adams. “I went to a book store in San Francisco and read all the Dilbert books. I didn’t buy them. I just sat on the floor and read them,” Pastis admitted, adding that from this “I learned everything you could learn about writing a three-panel strip.”
One of the changes he made was the addition of the sweet-tempered Pig, as a foil for Rat. He drew 200 strips, which he showed to his law associates. They chose 30 of the best, and Pastis shipped them to United Media, which picked up the comic. “I can remember everything about that moment,” Pastis recalled about receiving his acceptance letter.
After a 2002 debut in 40 newspapers (and an endorsement by Scott Adams), the popularity of “Pearls” exploded, and the comic strip is now featured in 750 publications.
With his accompanying slide show, Pastis used some of his most famous and infamous strips to illustrate his signature use of alliteration and puns, which caused a chorus of laughs mixed with groans from the audience. Rolling out gems as “Don’t cry for me Arch and Tina,” Pastis noted that he often draws himself in the last panel, usually being insulted by Rat (“You’re why they’re shrinking the comics page”).
Pastis usually rolls with the complaints he receives from the overly sensitive, recalling an angry e-mail about mentioning nuns in the same strip as rapper Eminem. Another called Rat smoking a hookah pipe a bad influence on children. He noted that this strip was based on Alice in Wonderland. “I (wrote back), ‘You may want to get (Alice) removed from the children’s section of the library,’” he recalled.
But the “mother of all controversy,” according to Pastis, was when he called a llama Ataturk, not knowing the name was sacred to the Turkish people. He recalled that the resulting thousands of angry e-mails included one from the Turkish ambassador to the U.S. “How all this happened, I’m not sure, but I managed to anger an entire nation,” he recalled.
Because he is friends with most cartoonists, Pastis does not directly comment on their work, even though he often spoofs their characters. He counts frequent target “Jim Davis (creator of “Garfield”) as a good friend, as well as “Cathy” artist Cathy Guisewite. However, Guisewite was not amused, at first, by one of his strips, which led to an awkward moment at an awards ceremony where she was a presenter and Pastis a recipient.
Keeping in character while signing books, complete with a drawing of Rat, a fan asked Pastis why he chose Cleveland as a tour stop. “I like to hit all of the larger cities, and my parents grew up here. Oh, yeah, I guess I should have mentioned that.”