Pearls Before Swine- comic relief in dark times
Pearls Awaits the Tide: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury
Stephan Pastis 2021
I'm one of the dinosaurs that still read the daily newspaper. I read it for four things
- The front page to give me a snapshot of what's going on in the world and my community. Good journalism is the rock of my information base.
- The sports page to tell me how my local teams are doing.
- The editorial page to challenge my opinions and puts the news into context.
- And the comics pages to make the other three go down smoothly and give me a chuckle for the day.
Comic strips started coming into their own during the depression. when people truly needed a lift, and they've continued as a critical part of the newspaper industry into today a century later. We can only take so much depressing news, and our deep-seated negativity biases put more weight on bad news stories over good ones. Comedy helps to take some of the edge off of the bad news of the day, making even the worst of it seem bearable while reminding us to laugh at the absurdities of everyday life. Late night talk shows from Johnny Carson's Tonight Show to Stephen Colbert's The Late Show have tried to intermix comic bits with real news, and their talented writing staffs have helped put bad news into healthier perspectives. Perhaps they know that going to bed with a smile on your face helps wipe away the day's negativity.
While many of the great cartoonists- Charles Schulz, Gary Larson, Mort Walker, Bill Watterson and Johnny Hart have died or retired, some of their strips have lived on through reruns or new people taking them over. Pearls Before Swine is, in my humble opinion, the best current comic strip by far, and this treasury, Pearls Awaits the Tide, does not disappoint with its full collection of mostly 2019 strips. Treasuries differ from most comic strip anthologies in that they present both color and black and white reprints, added with commentary from the cartoonist that can be both enlightening and silly.
I tend to forget most of what I read in the newspaper from year to year, but the comic strips stay with me forever. The comic strip royalty that I will always treasure include Peanuts, The Far Side, Bloom County, Doonesbury, Dilbert, and Calvin & Hobbes. These strips have to come up with over 200 original jokes or insights every year, which can't be easy. The best ones not only make us laugh, but make us think, and even touch our heart. Pearls does all three of those things.
Pearls is drawn by Stephan Pastis, an ex-lawyer from California who walked away from the legal profession to pursue his passion of drawing funny animals. Pastis idolized Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, meeting him once and even volunteering at the Schulz museum not far from his home. His strips are a mixture of bad puns, irreverent commentary on society, and playful poking at both himself and other cartoonists. He regularly breaks the fourth wall to appear in his own strip, and it's always in a self-deprecating way that makes his characters seem smarter than him.
Pearls Before Swine contains a comic ensemble of animal characters, but the two most important are named simply "Rat" and "Pig". Rat was Pastis' first creation, coming a decade before the strip was ever picked up, as a bored lawyer's doodle. Rat was an irreverent, immoral little asshole who would say whatever was on his mind, as long as it was funny. Pastis soon learned that Rat was just too dark of a character to be in a strip by himself, and eventually added more animal characters for balance.
Rat says a lot of things we'd like to say, and his musings can be dark and cynical but still ring true. He speaks the unspoken truths that most of us think but never say. But Rat rarely gets away with anything, on rare occasions even being nice. Here is a typical rat strip from the treasury:
In contrast to Rat, the true star of Pearls is Pig, a sweet, naive, and simple character who rarely understands the punch lines he creates. Where Rat is the strips' Id, Pig is its heart. Pig cares about his fellow creatures, even his "girlfriend", Pigita, who is always putting him down. His sweet vulnerability is exposed regularly, and while the strip pokes gentle fun at his stupidity, he ends up with the best lines of the comic pages. The interplay between Rat and Pig is Yin and Yang at its best, with Pig usually coming out on top. Here is my favorite Pig strip.
Other notable characters include Goat, the resident intellectual, who is given little to do other than comment on the lunacy around him. If Pig is the heart, and Rat is the Id, then Goat is the logical brain. Like with humans, the brain generally is powerless against the other two forces.
Zebra plays the hapless prey of the hilariously clueless Crocodiles, and their back and forth is always a highlight. Their interplay reminds me of Road Runner and Coyote, if the coyote were 10 times stupider and could talk.
There are a few humans in the Pearls universe, most notably cyclist Jeff, who Pastis paints as egotistical and stuck up, and the Comic Book Censor, a caricature of cancel culture who's always a step behind the naughty bits that Pastis slips through. But the most important human character is Pastis himself, who inserts himself regularly into the strip to poke fun at himself. Pastis loves a bad pun, but he punishes himself through his characters after each one. Here is a Pastis strip from the treasury:
And then once in a while, on the full-color, oversized panels for the Sunday newspapers, Pastis throws out all his characters and gets on his soapbox to advocate for something he truly cares about. He uses his platform to tout the importance of reading books, having an independent mind, supporting local newspapers, and being kind to each other. These beautiful and poignant bits of comedy make my newspaper subscription worth every penny. Here is one from the treasury.
The steady stream of news today can be disheartening and confusing. Our brains are wired to look for the worst of it and discount the good stuff. That's why it's so important to have people like Stephen Pastis and comic strips like Pearls to help us put it into perspective and laugh at it. I encourage people to support their local newspapers whenever possible. For those who don't or can't read a local newspaper, check his strips out on his Facebook page or GoComics.com , or buy these treasuries, of which this one is number 12.
Cartoonists have one of the toughest paths to publishing. It took Pastis nearly a decade to get noticed, and very few strips break through anymore because of all the old strips (Blondie, Family Circus, Beetle Bailey) that won't ever die. If we're lucky, we get one or two cartoonists per generation that become popular enough to make a difference, and this strip is one of the rare ones. Keep watching the news for sure, especially from professional, varied sources- but mix that with some comic relief whenever possible, because all the news in the world won't help you if you lose your faith in humanity.