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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest Passages: Stephan Pastis of ‘Pearls Before Swine’ tells of run-ins with his own comic heroes

Stephan Pastis, the creator of the comic strip “Pearls Before Swine,” shared jokes and stories about his career as a newspaper comic artist at a Northwest Passages Book Club event Tuesday night.

Edgy and self-referential, “Pearls” features a cast of animal characters along with Pastis himself.

But before it appeared in hundreds of newspapers across the country, Pastis was an unsatisfied insurance defense attorney in the Bay Area. He began doodling nights and weekends, and sometimes in court, he said.

Newspaper syndicates repeatedly rejected his ideas, until one agreed to test his strips online. The comics didn’t get much attention until “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams publicly endorsed the strip.

“The next day I got 157,000 hits from Scott alone,” Pastis said.

“Pearls Before Swine” was syndicated in 2001, debuting in the Washington Post.

In conversation with Spokesman-Review Editor Rob Curley, Pastis discussed the stories behind some of his comics.

Pastis was fortunate enough to meet his two biggest influences, Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson.

He met Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” at Schulz’s café in Santa Rosa, California, where Pastis now lives.

“I got into this because of Schulz,” Pastis said. “He was everything to me.”

Pastis approached Schulz and made the mistake of introducing himself as an attorney.

“I think that was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life,” Pastis said.

After assuring him he wasn’t being sued, Pastis showed his work, and Schulz gave him feedback and encouragement.

His other hero, “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Watterson, is famously reclusive.

So, Pastis wrote to him, taking a risk by including an original comic strip in which Pastis woos a woman at a bar by telling her he writes Calvin and Hobbes. The two are in bed together by the next panel.

“Oh yeah, that used to happen to me all the time,” Watterson replied.

To Pastis’ surprise, Watterson offered to guest draw several days of “Pearls Before Swine,” under the conditions that Pastis not reveal him as the artist until the end and there be no media interviews.

The resulting strips were auctioned for Parkinson’s disease research.

Pastis said the strip that has had the biggest response over the past two decades was an endearing elegy to his real-life dog, Edee, who had to be put down.

“My way of coping was to write that,” Pastis said, emotionally.

Pastis uses a residential condo for a studio a few miles from his home, where he listens to music as he creates. His newest routine is to walk and write using his phone’s voice memo app.

His latest book, “Pearls Seeks Enlightenment,” features 18 months of daily strips from 2020-21, along with his commentary for each.

“I tell you if it’s good strip or a bad strip or what I was thinking about that day,” he said. “For me, it is fun to comment on the strip. It gets a little more meta that way. You’re in on it with me.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.