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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Stephan Pastis talks Pearls Before Swine and the future of newspaper comic strips

Monday at Quail Ridge Books

Posted by on Sun, Oct 7, 2012 at 12:20 PM

Pearls Before Swine Cover
As the mind behind the hit newspaper comic Pearls Before Swine, Stephan Pastis appreciates the time he's able to get away from the drawing board and interact with his fans. "When you’re a cartoonist, you basically see nobody," says Pastis, who appears at Quail Ridge Books and Music Monday night, in a call from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif.

"You’re in a room by yourself, and you know that people see the strip, but the reality to the people reading it is very different from your reality — it’s like being a stand-up comedian who can’t see the audience. Walking into a bookstore and doing a signing is like going from night to day — you go from being a hermit to the center of attention in a large crowd."

Pearls has been a mainstay of newspapers for more than a decade, offering trenchant commentary on human foibles through its large cast of talking animals ranging from the naive Pig to the idiotic alligator Larry to the eternally sleazy Rat, Pastis' favorite. "I’ve always liked writing for Rat," Pastis says. "He’s the voice that’s closest to mine. If I had my way, there would be a lot more Rat, and the strip would be a lot less popular."

Pearls Before Swine Strip
Pastis acknowledges the market for newspaper comics has changed drastically since Pearls went into wide syndication in January 2002. "When I started, if you got syndicated, you were basically set — you’d make a good living, and you wouldn't have to worry much else," Pastis says. "In the 11 years since then, that door has basically closed. There is no new great syndicated strip, and there probably won’t be. Literally, there are no new launches.

"Now, to make it, you have to go that web route. Many of those guys, from Penny Arcade to Cyanide and Happiness to The Perry Bible Fellowship — which are all excellent — claim to make a living, but how do you know? I can tell you that even if someone does a strip and it’s fairly popular online, the money is not online. I question a lot of claims about the money being made, and the question remains that if things continue to go that route for newspapers, and you have to make money online, how do you do it?"

However, he remains optimistic about the longevity of newspaper comics. "While new papers are not coming around, I’m still in 700 newspapers, and I’m still making a good living," Pastis says. "Syndicated content is cheap content — they don’t have to pay employees to produce it.

"Sometimes I think the obituary for syndicated comic strip guys has been written prematurely — it’s almost impossible to break in, but for those who have, the readership is still there. Sometimes I want to remind people that I’m doing OK! Most towns still have a newspaper, and at the end of the day, you still have to have local news. Even Yahoo and Google rely, by and large, on content that originally comes from local newspapers. It might take different forms, but local newspapers will survive, and I feel comics will be part of that.

He's also impressed by the diverse styles and content of online comic strips, most of which feature deeper subject matter and more R-rated language than found in a daily newspaper. "The fact that strips like that can go online and build their own audience is amazing. I love to see that — it keeps things going. Just because you can’t get syndicated in newspapers doesn't mean the comic strip has to go away, and those guys are proving that."

Pastis says he loves meeting his fans in person, though encountering someone he's never met before who can quote the strip back to him can be like "a kid of yours has gone off and made friends you don’t know."

He's had some oddball encounters: "People have taken me aside to say their brother is in the CIA and is watching us. There’s always someone who hands me a CD of their cousin’s band, as though they think I’m in the music industry. People will put hats on my head with a company’s logo and take a picture before I can take it off, to make it look like I’m endorsing the company. I had a mother insist I take her and her daughter to a photo booth and take a picture with her and her daughter, so I had the uncomfortable experience of being a stranger in a photo booth.

"Sadly, I haven't been able to get any strips out of these stories."

Stephan Pastis appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7:30 p.m. Monday for a reading and signing of the new collection Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out: A (Freaky) Pearls Before Swine Treasury. This is a signing line ticket event, with tickets available for each copy purchased; Pastis will also draw a character in each purchased book. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or call 919-828-1588.

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"I've always liked writing for Rat. He's the voice that's closest to mine. If I had my way, there would be a lot more Rat, and the strip would be a lot less popular."

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