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Cartoonist Stephan Pastis on the art of staying irreverent

Stephan Pastis, creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine talks about his most loved character and more

The first thing that Stephan Pastis notices when the Skype interview starts is the background noise. "Is that traffic?," he says, almost unbelievingly. For someone who has nearly become deaf to the city’s honking habit, Pastis’s observation seems quick. Yet, why should that surprise? Over the last 15 years, the lawyer-turned-syndicated cartoonist has wooed many the world over with his irreverent comic strip Pearls Before Swine, that’s an astute observation of the world we live in, even if the observations aren’t always politically correct.

PIC COURTESY/STEPHAN PASTIS
PIC COURTESY/STEPHAN PASTIS

And, leading this charge is the strip’s main hero — Rat. Pastis, who on Saturday will meet students and other fans at Goa’s Birla Institute of Technology, says despite remaining a cynic, Rat has grown with him over the years. "He changes with me. As I have become a dad, I have become mellow, a little bit conservative," he says. On the opposite spectrum is Pig — naïve. In fact, almost too naïve. "Both of them are me. Pig represents the sweeter side. All your characters have to be a part of you.

You are the only person you know best," he says, adding, "I’m probably closer to Goat more than anyone. He’s smart..."

Over the years, the California resident, has introduced tons of characters in the strip. There’s Guard Duck, Larry the Croc etc. While he can’t put a number to them, the core and recurrent characters are about 11. It’s mostly the humans who seem to have names, though — Jeff the Cyclist and Neighbour Bob. When we point this out, Pastis laughs. "I didn’t notice that. Well, maybe I’ll add a character just called Human." (If one is introduced, you know it was mentioned here first.) To drive home a point about the irreverence of the strip, we search for a punchline. It’s not hard to find. There’s Rat’s map of "stupid people" on the planet that’s been entirely dotted black, there’s also Rat’s discover of the secret to happiness — a total lack of empathy for others. And these are just the milder ones.

Stephan Pastis

How does he manage to stay politically incorrect, especially in these times? "Well, I don’t mean to be offensive. I just write what I think is funny," he says, adding that while several love his strip, not all are always amused. "Once, someone wrote in saying that my representation of Jeff the Cyclist was hateful and I must not spread hatred towards cyclists. Then there was a 14-year-old who wrote in saying that she loved my strip, but felt that I was an a*****e," he laughs.

But, he isn’t worried about offending people. "If I was afraid that what I wrote would affect people, I have a blank page staring at me. It’s important to ignore that," he says. The irreverence extends to himself as well. He has, in the past, talked about a separation from wife Staci, in the column i.e., and that wasn’t a reflection of his marriage. "I was surprised by the number of phone calls we got. It was crazy, but a nice experiment," he adds.

In Goa, Pastis who has also authored the children’s book series Timmy Failure, says, he plans on doing all the touristy things. "I have been watching a lot of Bollywood films — Gangs of Wasseypur, Queen, Swadesh, Chake De India!" he says, asking for more recommendations. He didn’t have any public meetings scheduled in Mumbai, but he promises there’ll be a next time.

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