Swine Connoisseur: The Stephan Pastis Interview
Stephan Pastis—the creator of the bracingly acerbic Pearls Before Swine—talks to Tom Heintjes about lucky breaks, practicing law and why you don’t mess with Turks.
(Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #16.)
A rat, a pig and a goat walk into a bar…
If that sounds like the setup to a hoary old joke, you obviously haven’t been reading Pearls Before Swine. In an earlier era, Pearls almost certainly would not have had a chance to appear in papers, much less to be one of today’s fastest-growing comic strips. When syndicates first encountered Stephan Pastis’ creation—about a variously venal, puerile, humble, bloodthirsty, ignorant and preening anthropomorphic menagerie—they passed, just as they had on his earlier submissions of other concepts. Their rejection was no great surprise, considering the strip’s bleak, cynical point of view. It exists in its current form because United Feature
Syndicate began offering it on its website in November 2000, a tryout method with little risk—and little reward to the creator—and because the syndicate realized that the popular culture is hungry for humor with an edge. His lucky break came in the form of an enthusiastic endorsement from a fellow United cartoonist, Dilbert’s Scott Adams, which led to thousands of new readers discovering Pastis’ work, and a career in print cartooning was born. (The strip’s success allowed Pastis, 40, to abandon his legal career, the despised crucible that helped to harden his dim view of his fellow man.) United launched the strip into papers in 2002, and it now runs in 500 newspapers. Thanks to a couple of years spent producing strips for publication on the United website, Pastis is months ahead of his deadlines, allowing him great selectivity over which of his new strips see print.
Pastis suffuses his work with misanthropy that is rare on a comics page widely perceived as the domain of the inoffensive. His characters—especially the rampaging id known simply as Rat—routinely harm each other physically and verbally, and when they’re not pursuing each other for food (as his hapless and benighted crocodiles do), they are out to kneecap each other emotionally. But Pearls is built on a more substantial foundation than simply the food chain: Pastis has created a platform that allows him to expound on politics (what other strip would depict Fidel Castro shedding a tear in response to a sharply worded letter?), social norms, relationships and even, on occasion, other comic strips. But far from taking umbrage at his satire, his peers have acknowledged his work as some of the finest strip work produced today, giving it the National Cartoonists Society’s award for best strip in 2004 and 2007.
The southern California native now resides with his wife and children in northern California, where he works for Creative Associates, the company founded by his cartooning idol, Charles Schulz. While Pastis acknowledges his creative debt to Schulz—his characters are each imbued with a different aspect of his personality, just as Sparky’s were—his voice is distinctly his own. (Snoopy never drank anything stronger than root beer; Rat swills beer.) With his strip’s client list growing and a line of merchandise on the horizon, Pastis will be casting Pearls before readers for a long time.
Tom Heintjes: When did you decide to become a misanthrope?
Stephan Pastis: In law school [laughter]
Heintjes: Let’s start there. What led to law as a career choice?
Pastis: It was a function of liking public speaking. I was one of the debate nerds in high school. I liked to write, and I liked to argue, and I wanted a career that made a lot of money. When I look back on it, I think it was those factors, the skills I had matched it. And the money made it something I wanted.
Heintjes: Would you consider yourself, in career terms, to be a pragmatic person who made an economic decision?
Pastis: Yeah. My parents never had very much money, although we lived in a rich town,San Marino,Calif., which is a suburb ofLos Angeles. I never wanted to hurt for money, so I was very driven to succeed financially. I think that’s why I did it.
Heintjes: So you became a lawyer, and how satisfying did you find that career?
Pastis: Not very satisfying at all.
Heintjes: What kind of law did you practice?
Pastis: I did insurance defense. In my case, if somebody sues their homeowner’s insurance company for not paying an earthquake claim, I would defend the company. It sounds bad, but unless you work in the business and know what it is, you don’t know. I didn’t feel bad about that part of it at all. There are people who make claims that are way inflated, which costs everybody money. What I felt bad about was the process. When you’re in law school, you think you’re going to be a lawyer like Oliver Wendell Holmes, arguing esoteric points of law. But in truth, what you do is, you get in petty fights with other lawyers about who served whom and when, and how well you can bury someone in discovery, and keep someone in deposition for hours. It’s much more akin to a bar fight than it is to a Lincoln-Douglas debate.
Heintjes: Did it satisfy the part of you that liked to debate and talk publicly?
Pastis: No, not at all. You’re in front of a judge and you’re saying stuff like, “Your honor, his motion was due on February 3, and he filed it February 5, so there should be no reason.…” It’s petty. Most of the disputes were petty. Occasionally you got into a fight that was good, like causation, where you have experts testifying. More often than not, it’s just petty fights.
Heintjes: How many years did you practice?
Pastis: Nine years, from 1993 until 2002.
Heintjes: During that time, how did cartooning exert an influence on you as another career path?
Pastis: I always wanted to do it, but I knew that the odds were so slim. There was no way to count on it. Even as a kid, I knew that, and I was so driven to have money that I wasn’t willing to make that risk. But I always drew on the side. My whole life, you can find cartoons published in my elementary school gazette, my junior high paper, high school paper, and a humor magazine called the Berkeley Harold in Berkeley when I went to Cal. In law school, I did a strip called called Rosen, which was about another student in the law school [laughter]. He liked being made fun of, so he was the subject of my strip, and it was popular. So I always cartooned on the side. But when I was a lawyer, it had to get pushed back to nights, which is hard, because you’re tired. Saturdays was a big drawing day.
Heintjes: How did you develop concept and submit them to syndicates during this period? Were you always developing concepts and developing them? How did you fit this work into your life?
Pastis: I think it was 1995 or 1996, and I’d been a lawyer for two or three years. I decided to make a go at syndication. I bought Lee Nordling’s Your Career in Comics, or maybe it was the Writer’s Handbook. I got the addresses of the syndicates out of it, and I took a concept that I had developed in law school called Rat. It was a six- or eight-panel comic, whatever I wanted to do.
Heintjes: This was the forerunner of today’s Rat?
Pastis: One and the same. He walked on all fours, and there was no Pig at the time. I sent in 30 strips. But at the time, I think I only sent in 30 strips. I mailed them in to all the syndicates, although ironically, I didn’t send them to United. I don’t think United’s address was in the book I used. It got rejected by everybody, all form letters. Except for Jay [Kennedy, King Features comics editor]. I remember specifically; I still have the letter he sent me. He wrote, “You have a more captivating voice than the majority of people who send us work.” I’ll tell you, other than the e-mail announcing I was syndicated, that was probably the most exciting, biggest moment of my career. I remember the moment I read it. I was standing in our kitchen. The reason it was so exciting was because, until that point, it was purely a dream. And when the editor at King Features says something positive, even though he’s rejecting you, that’s when the light went on. That’s when I said, “Wow, maybe this is possible.” That was just crazy.
Heintjes: The life raft that every aspiring cartoonist clings to is the “encouraging rejection.”
Heintjes: So what did you do next?
Heintjes: Based on some of Jay’s suggestions, I switched up the strip a little and submitted Rat again. It was rejected by everybody again and got another encouraging letter from Jay. Then, if I’m remembering order right, I did a strip called Bradbury Road, based on the name of the street I grew up on.
Heintjes: What was that strip’s premise?
Pastis: It was about a little boy and a single mom. He had a rat as a pet, and he had a dog. He also had a jester doll that talked to him…boy, you’re asking me about stuff I haven’t thought about in years. It was a miserable comic, just terrible. It was left-brained, trying-to-be-funny crap. And that got rejected by everybody, with another nice note from Jay. I was also getting some nice notes from a woman named Susan Peters at Chronicle Features, which I think was later bought by Universal. But that was an independent syndicate at the time.
Heintjes: They handled The Far Side initially, as well as Bizarro.
Pastis: Did they? Yes, she sent me some nice notes, so I was definitely getting some decent feedback. And then I did my fourth submission, which was called The Infirm, about a law firm, playing off the title of the John Grisham book, which was out at the time. It was about a lawyer named Grossman, who was a miserable failure at his firm, how nervous he was and how he kept screwing everything up. And it had a narrator.
Heintjes: A bit of autobiography there?
Pastis: That’s where I started working in my own life, and that’s always going to help you. That the strip I showed Sparky [Schulz]. I had that one with me when I met him in 1996. I submitted that one to everyone, and it was rejected by everyone, although I got a nice note from Jay. So those were the four strips before Pearls.
Heintjes: How did you meet Sparky?
Pastis: I was in a really tough case involving a broken generator. I was outnumbered by opposing counsel by like 20 to one. I was worn out, and I decided to take a day off work. Through an interview Sparky had given to an underground newspaper inSan Francisco, I had heard that he had this routine where he went to the coffee shop in his ice arena every day at the same time to get his English muffin. I thought, “I want to meet him.” He was always my idol growing up. One misconception about this—and I really paid a price for this, because everyone wants advice from me now, and they say, “How can you not do it, since Sparky gave you advice?”—is that I never went to meet Sparky because I wanted advice on how to get syndicated. I just wanted to meet him because he was my hero. My wife, Staci, was born and raised inSanta Rosa, of all places. Her family has lived here for 60 years. That’s another thing I get a lot: “Oh, you moved toSanta Rosa because that’s where Sparky lived.” My wife’s family was here long before Schulz. So she told me where the ice arena was, and I got in my little Honda and drove up north about an hour.
Heintjes: So you stalked him.
Pastis: I did. It would qualify as stalking today. So I was in the Warm Puppy, sitting at a table in the far corner from his. There was some way you could tell which table was his. I think it had a “reserved” sign on it. And I sat and waited, and nothing happened. It was just me and the little ice skating girls [laughter] doing their morning practice. So I watched them out on the ice, and I just sat there for an hour. At the end of the hour, I said, “Wow, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” I mean, it was just an article in the Bay Guardian or something. What if it was wrong? What if he’s on vacation? What a waste of a drive. And I had taken a day off work. I was just about ready to go, and lo and behold, through the far door, in walks this white-haired guy. I’ll tell you, my hands were shaking. I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous. He got his food, and I waited for him to sit down. Probably, if there had been a videotape of this, I would have looked like such a goon. I’m trying to look like I don’t care, and we’re the only two guys in there. It was so blatant. If you’re not the mother of an ice skater, you’re not there at seven in the morning. So I drank my coffee, and when he was done eating, I went over and made my big mistake. My opening line was, “Hi, Mr. Schulz. My name is Stephan Pastis, and I’m an attorney.”
Pastis: Yeah, really great. The color drained from his face, and he was probably thinking, “I’m going to get served with a subpoena. What a wonderful start to the day, with an English muffin and a subpoena.” So I immediately caught myself, and I said, “No, no, no…I also do a cartoon!” And this is not an exaggeration—I remember this crystal clear—he had the San Francisco Chronicle on the chair on the other side of the table from where he was sitting. The minute I said I drew a cartoon, he cleared the Chronicle off the chair and said, “Oh, have a seat.” That’s all it took. And I was a nobody. You hear these stories about Sparky, particularly in the [David Michaelis] biography, about how he’s misanthropic. He was not misanthropic. I’m misanthropic. Sparky invited a complete stranger to sit next to him. And he didn’t have to. He could very easily have said, “Oh, that’s nice,” shook my hand and said good luck, and he would have gotten points for being polite. But he cleared that seat. We started talking, and he said, “Did you bring your stuff with you?” And I hadn’t, because—as I told you—I didn’t go up for that reason. But I did have some work in the car. Probably in the back of my head was, if he asked me if I was really cartoonist, I could prove it. But I told him I had some work in the car, and he told me to bring it in. Now, I’m really nervous. This is Ted Williams saying, “Let’s see you bat.” I was thinking, “This was just a dumb idea at first; now look what you’ve gotten yourself into.” So I showed him The Infirm, and he looked at it with a little bit of a smile. He certainly didn’t laugh. I suspect he thought it was terrible. Which it was. It wasn’t the worst work I’d ever done, but it was bad. And he said, “You’ve got the complete package.” He said, “You certainly can draw,” which is a great irony, because it’s what I can’t do. But it shows you that he was being nice. And he said two things. He said, “You’ve got to get rid of the narrator—you can never succeed with a narrator. And number two, you’ve got change your pen.” I was using a Penstix marker. He said, “You get no variety in your line with that pen. You’ve got to use a quill pen.” Those were the two tips he gave me. We talked for an hour, I took a picture of him by the fireplace in the Warm Puppy, and I went back home. I didn’t own a computer then, so I had to go to Kinko’s and rent a computer for an hour to write my story down. I wrote down everything he said. By the way, while we were there, he critiqued the entire comics page in the Chronicle. I remember he really liked Mutts and he really liked Rose Is Rose.
Heintjes: Which ones didn’t he like?
Pastis: I don’t want to say, because he was so harsh on those, and the people he was harsh on really respect him. I’d love to tell you, but it was pretty brutal.
Heintjes: This meeting with him must have really inspired you.
Pastis: It really lit the fire. I knew it was something that had to happen. It was a weird gut instinct that I was meant for this. I just knew I had to become a cartoonist.
Heintjes: What was your next step?
Pastis: The next step was to reverse-engineer success. By that I mean to see what was succeeding and figure it why backwards. And in 1996 and ’97, Dilbert was huge. So during my lunch breaks at the law firm, I went to the bookstore in the Embarcadero Center in downtown San Francisco and sat on the floor and read the Dilbert collections. I never actually bought them. I still feel bad about that. I went through them and literally learned how to write a three-panel strip. Part of the reason I chose Dilbert is because, like me, Scott Adams didn’t draw that well, yet he succeeds wildly. So I saw that you don’t have to draw well if you can write like that. That’s a big if, but if you can write like that, you can succeed. There’s a rhythm to Scott’s strips. I’d be hard-pressed to explain it, but subconsciously I know the rhythm for writing a three-panel strip. So I went back home and I just started drawing. This was a different experience. All I was trying to do was be funny. I did not engineer the strip from the top down. I did not give the characters names. I didn’t give them a set place. I did not give them set jobs or a set background. It was basically two stick figures talking to each other. You can still see the legacy of that in my work in a couple of ways. My characters still have stick arms and legs. Some people ask me if I did that as a way to evoke Ignatz Mouse, but I didn’t know Krazy Kat at the time. I did it because it was fast. You can see those stick arms and legs in my characters today. The new characters don’t have them, but the original ones do. The other legacy you see is not giving them names. Their species became their names. The rat became Rat, the pig became Pig. My goal was, just be funny and not to create a top-down strip. In other words, I did not want to create a setting for these characters and make them work within it.
Heintjes: Was there a basic premise?
Pastis: None. I think that’s the difference between success and failure. I think that’s step one, and I don’t think there’s any coming back from that if you choose the wrong way. I’m that convinced of it. Wiley Miller has said much the same thing. You want that slate to be clean. Let’s put it this way: If you just focus on telling jokes, your characters will reveal themselves to you. The place will reveal itself to you. It will all reveal itself to you. Let it spring forth from the jokes, not the other way around. The other way around, you’re just going to limit yourself. Use the whole piano keyboard—don’t just play the middle octaves. Step two was, I didn’t just draw 30 strips. I drew 200.
Pastis: It was made easier by the fact that these were just stick figures. And I didn’t pencil them; I just whipped through them.
Heintjes: You drew these directly in ink?
Pastis: I did.
Heintjes: I assume, then, that you didn’t take the time to master the quill pen.
Pastis: I didn’t. I did try, though. I still don’t know which end of it is up. So I drew 200 of them, and I wanted to pick the best 30 from them. These strips were all different steps from what I had done before. I had studied Dilbert, not engineered it from the top down, I had drawn more than 30 strips. The next thing I did that was different was, I didn’t show it to anyone who liked me—my wife, my family. That’s a huge mistake, and everybody does that. They’re not going to tell you the truth. They’re going to tell you that you’re the next Charles Schulz. That’s not going to help you.
Heintjes: Let me guess: You went to the meanest, orneriest bunch of bastards you knew.
Pastis: I did. I took it to my law firm. Coworkers are awful. They love to tell you you suck. They love to tell you your tie is ugly, that you can’t speak, that your writing sucks. This is a great, great crowd. But you have to be careful—you can’t give them 200 strips at a time. That’s a lot of lost hours in a law firm. But there were four or five people I did show them to, and I had them pick their favorite 30. I used my own common sense too, but from them, I got a consensus 30.
Heintjes: And there was a consensus?
Pastis: It was all over the board, but there certainly were strips that were chosen by all. That still how I choose my submissions to the Reuben Awards—I show people 40–50 strips and have them pick 12. One thing cartoonists do is send their strips to someone to look at. But that’s not going to tell you shit. They’re going to sum up how they felt. Humor’s a unique thing. When it’s done right, people laugh. It’s done reflexively. If you’re not there to see it, you don’t really know. I don’t show my strips to anyone without watching their reaction. I don’t want their summary—I want to see, because a laugh is hard to fake. You know when someone’s faking. You need to show it to someone and watch their reaction. Particularly people who don’t like you.
Heintjes: Were you showing your colleagues the first generation of Pearls Before Swine?
Pastis: Yeah. I had basically taken the three-panel template and photocopied it at Kinko’s, drawn them like crazy, and took them into the firm. I think I took them in in packages of 100 at a time. All they were were Rat and Pig talking. Every single one. They were essentially like they are now, without the fuller bodies.
Heintjes: But they were identified as Rat and Pig.
Pastis: Yes. A very poorly drawn Rat and Pig.
Heintjes: So once you gathered this consensus, what was your next step?
Pastis: I took the best 30 strips and put them on a shelf in the basement, where they sat for 18 months.
Pastis: Because I didn’t want these strips to get rejected, and I knew that if I didn’t submit them, they wouldn’t get rejected. I thought this was my last chance. I thought these were good. I thought these were funny. And if they got rejected, I would probably quit.
Heintjes: I imagine that during these 18 months, you were not enjoying your law career any more than you had been.
Pastis: No, and in fact I think I’d stopped drawing. I think that putting them on a shelf allowed me to hang onto a hope, whereas if it got rejected, with all the new steps I had taken, this was the best I could do. I turned the cry of “you can’t succeed if you don’t try” and made it “you can’t fail if you don’t try.”
Heintjes: What prompted you to take them off the shelf and do something with them?
Pastis: I was at a hearing in Los Angeles. Adjacent to the courthouse was a cemetery. I don’t remember how I knew it, but I knew that a girl I had been close to in college was buried there. She had died at the age of 28 in a rollerblading accident in Central Park. Although we had been very, very close in college, I had never visited her grave. People assumed we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but we weren’t…let me back up a little bit. Where I grew up, in San Marino, it was extraordinarily conservative. It was the home of the John Birch Society. And Berkeley is as far from that as you can imagine. It’s practically communist. So going there for school was a big, eye-opening event. It was a scary time for me, living away from home in such a different place. And this woman took me to a Herman Hesse double feature. She took me to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. She took me to protests against apartheid. I ate Indian food with her. She owned a horse, and she would take me riding. We went toEurope together. Knowing her was just a huge step forward in my maturity. I just loved her, I absolutely loved her.
Heintjes: Are you avoiding naming her?
Pastis: Yeah, because I’ve never told her parents this. I know her death just destroyed them. Maybe they would like to hear this, but in the event they don’t that’s why I don’t say her name. But I was in this huge cemetery, and I searched forever to find her grave. I finally found it. It was a hot July day, and I had my briefcase and my black wool suit, and I was sweating up a storm. I was staring down at her grave, which was weird because I’d never had a peer die. You’re used to seeing graves of old people. And I just felt ashamed. I mean, God bless people who want to be lawyers, but it’s not what I wanted to be, and I felt as if I had just given up. And I just couldn’t explain to her—I think I spoke aloud to her—what I was doing? I hadn’t gone for it. How did you get to this point? What are you doing this for? Some people have interpreted this story as me being ashamed of defending insurance companies, and that’s not it. I was just ashamed of being a lawyer and not becoming a syndicated cartoonist, because she would have really thought that was cool. She would not have been so hip on the attorney thing. So I had that epiphany where I said, “I’ve got to go for it.” So I got on the plane, and the next day, I brought in the 30 strips and used the law firm’s copy machine to copy them, and I mailed them to all the syndicates.
Heintjes: You sent them to all the syndicates you know of, including United?
Pastis: I think this was the first time I sent anything to United. I may be wrong about that, but I don’t think United ever rejected me, only because they never got the chance to [laughter].
Heintjes: What was the response to your submission?
Pastis: Two weeks later, while I was eating Chinese food out of a little carton, I was checking my e-mail. One of the e-mails was from United. Now, even in 1999, you knew what that meant. Rejections are going to come by mail, if at all, and acceptances are going to come by phone or by e-mail. So I got this e-mail, and my heart starts racing. It was from Amy Lago, and it said, “I just wanted to give you a heads-up that we liked your work. There’s a chance that nothing will come of it, but you’ve already made it farther than 90 percent of the submissions that come in.” That was quickly followed by Jay Kennedy saying he was interested, and Tribune Media saying they wanted to put me in some program they had, sort of a fellowship that the Washington Post Writers Group later had. I forget what it was called. So I went from nobody being interested to three syndicates expressing interest.
Heintjes: What was your decision-making process?
Pastis: Well, the first step was dancing around the law firm and showing that letter to everyone. It was pure excitement. The next decision was to get a lawyer, and I got Stu Rees, whom everyone in cartooning gets. Then I looked at the pluses and minuses of each syndicate. They basically all offer the same things. Nowadays, everyone gives you your copyright.
Heintjes: Even then, you didn’t have to negotiate copyright ownership?
Pastis: They put it in the boilerplate, and you change it on the first phone call.
Heintjes: There was no push-back on that issue.
Pastis: None whatsoever. But what it came down to, as much as I loved Jay, he tried to micromanage the strip. For example, he wanted to eliminate Rat and replace him with Zebra.
Heintjes: On what basis?
Pastis: He didn’t think there was any appeal to a rat, and there was more marketability with a zebra. The second thing he wanted was to have the characters smile more. And they’ve never smiled. As much as I loved Jay and he was the reason I kept going, I just didn’t see the future of the strip as one that was micromanaged. As poorly as I drew—and I don’t think I draw that great now—I definitely had a vision for the strip, and I wasn’t going to vary from it. It was going to be what I had in mind, or I wasn’t going to do it. I just can’t do smiling characters. That’s just not me. But Amy left me alone. I don’t think Amy gave me any feedback, except for eliminating the bear. The smart character was going to be a bear, and she thought the goat was better for the smart character. But even that, she didn’t volunteer. I asked her what she thought. Also, Sparky, who really started me off in cartooning, and Scott, whose work I studied, were both with United. So there were all these reasons. I remember when I told Jay—I felt terrible because he really was the reason I’d gotten to the point I had, and I hadn’t forgotten that. But I went with United.
Heintjes: Was this when you began appearing on United’s website?
Pastis: United signed me in December 1999, and they put me in development. I assume your readers know what that is, but in case they don’t, it’s where the syndicate says, OK, you were funny in your submission packet, but for all we know, it took you 10 years to come up with these 30 strips. So we want you to keep drawing, and we’ll watch you. If you’re good, we’ll agree to put you in newspapers. A development period can be anywhere from two weeks to a year. Not all cartoonists have to do it, but most do.
Heintjes: They not only looked at Pearls Before Swine internally, but they also put it on the site then?
Pastis: No, they only look at it internally. And after about three months, around March 2000, they committed to putting it in papers. They picked up the option. Contractually, they were bound to put it in newspapers. At that point, the launch was going to be January 2001, and I was done being a lawyer. I literally had a count of how many days I had left being a lawyer.
Heintjes: For a pragmatic guy, leaving your job as a lawyer to become a cartoonist is a pretty big decision.
Pastis: Yeah. I think my pragmatic nature was thrown over by how much I hated being a lawyer. And then in August 2000—August 8, I can remember the date, how pathetic is that?—Amy Lago called. I’ve heard many different versions of this story from all the different people at the syndicate, but I can only tell you what I was told at the time. She said the strip was shown to the sales staff, and there was one particular salesman—whose name I will not say, because I’m friends with him now [laughter]—who said, “It sucks.” It could not sell. It’s poorly drawn, it’s too dark, and it has no demographics. That was the critical thing: It had no demographics. Nowadays, there are lots of dark strips, but there weren’t at the time. You had to a strip about teenage girls or soccer moms, or you had to appeal to a specific minority or ethnic group or gender or age. And I didn’t. I didn’t have anything. I had the rat and the pig, they didn’t move, and they mostly talked about death.
Heintjes: It seems they would have known that about your work from the first time they saw it. Why was it a problem all of a sudden?
Pastis: That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to it.
Heintjes: Did you ask?
Pastis: I assume they would say that hadn’t shown it to the salesmen. But they were committed to selling it to newspapers. They had picked up the option. But I said to Amy, “What does this mean? “And she said, “You’re free to go.” That is a verbatim quote. “You’re free to go.” And all of a sudden, everything I had was gone. August 2000 was the longest month of my life. I remember that night after night, I stayed up most of the night sitting in a pantry by the back door that had our washer and dryer. I stared out the window at the stars. That’s all I did. I don’t even know why I did it. I couldn’t sleep, and I guess it was comforting.
Heintjes: Your wife was on suicide watch?
Pastis: Yeah, it was horrible. I’ve never told this part of it, but I took all my drawing stuff—my pens, my pencils, my paper—and I packed it away. I was done. Then, Suzanne Whelton with the Washington Post Writers Group contacted me. She had been given the strip by Amy, who wanted to see me syndicated by somebody. Suzanne said she and her boss, Alan Shearer, were going to be in San Francisco, and they wanted to meet me. I thought, “Holy smokes! I’m getting plucked from the ashes!” They met with me, they said they would call me, they went back to Washington, and it was déjà vu all over again. The sales staff at the Washington Post Writers Group didn’t think they could sell it. They had another strip they wanted to launch; I think it was Out of the Gene Pool, which is now called Single and Looking. So it was thanks but no thanks. It was torture, just torture.
Heintjes: So you were contemplating your continuing law career.
Pastis: Yeah, I’m going to be a lawyer for the next 20 years! In the next month, September 2000, Amy called and said, “This isn’t the greatest deal in the world, and you don’t have to say yes, but we’d like to try something.” At the time, their website, comics.com, had only their newspaper strips. That what the site was for. But she said they were going to put me on there to see how I do. Nowadays, that’s done all the time, but it was a novel experiment at the time. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong. I’m not saying I’m the first web-to-print, but I was the first time a syndicate experimented with web-to-print for the purpose of seeing if it would make it. If I’m wrong, I’m sure someone will tell me. So they put it up on comics.com in November 2000, and it did OK. It didn’t do too well.
Heintjes: How do they assess that?
Pastis: They give you monthly stats. I was getting about 2,000 hits a day.
Heintjes: Did they make a whole group of your strips available, or were they parceling them out one a day?
Pastis: One a day, just like everything else on the site. It was neat to get the exposure. It was the first time I had been exposed to an audience.
Heintjes: Did United provide an e-mail link so readers could contact you?
Heintjes: What sort of feedback did you get?
Pastis: I would generally get two or three e-mails a day. Sometimes none. But the e-mails were all good. I look back on them now, and they were all so horribly drawn. I’m sure some people think that now, but if you think that now, you should have seen it then! It was horrible.
Heintjes: I don’t know any cartoonists who like their early work.
Pastis: I don’t ever like my past work. When I get the dummies of my book collections to review prior to publication, those strips lag my current work by about 18 months to two years, and I have never looked at one of those dummies and not grimaced. I cannot believe where I am today. The timing’s off, the drawing is really bad.
Heintjes: So what was the next step in this phase of your career?
Pastis: My next break came in December 2000. I think it was December 19. I’m in the same room I used to draw in, in the basement. And I get an e-mail from Amy. This is another misconception. Some people think I approached Scott, or I knew Scott. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything except to write him a letter once and tell him that he has a great strip. I was not friends with Scott, and I never asked him to do this. Whether United asked him, I don’t know.
Heintjes: You never asked Scott directly in the ensuing years?
Pastis: That’s funny, I never have. I need to do that. I’m probably afraid of the answer [laughter]. Anyway, the long and short of it is that it’s Scott Adams, who is the biggest cartoonist on the planet at this time. This is the cover of Newsweek Scott Adams. She said he’s been reading the strip, he likes it, and he’s going to endorse it on his website. She forwarded me his e-mail, so I saw where he also volunteered to put his endorsement in his Dogbert newsletter. At that time, I was drawing in a room in the basement that had an external door, and the room occasionally flooded, so I had to keep my drawing stuff up high. I remember running out the door into the backyard, up the stairs to the deck and into the back door. The deck was icy, and I almost fell on my face. I grabbed Staci, my wife. It’s weird the moments you pick in your life to be dramatic. Most of them aren’t dramatic. But this was dramatic. I looked her in the eyes and I said, “If I ever become a syndicated cartoonist, this is the moment it happens.” And I was right. We used to get the website stats monthly. The reports would have data for each day, like they still do. It said, “2,000, 2,000, 2,000, 155,000.” And I thought the 155,000 was a summary of the month’s activity, but it was one day. That’s how huge Scott’s audience was. United saw the figures, but they said, “If Scott endorsed Kleenex it would be huge the next day.” They watched it in January, February, March, and I’m just praying. I think in April 2001, Amy said, “We’ll put you in newspapers.” They had Rudy Park and Frazz committed for the next launch dates, so there were no spaces for me. So my launch date was going to be January 2002. They were going to put it in newspapers for real this time.
Heintjes: You must have had a large backlog of strips for them to begin selling, since you had been producing a strip a day for the website.
Pastis: I had a huge lead, and I still have that lead today. I have a seven-and-a-half month lead.
Heintjes: Of course, in the middle of 2001, you couldn’t have foreseen what would happen on September 11.
Pastis: I could not have had a worse launch date. You know, it’s funny how life works…I wonder if Amy would remember this. Amy gave me two meeting dates inNew York. One was in late August, and one was September 13, and I took the late August one. I remember that the flight back was the same as one of the hijacked planes,Newark toSan Francisco, and I’m on it three weeks to the day before September 11. Obviously, there were bigger problems than my strip, but it’s weird to think about. And after the tragedy of September 11, all flights were grounded for, I think, three weeks.
Most people don’t know this, but your sales period is only three months. Cartoonists have a small window. And it’s front-heavy; the salesmen are hitting all the big papers. And there were no sales trips being made until October. So that looked like it would be the end of my strip right there.
Heintjes: And there was also a recession following the September 11 attacks, and that affected newspapers’ spending decisions.
Pastis: It was terrible. And since then, everything else has fallen off for newspapers, but up until that point, it was the worst times they had seen in a long time, sales-wise. So once again, another obstacle, and it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. But somehow, those salespeople got me in 40 or 45 newspapers, including, shockingly, the Washington Post, which stunned my syndicate, because the Post had not even bought Get Fuzzy at the time.
Heintjes: From that point, how did Pearls’ sales go?
Pastis: By the standards of 1996 through 1998, it was a slow launch. But given all the circumstances, with the freeze on everything and the recession, I think it was very successful. It was at least solid enough that I was getting exposure. And picking up the Post was huge. For people trying to get syndicated, it’s important to understand that salesmen hit the big papers first, and they hit the two-newspaper towns first. So you can bet in the first couple of weeks they will run to Chicago. They will run to Denver. They know they’ll get one of the two papers in those cities. And I did: I got the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Denver Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, so I got a footing. And after that, they hope that the smaller papers outsideChicago will pick it up.
Heintjes: Sometimes a syndicate will try to partner a talented new writer with an artist. Did anyone propose that to you?
Pastis: Jay mentioned that. That’s funny—that never comes up when I’m telling this story. It got to the point where Jay said, “You pick him, and I’ll get him.” There’s a guy named Don Asmussen.
Heintjes: He does the Bad Reporter strip.