Cartoonist Stephan Pastis is as tongue-in-cheek as his comic strip

  • Shikha Kumar
  • Updated: Feb 20, 2016 19:26 IST
Cartoonist Stephan Pastis, creator of Pearls Before Swine. (Photo: Aalok Soni; Location courtesy: Trattoria at Vivanta by Taj President)

Before his first trip to India to talk about cartooning this February, Stephan Pastis spent three months “preparing”. He saw 30 Bollywood films, including Chak De! India, Queen, Wake Up Sid and Rang De Basanti. He was particularly impressed by Gangs of Wasseypur: “In the US, they broke it down into 10 episodes and I watched them all in one night. I couldn’t stop,” he says. He also read eight books about modern Indian politics. “I know all about the BJP, the Congress. I’m so ready!”

India was ready for him too. Within minutes of Pastis announcing his India trip on Facebook in December, his page was flooded with comments, with fans even bribing the cartoonist with beer to come to their city.

Published in 750 newspapers across the world, Pastis’ comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, takes on contemporary living and its problems with dark humour.

Its animal characters Rat, Pig, Goat and Zebra display human characteristics, have conversations about religion, death and censorship, frequently satirising comics themselves. Rat is sarcastic, Pig is naïve, while Goat is philosophical.

Pastis frequently makes appearances in his own strip. So when he drew himself, clad in a kurta, on that Facebook announcement, Rat and Pig noticed. Rat asks him not to “offend anyone”, Pig adds: “More than usual”. Pastis, when we meet in Mumbai, makes no promises: “I’m pretty sure I’m going to be like a bull in a china shop!”

Excerpts from an interview:

You quit your job as a litigation lawyer to begin cartooning full-time. How did that come about?

I hated being a lawyer. I never thought I’d take a chance at being a syndicated cartoonist because it’s so hard to achieve. It’s like aspiring to be a professional cricket player in India. So when I finished college, I went straight to law school. But after three years, I couldn’t do it.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I used to be sick a lot, and every winter, I had bronchitis. I would miss a month in school and my mom would give me pens and stuff so I had something to do lying in bed. That led me to drawing for all my school papers in grade and middle school. So while I was still practising as a lawyer, I submitted the strips to syndicates in the ’90s. They were rejected for four-five years. Then Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, liked the strip and told everybody to read it. I owe him my whole career.

The humour in Pearls Before Swine is deadpan, but very topical. Is that the reason for its success?

In the times we live in, you have to be deadpan. If you watch American comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm, there’s no laugh track – nobody laughs to indicate that there’s a joke. You leave it up to people. If somebody overreacts, it ruins the whole thing.

Also, I look at comedy as a release valve for the sadness and pressure in our lives. If someone annoys me, Rat’s going to rip on him. My humour is inspired from many things, the British version of The Office, Laurel and Hardy films, Bugs Bunny, early David Letterman, and even Dilbert, Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts.

Your strip often makes fun of your own art skills. How come?

I didn’t know anyone else who did that. If you pull yourself into the strip, it allows you to fictionalise your life. For example, if you tell a pun in normal life, you’re just a comic from the 1920s. But in the next panel, if you give yourself grief for making the pun, it becomes funny, and topical. This can only happen if I’m in the strip.

You’ve featured news events like the death of Israeli school children in 2003. Can humour change society?

Scott once said something to me that really stuck – that I write angry. Sometimes I think he’s right. I get angry at dumb and unthoughtful people. When I was younger, I did it more often because not many newspapers carried the strip. I’m really proud I did that Israeli strip, but I don’t think I’m as courageous as I was then. Today, I’ll probably include news events in a smarter way. I have a strip coming up on ISIS.

Also, as artists, you’re only as good as what you take in. If you watch bad sitcoms, that will trickle through. When I see a movie like Queen, which really moved me because there’s something so true about it, it makes me want to do something great.

Follow @TheCommanist on Twitter

From HT Brunch, February 21, 2016

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