Tag Archives: comic strips

Spielberg tales

I lived with my mother by the ocean for many years — first in Alaska, later in Hawaii and California’s Bay Area. She found the beach infinitely more appealing than the water itself, due in large measure to the movie that introduced us to the work of Steven Spielberg. It was “Jaws,” released in 1975.

I vividly recall the afternoon we hit the theater to see “Jaws” together — though saying we actually “saw” the film is a bit of a stretch. We spent most of the movie huddled together trying to hold back our screams. It’s one of the few things I remember actually experiencing with my mom at that age. I was on the cusp of a difficult phase and convinced she was the barrier to all my bliss.

I lost my mother to cancer more than a decade ago, but plenty of things still call her to mind. Even the 1982 Spielberg film titled “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” I remember her watching “E.T.” often once it was released on video tape, and getting especially teary-eyed during the “phone home” scene — perhaps because her only child was off at college and readying to wed when the movie first opened.

Among films directed by Spielberg, my own early favorites include “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”– released in 1977. My three children enjoyed a “close encounter” of sorts with Spielberg and his family one day after we watched them pile out of a minivan and file up the pathway to a neighbor’s front door.

Apparently the little gingerbread-like house we once owned on a quiet Arcadia street was right across from the home Spielberg lived in while attending Arcadia High School. When our children simply couldn’t contain their excitement, James walked them dutifully across the street to say hello to the man whose movies they found simply enchanting.

Millions of us grew up with Spielberg’s own unique spin on storytelling, from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) to “Jurassic Park” (1993) — and beyond. Another generation can now do the same, thanks to two films being released in late December.

“The Adventures of Tintin,” based on a beloved comic strip by a Belgian who used the pen name Hergé, is directed by Spielberg — and opens in American movie theaters on Dec. 21. It’s a bit of history meets mystery featuring “Billy Elliot” actor Jamie Bell as “the young reporter whose love of a good story thrusts him into a world of high adventure.”

“War Horse,” a Spielberg-directed film scheduled to open in the U.S. on Dec. 25, is a love story of sorts — between a boy and a beloved horse sent with soldiers into battle during World War I. It’s based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo and the 2011 Tony Award winner for best play.

I saw “War Horse” performed earlier this year at Lincoln Center, with my youngest daughter Lizabeth. We held each other and got teary-eyed throughout, moved by the power and beauty of the story we’re now eager to enjoy together on the big screen.

Lizabeth is a freshman studying acting at Pace University in New York City, living on a dedicated “film floor” inside one of the school’s dorms — where students routinely gather to watch and discuss a diverse selection of films. She’ll get to attend tapings of the Bravo television series “Inside the Actors Studio” featuring James Lipton.

The show — which features interviews with famous folks from the crafts of theater, television and film — is taped at Pace University, home to the Actors Studio Drama School (which offers the M.F.A. in acting, directing and playwriting).

Still, I know nothing will ever match Lizabeth’s excitement at running across the street in bare feet to meet the Mr. Spielberg she considers not only a legendary filmmaker, but also — quite simply — a very gracious man.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about “The Adventures of Tintin” and here to learn more about “War Horse.” To enjoy a Michael Cieply piece titled “What Makes Spielberg Jump?” from The New York Times, click here.

Coming up: Mask-maker musings, Tales from a fourth world, A leaf of faith?


Oh, Rats!

Stephan Pastis chats with young fans at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe

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 poses with a 3-year-old fan at Changing Hands

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.

Both Jennifer (above) and her sister Lizabeth are long-time fans of "Pearls Before Swine"

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.

— Lynn

NoteClick 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

When pigs fly

When our son Christopher was born, we used a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip to announce his birth. “Calvin and Hobbes” is the work of advertising exec turned cartoonist Bill Watterson, who named the 6-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger after a French theologian and an English philosopher.

I left doctoral studies in philosopy and religion to be a stay-at-home mom, so it’s no surprise that “Calvin and Hobbes” resonated at the time. But nowadays another comic strip speaks to us as parents — and people. It’s Stephan Pastis’ “Pearls Before Swine.”

The first Pearls Before Swine compilation was published by Andrews McMeel in 2003

Pastis is a second-generation Greek American born and raised in an L.A. suburb who says he’s never had formal training as an artist or cartoonist. Seems Pastis honed his art with lots of drawing time alone in his room. He began drawing “Pearls Before Swine” in 1997.

Pastis holds a political science degree from UC Berkeley and a law degree from UCLA. He drew his first “Pearls Before Swine” character (Rat) during a class on the European economic community. Seems boredom was an early secret to Pastis’ success.

I recall Tony-Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda sharing a similar tale when we chatted a few years ago during the cast party for “In the Heights” at ASU Gammage. Apparently the playwright and actor first penned parts of the musical during astronomy classes when he should have been taking notes.

Croc and Rat plush toys

“Pearls Before Swine,” now published in more than 600 newspapers worldwide, was named after a famous saying from the New Testament. It’s about the friendship and foibles of an arrogant rat and a dim-witted pig. Together, Rat and Pig offer “caustic commentary on humanity’s quest for the unattainable.”

Pastis once practiced law in San Francisco. Today he lives in Santa Rosa with his wife Staci and their two children — reading American history books in his spare time. It’s no wonder his work resonates so well here in our house, where Jennifer dreams of a life in San Francisco and swaps history books with her equally history-obsessed dad.

Pearls Before Swine Pig

I used to dream of retiring so I’d have time to read my swelling stack of Sunday magazines from The New York Times. These days I’m leaning more towards Pastis pearls like “The Ratvolution Will Not be Televised,” “The Crass Menagerie,” “When Pigs Fly” and “Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My!” All illustrate “the flaws and shortcomings of human nature.”

Pastis’ latest work, titled “Larry in Wonderland: A Pearls Before Swine Collection,” will be released on Oct 4. It features the antics of Mad Ducker, Cheshire Snuffles, Tweedledum Pig and Tweedledee Idiot Pig. Also Raterpillar, Zebra and Larry the Croc — all well-known to fans of the award-winning comic strip.

You can meet Pastis at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe Thurs, Oct 20, at 7pm. I learned of the teen & adult event thanks to a Changing Hands “Educators Preview” e-mail listing an impressive slate of author events. The e-mail also notes that Pastis is available for high school visits that day.

When Pigs Fly was published by Andrews McNeel in 2010

Be sure and look for us in the history, art or philosophy sections if you attend. In the meantime, head to www.comics.com to explore animated versions of the “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip. They debuted in late January, but you can catch up thanks to the online archive.

Remimd me to use a “Pearls Before Swine” strip the next time we want to announce news of a new baby. Though, come to think of it, that’ll only happen “when pigs fly.”

— Lynn

Coming up: A double dose of fairy tales, Valley theater by the numbers, Fun with free concerts, AriZoni nominations