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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

It’s more will than skill to become a successful cartoonist like Stephan Pastis

Stephan Pastis  (Courtesy)
By Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

The question for some humorists is whether to go with comedy or the courtroom. The late Greg Giraldo, Emmy Award winner Paul Mecurio and even John Cleese of Monty Python all earned their law degrees but thumbed their noses at lucrative careers in favor of the pursuit of their comedy dreams.

Stephan Pastis, who is in Spokane Tuesday for a Northwest Passages event at the Bing Crosby Theatre, understands. Pastis, 55, has earned acclaim for creating his humorous comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” and the children’s chapter book series, “Timothy Failure.” His creative success, however, has been a second act for Pastis. After earning a B.A. in political science at the University of California Berkeley, Pastis studied law at UCLA and became an insurance defense litigation attorney in San Francisco.

“I never liked working as a lawyer for the nine years I spent at an insurance defense firm,” Pastis said while calling from his Santa Rosa, California, home. “It was only a matter of time before I decided to go in another direction.”

Law was Pastis’ career choice due to economics. Pastis’ parents are Greek immigrants, who struggled to make ends meet in Southern California.

“We never had much money when I was growing up,” Pastis said. “Being a lawyer was a way to make money. I knew I was good at debating. It just seemed like the thing to do for security. But when I look back at it, there’s no doubt that was a terrible reason to pursue a career in law.”

Drawing was a favorite hobby for Pastis since he was a child.

“I was never a good artist, but I liked putting pen to paper,” Pastis said. “I was a big fan of the ‘Peanuts’ strip. But early on, I never thought I could become a cartoonist. I thought my lack of artistic skills was going to do me in. I had no hope when it came to being a cartoonist.”

That changed when Pastis discovered Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” strip during the 1990s.

“Scott’s not a great artist, either,” Pastis said. “When I saw what he was doing, I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this, too.’ ”

Pastis would draw whenever he had the opportunity.

“I would work at it at night and over the weekends,” Pastis said. “It goes back to how I approached drawing in school. I drew (strips) in high school and in college and for the law school newspaper. It was always my passion.”

After coming up with his “Pearls Before Swine” concept, Pastis pitched his strip. On Dec. 31, 2001, it became syndicated.

“I couldn’t have been happier,” Pastis said. “I had a new career. I’m doing what I was meant to do.”

Pastis’ advice for fledgling artists is to take a chance and go for it.

“But it won’t be easy or automatic,” Pastis said. “You’ll have to work hard and be OK with taking rejection at the end of the day. It’s more will than skill in this business. Follow your heart. I wish I didn’t wait until I did, but it all worked out in the end.”