Cartoonist Stephan Pastis is pretty fearless with Pearls Before Swine, his comic strip that runs daily in newspapers across the nation, including The News & Observer.
His characters include an often-surly rodent and potentially homicidal crocodiles. He’s known for poking good-natured fun at his fellow cartoonists. And he revels in extended, sometimes groan-inducing puns.
But one of the few things Pastis fears is making Pearls too topical and off the news. Thus, you’re not likely to see his character Rat, who has been elected president, vacationing at a Mar-a-Lago-like resort or panning Alec Baldwin on Twitter.
“When you cling too closely to the news, it’s really going to date your strip,” Pastis said in a recent interview. Instead, he likes to focus on “elemental” topics such as greed, fear, ego and the like – timeless things that will still be relevant for readers in future years.
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Triangle readers will get a chance to meet Pastis and see some of his timeless past strips when he appears at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Tuesday night. It’s one of the stops on his book tour to promote “Pearls Hogs the Road,” his latest large collection of strips.
Pastis said he’s excited to return to the Triangle, where he’s had good experiences at past appearances.
“I love parts of the country like that with lots of smart people, lots of universities,” he said. “I tend to do better there than some other nameless portions of the country.”
“Pearls Hogs the Road,” like other Pearls collections, not only includes nearly two years worth of strips. It also has witty commentary from Pastis of the stories behind the strips. And there are three special strips in the book from the week in 2014 that reclusive Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson secretly drew Pearls.
Pastis explained that he reached out to Watterson, whom he had never met, through email. They traded jokes, and then Watterson broached the idea of taking over Pearls briefly. Pastis was stunned – and thrilled.
“Imagine you’re a first-year film student in college and Martin Scorsese called and said, ‘I’m doing my next movie. How would you like to codirect?’ That’s what it was like.”
They came up with an idea in which Pastis, who often puts an exaggerated version of himself in Pearls, was approached in Monday’s strip by a young girl who criticized his drawing. By the midweek strips, the “girl” was drawing Pearls. Of course, the artist was really Watterson. The secret wasn’t revealed until the end of the week, when The Washington Post ran a story about it.
“When it came out that that was him, it’s the biggest story I’ve ever been a part of,” Pastis recalled.
Despite the many Pearls books and the fact that the strip is online every day, Pastis said he constantly hears from readers who only want to read Pearls in the newspaper. Folks are very picky about their newspaper comics. (Just ask any editor that has ever tinkered with the comics lineup.)
“There is still something to the assembly that is the comics page in the newspaper. You have them all right in front of you, right together,” Pastis said. “It’s almost like a neighborhood of people that you know.”
Unlike his alter ego in the comic strip, the real-life Pastis doesn’t smoke. Nor has his wife ever kicked him out of the house, which happened several years ago to the cartoon Stephan. (Pastis said he thinks the last time it was mentioned in the strip, cartoon Stephan was living on his porch.)
Also not mentioned in awhile are the Crocodiles of Zeeba Zeeba Eata fraternity, who Pastis noted he had run out of ideas for. But he’s looking for a way to bring them back.
“Everybody has been asking me that,” he said. “I’ve got to rethink the Crocs. They’re too popular to not have. But I have to find something that amuses me.”
In the near future, fans should expect to see Rat remain president for a while. That, and puns.
“There are definitely some really terrible puns upcoming,” he said. “Surprise!”
If you go
What: Stephan Pastis at Quail Ridge Books
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh.