Using Skype to interview Stephan Pastis, the creator of comic strip hit "Pearls Before Swine," can be a challenge.
"I'm like a crow that sees shiny things," says the celebrated cartoonist, who interrupts my questions to, among other things, compliment me on my window shades and ask about items on a nearby bookshelf. His distractibility is just one aspect of an affable, candid and self-deprecating personality that draws hundreds of fans to his bookstore visits.
In the years since it debuted in 2001, "Pearls Before Swine" has developed the kind of strong, cross-generational appeal shared by few strips since "Peanuts." Pastis has populated a world with a cast of distinct animal characters — the caustic Rat, the easygoing Pig, the intellectual Goat — who play off each other like members of a veteran comedy troupe, integrating visits from other comic-strip characters and even the cartoonist himself.
The winner of the National Cartoonists Society's best newspaper comic strip award in 2003 and 2006, Pastis is touring the country in support of his new collection, "Pearls Falls Fast: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury." The Richmond venue for his visit has been upgraded twice to handle the expected crowd. The cartoonist spoke with Style Weekly from his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Style: One of my favorite aspects of your strip is that you're a recurring character. When did you decide to go "meta?"
Pastis: I did one strip many years ago where I pretended to have my friend draw the strip for a day and he turned it into this thing where he just ripped on me. I thought it was funny to use myself as the butt of jokes. That strip seemed to get a good response so I did it again and again. And like anything else I do in the strip, I do it really for only one reason, which is that it amuses me. It also seems to be an avenue that's filled with possibilities. I interact with my characters and they hate me. So it's kind of a Dr. Frankenstein thing.
Some cartoonists take continuity very seriously so that events in one strip are consistent with things that happened in previous strips. But you'll have Pig break up with his girlfriend, Pigita, and then a couple of weeks later they're back together. Do you care about continuity?
I pay no attention to that at all [laughs]. Sometimes I'll have 100 or more strips that I've drawn and, as I'm going through them to send to the syndicate, I just grab the ones I like. But also I love having a total lack of continuity. I think it's funny.
In your news releases, you're described as a "comics rock star." So when you do a book tour, do you have roadies?
Man, I wish I did! You know what's really sad: When I'm out promoting "Pearls," I'm all alone. It creates funny situations. Like at the end of the book-signing, there will be hundreds of people there. Then we'll finish and it'll be late at night and the bookstore manager will say, "Is your ride picking you up here?" And I'll go, "Uh, can you call me a cab?" So they end up feeling sorry for me. Inevitably some poor bookstore employee will end up driving me back to my hotel in a very unglamorous fashion.
Your collections always include your commentary on specific strips where you talk about the controversy that some of your characters, like your obnoxious cyclist, have generated. Do you ever do a strip trying to get a response?
Almost never. Sometimes it looks like I'm doing that but more often than not, I have no idea. Like the cyclist — I just thought that cyclists could be arrogant, so I thought it was funny. But what got me in trouble was just a throwaway line where I tried to run him over. Like anything I do, I don't take it too seriously but I just stumbled upon the issue for cyclists. If I had known that, I wouldn't have written that line.
Characters from other strips such as "Superman" as "Family Circus" make cameo appearances in your strip. Do you have any notable cameos coming up?
Coming soon will be one where Garfield dies. He's this rich fat cat and he's killed and Rat gets his head cut off as a result. I'm hoping ["Garfield" cartoonist] Jim Davis doesn't get mad at me. S
Stephan Pastis is scheduled to appear at Swift Creek Middle School, 3700 Old Hundred Road, at 7 p.m. on March 27. Details available by calling Fountain Bookstore at 788-1594 or visiting fountainbookstore.com/event.