It makes sense that cartoonist Stephan Pastis calls his current book tour “The Freak Show.”
This is the guy, after all, who introduced a conniving Rat, a sweet-but-dopey Pig and a fraternity of beer-swilling, zebra-craving Crocodiles to newspaper comics pages nationwide.
Pastis, whose often-irreverent “Pearls Before Swine” strip appears in The News & Observer and hundreds of other newspapers each day, celebrates his freakish menagerie in his latest book treasury, “Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out.” He’ll be talking about the book and signing copies at 7:30 p.m. Mondayat Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh.
“Pearls” is now in its 11th year, and Pastis said the challenge is “always keep myself entertained.”
“I’m always trying new characters – and there’s a whole bunch of those coming – and always trying to surprise,” he said in a phone interview from a stop on the book tour.
Fans of the strip can look forward soon to an armadillo joining the cast. The character often has a new wife each time you see him, Pastis said, because his previous spouses keep wandering into the road and getting run over by trucks, as armadillos are wont to do. “That’s an uplifting one,” he said with a laugh.
And Rat – the acerbic main character whom Pastis says he most resembles – will run for office around the time of the November election. His platform will consist of building a giant wall on the border – between Canada and the U.S. “He finds out that Justin Bieber is Canadian and made it into this country, so he wants to keep out any future Canadians,” Pastis said.
It’s one of the few times the strip, which is drawn about six to eight months before newspaper readers see it, tackles a current event.
“The more topical you get, the more dated you then get,” Pastis said.
Though “Pearls” fans come in all ages, Pastis said he particularly likes seeing middle school-age kids at his readings.
In fact, he’s venturing into a new realm as a children’s author in February, when his book “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” will be published.
“They call it a middle school illustrated novel. I shorten that by saying a Wimpy Kid-style book,” Pastis said, referring to the popular “Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney.
The character Timmy Failure is a less-than-brilliant kid detective who has a polar bear as his associate. Pastis said publishers got into a bidding auction for the book, which he hopes will be the first in a series and will have “Wimpy Kid”-style success.
“It’s a rich, rich area to mine. So I took a shot at it and hope it will do well,” he said.
Though his 10-year-old daughter, Julia, has never been a big “Pearls” fan, his son, Thomas, 14, is likely his best critic. When he completes a week’s worth of the strips, he spreads them out for Thomas to review.
“He’s very good at discerning what’s funny,” Pastis said. “If he doesn’t like a week of the strips, it’s probably not a funny week.”
After a decade of drawing “Pearls,” Pastis said that while he loves being offbeat in the strip, he’s also learned the minefields that it’s best to avoid.
“I can just rattle them off – political party, physical disease, mental disease, sex, any mention of any specific drug, a killing that occurs on camera,” he said.
And his taste in other comics runs to the quirky, too. He cites “Bizarro,” “F Minus” and “Get Fuzzy” among his current favorites.
“It’s like a Who’s Who of the ones some readers say, ‘please drop,’ ” he said.