I’m guessing that something along these lines ran through Stephan Pastis’ mind once he realized that being an associate at a large San Francisco law firm just wasn’t his vibe. Pastis recounted his journey from attorney to comic strip creator at last night’s author signing event at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.
Seems he used to leave the law firm for lunch and hit the local bookstore — sitting on the floor in a suit and tie as he read through every “Dilbert” comic strip he could get his hands on. By then, he’d drawn oodles of strips, sent them to the folks who place such things in newspapers and started a lovely collection of rejection letters.
When he realized in 1997 that what he’d been doing wasn’t working, he decided to study the work of an artist whose work was all the rage. Hence the daily “Dilbert” pilgrimages. Today Pastis has his own devotees, including the 170 or so who flocked to Changing Hands Bookstore Thursday night.
Pastis’ own father was there, as were fans ages three and up. Pastis treated his audience to a lengthy bit of storytelling ala slides showing examples of his works — which feature the adventures of a rat, pig, pack of crocodiles and other creatures with a gift for sarcasm many call “dark” and “edgy.”
In one strip, a character finds that part of his Christmas nativity scene has been stolen. The final panel shows Pig walking door to door asking “Have YOU found Jesus?” Pastis’ works are sometimes irreverent, but always lighthearted rather than acerbic. Still, he has a sizeable collection of letters from folks who’ve failed to appreciate particular pieces of his humor through the years.
Pastis shared tales of meeting other comic strip legends — Charles Schultz (or “Sparky”), Bill Keane, Cathy Guiseweit and others. Folks who attend future stops on Pastis’ current tour will enjoy hearing stories of “naked Twister” and other misadventures. Not to worry — no real nudity is involved.
“Pearls Before Swine” fans are accustomed to the strip’s violent themes, which others sometimes fail to appreciate. Pastis seems a bit puzzled by their disdain, noting that he grew up watching “Bugs Bunny” and other cartoons with plenty of death and destruction.
Other early influences cited by Pastis include “Tom and Jerry” on television and “The Far Side” in print. “I could watch Laurel and Hardy endlessly,” says Pastis — who also shares that “the most exciting moment of my life” came each week during the last five minutes of “Saturday Night Live,” when “Mr. Bill” came on.
The odds of having a successful syndicated comic strip are infinitesimal, observes Pastis. A syndicated strip, by the way, is one placed in multiple outlets by a single agent representing the artist. “Every syndicate gets 6,000 submissions a year,” according to Pastis, who adds that “they accept just one.”
“In the first year,” notes Pastis, “five out of six new comic strips fail.” Hence, he cites the odds of successful syndication at one in 36,000. You have a better chance, reflects Pastis, of being hit by lightning or dying after falling off a ladder. I suppose the most cynical comic strip creators will run with this lovely factoid — hauling their paper and pens up ladders during rainstorms to do their best work.
Pastis stayed after his presentation at Changing Hands Bookstore to sign autographs inside copies of his latest book, titled “Larry in Wonderland.” Also other books, t-shirts and “Pearls Before Swine” plush toys. He tends to favor the bottoms of the plush Rats and Pigs, noting that they’re smoother than the other body parts and easier to sign.
Pastis was patient, gracious and genuinely engaged with every person he spoke with — including several folks who offered storyline ideas and the many children and teens eager to discuss their own love of drawing or writing. Every autograph Pastis signed Thursday night included a drawing of Rat.
My own daughter, Jennifer, jokingly asked Pastis to inscribe a book with “Dear eBay customer” and got her wish. Sensing my dismay Pastis asked, “Is this going to turn into a fight in the car?” I assured Pastis we’d be on to a different fight by then. He laughed with twinkling eyes and an infectious smile.
Pastis and his wife have two children of their own, whose names are hidden in the cover art of most Pastis books. You can try to find them if ever you’re lucky enough to be standing in line waiting to meet this remarkable storyteller, artist and humorist.
Note: Click here to read Pastis’ “Pearls Before Swine” blog, and here to learn about future events taking place at Changing Hands Bookstore (plus the bookstore’s participation in Saturday’s Arizona Humanities Festival in downtown Phoenix). Click here to read an earlier post about Pastis titled “When Pigs Fly.”
Coming up: Banter with the Blue Man Group, “Midsummer” meets “Arabian Nights,” Celebrating the humanities — festival style