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A rat, a pig and some really dumb crocodiles

Stephan Pastis dives deep for his 'Pearls Before Swine' strip

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Pig and Rat are the primary characters of "Pearls Before Swine," though there are many more.

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Q. Why "Pearls Before Swine"?

A. The title comes from the Bible, Matthew 7:6 ("Neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet") -- and the interaction between know-it-all Rat and oblivious Pig.

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(CNN) -- Stephan Pastis knows his comic strip, "Pearls Before Swine," can be a little dark at times. But it's not like that outlook is anything new, he says.

After making a crack about his Greek heritage -- "we have tragedy in our blood" -- he notes that he once came across an old suitcase full of drawings he'd done when he was 7 or 8. In the collection were parodies of famous commercials, including one of the Fruit of the Loom guys.

In Pastis' rendering, they had suffocated in the hamper.

"That was probably a pretty good sign," he says in a phone interview from northern California.

Which isn't to say that "Pearls" isn't funny. The adventures of the egotistical, pessimistic Rat; bighearted but clueless Pig; reasonable but put-upon Zebra; and wise, exasperated Goat -- not to mention a few dopey crocodiles, some talking produce and the occasional "Box o' Stupid People" -- have made "Pearls" a rising star among comic strips, now in more than 300 newspapers.

It's full of silly puns, pop cultural references, parodies of other comic strips and left-field ideas, such as talking representations of the male and female symbols on restroom doors.

Pastis says he is open to any idea.

"I write whatever comes down the pipe," he says. "The strip is like my diary." (See a gallery.)

'Genuinely funny' impression

Pastis, 38, had always hoped to become a cartoonist. One of his earliest childhood memories was reading dozens of the old Fawcett Crest "Peanuts" paperbacks, and he would draw incessantly while growing up. His heroes were "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, Berke Breathed ("Bloom County"), Gary Larson ("The Far Side") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), with a bit of B. Kliban (known for his absurdist cats) and Charles Addams mixed in.

But before he could fulfill his dream he got sidetracked. He became a lawyer.

He has no regrets -- "there's nothing wrong or bad about being an attorney," he writes in the "Pearls" collection "Sgt. Piggy's Lonely Hearts Club Comic" (Andrews McMeel) -- but it wasn't what he really wanted to do. He'd drawn all through college and continued drawing after his workday was over, and he finally sent off a collection of his work in late 1999.

Even then, he didn't have instant success.

"He was in a holding pattern at [syndicate] United Media," recalls Pastis' friend and "Get Fuzzy" cartoonist Darby Conley. "They thought the strip was out there too much."

Pastis also wasn't the most accomplished artist, as he freely admits, and Conley was asked to teach Pastis some of the technical aspects of cartooning.

But Conley was impressed with "Pearls." "It was genuinely funny. There are maybe three or four strips that are," he says.

United Media, however, was still uncertain about "Pearls." It decided to give the strip a six-month tryout on the Internet. It was there Pastis discovered he had another fan -- "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams, who raved about the "Pearls" on his Web site.

Adams' recommendation, in late 2000, helped widen interest. More recently, the strip has gotten a big boost from newspapers wanting to fill the hole left by the temporary run of "Calvin and Hobbes" (tied in with "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes") and those dopey crocodile characters, who moved in next to Zebra (or, as the crocs say, "zeeba neighba").

Pastis is tickled by the crocs' popularity.

"Their appeal, I believe, is due to their obliviousness. It's not just that they're stupid -- it's that they think otherwise," he says. "That, and the fact that they're much more expressive than the other characters. For one thing, they're the only regular characters with mouths and those big googly eyes."

Following the rules

PEARLS FROM 'PEARLS'

Rat: If you could have a conversation with one person, living or dead, who would it be
Pig: The living one.
[pause]
Pig: You must really think I'm stupid.

* * * * *

Rat: I'm poor.
Goat: They say a man's wealth is not measured by money, but by the number of good friends he's made.
Rat: I'm bankrupt.

* * * * *

Pig: What are you reading?
Goat (holding book): It's a mystery.
Pig: Have you checked the title page?

* * * * *

Rat: I saw my cousin Gene today.
Pig: Is he the guy that runs marathons?
Rat: Yeah, but he's a real jerk ... nobody in my family likes him.
Pig: It must be tough to have a bad Gene that runs in the family.

Newspaper editors and some readers haven't always been so kind. One reader was so critical of a "Baby Blues" takeoff (one strip featured the "Blues" children driving a car and hitting Jeremy from "Zits") "you'd think I'd run nude through town," says Pastis. And many papers, concerned about having a comics page that pleases everybody, wince when "Pearls" gets too edgy. (See sidebar.)

"The unspoken deal is 'you're here, you're edgy, draw young readers,' " Pastis says. "[But] it's a gigantic task to entertain people playing by the rules [some papers] give you."

Fortunately for the cartoonist, his peers have been supportive -- even when Pastis mocks their work. Bil and Jeff Keane asked for strips that mocked "The Family Circus," and Jerry Scott and Rick Kirkman got back at Pastis' poke at "Baby Blues" by having "Baby's" youngest violently playing with a toy crocodile.

"The only person I've pushed too hard was ['Cathy' cartoonist] Cathy Guisewite," Pastis says. (But, he adds, Guisewite eventually forgave him at a cartoonists' convention in which Pastis was honored by his fellows, telling him, "I'm so proud of you.")

He now finds himself in a perfect spot, literally and figuratively. He can support himself and his family solely on "Pearls." But he's taken on another job: he now does some curating at the Charles Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California. What could be better for a cartoonist who grew up on, and still admires, "Peanuts"?

It's enough to make even Pastis look on the bright side -- sort of. Like any fan of Charlie Brown, he remains partial to pessimism.

"I don't know what it is about tragic moments," he says. "But that's where the humor is."

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