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Pearls Before Swine cartoonist shows his love for Montreal in comic strips



More from Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette

Published on: January 16, 2015Last Updated: January 16, 2015 4:11 PM EST


Stephan Pastis, creator of the Pearls Before Swine comic strip, was so taken with Montreal that he has drawn two strips on the city. Note the Habs jersey.

Stephan Pastis, creator of the Pearls Before Swine comic strip, was so taken with Montreal that he has drawn two strips on the city. Note the Habs jersey.


Stephan Pastis is in love. With Montreal.

The comic-strip creator of Pearls Before Swine took in the city for the first time last fall. He caught the Habs playing the Bruins. He made the mandatory bagel, deli and poutine pilgrimage. He checked out the bistro and indie bookstore scene. He marched and/or biked from Old Montreal to Mount Royal. Upon leaving, he expressed a desire to uproot to the city.


Of course, the temperature was relatively balmy back then. Pretty similar to that of his current San Francisco home.


Fast-forward three months. The thermometer has hit a punishing minus 29 Celsius – not even factoring in wind-chill factor – during our telephone chat.


“So maybe I’ll live in Montreal only during the warm months,” says Pastis, clearly unaware that the warm months generally constitute less than half a year here. No matter.


Pastis is, unarguably, one of the most successful cartoonists on the planet. Pearls Before Swine runs in more than 750 newspapers, including the Montreal Gazette. He has an estimated 17.6 million readers a day.


Pastis’s professed love for our city is not just idle talk, either. He is providing Montreal a showcase that will leave tourism officials here drooling. Pastis has drawn two Pearls Before Swine strips – to appear on Monday and Wednesday in our paper and worldwide – not only extolling the merits of our bagels, smoked meat, poutine et al but also this declaration from his Pig character: “I AM MOVING TO MONTREAL!!”


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Of course, Pastis’s second strip could trigger thermo-nuclear war. His Habs-sweater-sporting character (Pastis, in fact) proclaims that “MONTREAL MAKES THE BEST BAGELS IN THE WORLD” – much to the chagrin of a New Yorker who feels otherwise.


This process began innocently enough when Pastis asked his friend, Just for Laughs’s Andy Nulman, if he could help him acquire tickets for the Canadiens-Bruins bout on Oct. 16. Nulman obliged him and when Pastis asked how he might repay him, Nulman suggested perhaps a single drawing of a Pearls Before Swine character in a Habs sweater that could be hung at JFL headquarters.


But when Pastis found himself sitting on ice level at the Bell Centre, right at centre ice next to the penalty box, he was so overwhelmed that he decided to put together the two Montreal strips. It was only weeks later that Nulman learned of Pastis’s scheme, after receiving the strips at his office.


Nulman, in turn, was overwhelmed. So, in his capacity as “Chief Attention Getter” for Montreal’s 375th birthday bash, Nulman arranged to have an original of one of the strips – the “moving to Montreal” – presented to Mayor Denis Coderre and to have Pastis named an honourary Montrealer.


“I don’t draw very well,” says Pastis, who turned 47 on Friday. “So the single drawing Andy asked me to do came out really badly. I felt terrible about that, especially after he got me that awesome seat. So when I got back home, I had the idea to do the two strips about Montreal.


“Maybe when I come back to Montreal, I will be able to get a free drink as a result,” he muses. No doubt.


But what’s this about his inability to draw?


“If you lined up all the cartoonists in the world, I think I’d be in the bottom quartile. I was just a lawyer before. No art school training or anything.”


But what Pastis does have is a battery of quirky characters: Rat, Pig, Croc and Goat. He also has edge and provides his characters with a narrative that clearly resonates with readers.


“There are tons of talented people who come out of art school every year, and they don’t become syndicated. There are maybe 200 people in the U.S. who make their living doing this. You’d be better off telling your parents that your financial plan is the lottery.


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“What it comes down to is the writing. If you can write and make people laugh, then you really have a leg up – and can even get away with drawing stick figures.”


Regardless, Pastis has come a long way. Because he was a sickly child and missed a lot of school, his mother provided him with crayons and paper to keep him amused. Inspired by his favourite strip, Peanuts, he began drawing. And he kept on doodling through law school and through his stint as a lawyer for an insurance company.


It was during a “boring” law school class that he came up with Rat, the first of his Pearls Before Swine characters. In 1996, on a whim, he drove to a skating rink in nearby Santa Rosa, Calif., where Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had his coffee and an English muffin every day.


“That was such a weird confluence of events,” Pastis recalls. “My wife just happens to be from the town where he lived. So I waited for him and after he got his coffee and muffin, I went up to him and with the worst opening line ever, I said: ‘Hi Sparky (Schulz’s nickname). My name is Stephan Pastis and I’m an attorney.’ He turned white. He probably thought he was getting served with papers. It was terrible.


“Then I said: ‘Oh, I also draw.’ So he asked me to sit down. And that was the start of a long conversation.”


Not long after that encounter, Pastis began drawing Pearls Before Swine. Two years later, he began submitting to the various cartoon syndicates before signing a contract with United Features. His strips initially appeared online. It wasn’t until 2002 that Pearls Before Swine made its debut in newspapers.


It didn’t take long for Pastis to earn praise from fellow cartoonists. The National Cartoonists Society awarded him Best Newspaper Comic Strip in 2004 and 2007.




Mayor Coderre beams over comic strips praising Montreal

Also a huge fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Scott Adam’s Dilbert, Pastis remains much inspired by Schulz.


“For me, Schulz is the basic rhythm of sequential art,” Pastis says. “He is basically the air we breathe and the water we drink. He is the foundation. As for Larson? How funny can one human be? I learned a lot from him.”


In addition to the comic strip, Pastis recently began writing children’s books, based on his character Timmy Failure, the 11-year-old CEO of a detective agency. The first in the series, Timothy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, became an instant bestseller. He has since penned three more volumes.


Making life more complex for this cartoonist is that he usually produces his strips seven to nine months – save for the two Montreal efforts – before they are published. As a consequence, it’s difficult to remain topical.


“There have been all these polarizing events that have taken place in the interim – be they in Ferguson, New York or in Paris. So when I wake up and see what strip is in the paper and what’s going on in the world, it can be radically different, but it can also, strangely enough, be quite relev ant – because hostilities in the world seem to be a constant.”


The tragic events that took place at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo have, not surprisingly, left Pastis shaken.


“Our job as cartoonists is to make fun of everything. There are no sacred cows. It is such a horrific thought that there are people out there who would kill you if you make fun of certain things.


“That’s just so medieval to me. Are we living in 2015 or in 1215?” he notes, before adding: “If there is one small silver lining to this, it’s that the goal of these people was to suppress, but the result is that a magazine that would have sold maybe 60,00o copies is going to sell 5 million. That’s what you get, and that’s what you deserve, when you try to stifle creativity and freedom of expression.”


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