“When in doubt, kill cute things.”–
Stephan Pastis, Pearls Before Swine creator
More than once in these pages, I have asserted an aversion to thinking “inside the box.” But I must admit, I’m an amateur at thinking outside the box compared to Pearl’s Before Swine cartoonist Stephan Pastis. His thinking, as implied by his daily comic strips, is somewhere between “outside the box” and completely sick. You might deem it closer to the latter; he almost certainly does. What else can you say about a guy who draws himself into his own strips, usually representing himself as being abused by his own characters? He even draws outside the box literally. In one strip–which I unfortunately could not find a reproduction of online–he depicts two of his characters sitting on the bottom border of the last panel, feet dangling down from it, derisively tossing sunflower seeds at the strip below them on the comics page. His characters know they are in a comic strip, and they milk it for all its worth.
The regular characters are anthropomorphic animals that go by the names of their species. Pig. Rat. Goat. Zebra. Here is a rundown.
Rat–The nastiest, most cynical and self-centered comic strip personage this side of Lucy van Pelt. Rat is egotistical, superior, overbearing and mean. He gains amusement at the expense of everyone and everything that isn’t him. But his primary target is his roommate, Pig.
Pig–Simple-minded and literal to a fault, Pig is the polar opposite of Rat. That he lives with Rat, and puts up with constant verbal and physical abuse from him, is the source of many of the strip’s jokes. Pig most reminds me of Gracie Allen.
Goat–If pig is Gracie Allen, then Goat is George Burns. Intellectual and reflective, he is the perfect straight man to Rat and Goat. It is, as you can see from the strip above and the one below, a toss-up as to what exasperates him more: Rat’s arrogance or Pig’s naivety.
Zebra–A neighbor of Pig and Rat, Zebra is a man on a mission. And that mission is? To avoid being eaten by his next door neighbors, the crocodiles of Zeeba Zeeba Eata fraternity. This is not too big a problem, because the Crocs, though scheming and conniving, are incompetent, downright dumb, and they also talk funny. Unlike the other characters in the strip, some of these crocs actually have names. Most frequently, that name is Bob. Either there have been several crocs named Bob or Pastis has killed Bob more times than South Park has killed Kenny. A typical interaction between Zebra and his neighbors below.
Guard Duck–I’m a bit reluctant to admit it, but this is my favorite Pearls character. Rat and Pig wanted to buy a guard dog to protect their house. They couldn’t afford one, so they bought a guard duck instead. What they got turned out to be a cross between Elmer Fudd and Rambo. I’m a peace-loving kind of guy, but GD is so over the top I just have to laugh. A lot.
Stephan Pastis–Yes, Pastis is a character in his own strip. He interacts with the other characters, fights with them and, most often, is abused by them. The last scenario–abuse–most frequently occurs in the last panel following an agonizing pun.
Add to all this a variety of running gags which sometimes include characters from other popular comic strips (Pastis is particularly fond of poking fun at Cathy and Family Circus), and you get the idea. He used to be a lawyer; now he is completely nuts. He seemed to have two options in life when he decided to leave the legal profession: Looney Toons, or the loony bin. He could still go either way, but I’m glad he chose the former.
All cartoons in this post ©2012 Stephan Pastis; Pastis portrait photo from Wikipedia; all other content in this post ©2012 Mark Sackler