What's On Your Ballot?: Stephan Pastis, Cartoonist of 'Pearls Before Swine'

Stephan Pastis outside of his Santa Rosa home on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020.  (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.

To the uninitiated, Pearls Before Swine appears deceptively simple. The daily comic strip, which is penned by Santa Rosa’s Stephan Pastis and appears in more than 650 newspapers, takes place in a suburb. Its cast of characters are all named for their species: Rat, Pig, Zebra, Goat. They talk to neighbors, read the news, watch TV, and occasionally have a beer at the bar.

But you only need to read Pearls for a week for the strip’s wry blend of black comedy and pathos—biting social commentary, pure tenderness and some extremely stupid puns—to worm their way into your heart. Pearls has clear spiritual ancestors in Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, and Bloom County. But the world Pastis has created is all his own.

It’s also a world where politics color the characters’ lives, with real headlines seeping into the story—sometimes with a wink, but always in a way that feels natural. Pointed, never forced. It’s a dance that has occasionally landed Pastis on the wrong side of his syndicate, or of individual newspapers, which have no qualms about censoring strips that don’t meet their standards for the funny pages—in 2016, this meant nixing a strip that referenced NSA wiretapping and ISIS. (It has also, to be fair, meant humor that would not be out of place in a 7th grade gym class.)

Pastis spoke to me by phone in September, the day after the Dark Orange Sky.—Emma Silvers

As we head into the election, what do you make of the political climate in the United States right now?

I think we're all pretty locked in, right? Everyone is really polarized. What's going to happen is going to happen. And I pray for this country because I'm scared. This has nothing to do with right or left. I'm scared that people don't recognize that a democracy is fragile and that when it goes away for expediency, it really goes away. I think when you don't read, and you're not informed, and you don't care, and the numbers of those people are in the majority, we're in trouble.

And that goes beyond Trump. As much as people like to wave the flag, the truth is that what makes us unique is that crazy, messy democracy and our Bill of Rights. And if you don't value it, you are going to lose it. This doesn’t feel like a Republican vs. Democrat thing. This feels like saving who we are. I hope I'm wrong, but some of the norms that we have broken, we should not have broken.

The demonization of journalists is especially frightening to me. Because when we don't have Congress as a check, we have to lean more heavily on the other two branches, judiciary and journalism. The strain and pressure on those two to play catch-up has been tremendous. And that [journalists are] simultaneously being attacked is just crazy.

Stephan Pastis draws a quick sketch at his studio on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. The cartoonist prefers to work on a flat surface using a short chair.
Stephan Pastis draws a quick sketch at his studio on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. The cartoonist prefers to work on a flat surface using a short chair. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

Pearls Before Swine started just a couple months after 9/11, and I know you caught some flak early on for criticizing then-President George W. Bush. How would you describe your approach to politics in the strip?

When I started out, I was just a kid who didn’t know any better, so I was pretty fearless. But one thing I learned from trial and error is that when you name a party, and you’re explicit about it, you do two things. One, you set aside half your audience that day, [people] who might otherwise like you. And two, and this is the more dangerous one, you allow the audience to get a handle on you. And they should never have a handle on you.

To me, DeNiro was a better actor before he started doing interviews because you didn’t really know what he was like, you know? Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he’s in a movie, that comes with a lot. You go, ‘Oh, that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.’ And I don’t think that’s good. I think you kind of want to be as invisible as possible.

I also think everyone is pretty much set in stone at this point—team red, team blue—so when you lead with politics now, it’s just an automatic flip of the switch. So I don’t come at it from that angle. What I’ve learned I can get away with is to come at it from a systemic angle. For example, [to call out] people not making any effort whatsoever to inform themselves.

So you don’t criticize Trump by name.

To me, Trump is not the problem. The problem is we elected him. You probably know people in your family like him. We all have that one relative like that guy. If it’s not him, it’s going to be another one of us some day.

So you look at what’s systemic: One [idea] I try to hit is that it is so dangerous when people get their news from social media platforms that are not vetted. [KQED] and every other responsible outlet, if you say something wrong, someone can get sued. But Facebook, when most people get their news from that, there's no accountability, and you’re letting in all these other countries to influence your election. That’s on us. All these things you see, from people not believing climate change, to Trump, it comes from us. We caused that.

'Pearls Before Swine,' July 28, 2019.
'Pearls Before Swine,' July 28, 2019. (Stephan Pastis)

So I hit those things, and if I hit those things well, you don’t quite know which side I’m on, but it doesn’t really matter, either. Hopefully I’ve gotten you to think that you really should subscribe to your local newspaper. Because, for example, when the Tubbs fire hit in 2017, the Press Democrat was all we had, and it became really critical. [The Press Democrat subsequently won a Pulitzer for its fire reporting.—Ed.]

Also, on a productivity level, I just want people to talk to each other. I didn't realize until 2016 how much of a bubble I was in. We have to listen to each other, so I don't want to get you in a way that makes you defensive. I’d rather talk to you, because I bet there are areas we agree on. So that was an evolution for me. I was not there when I started. I was just a kid who, if I found something funny, I said it. And I suppose the strip reflects that. It changes as I change.

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How do you view your role during this time, as an artist? Do you have a responsibility to comment on what’s happening, or just to provide a moment of relief and entertainment for people? Some combination?

I think my duty is to make people laugh. But over the past year, for the first time in my career, I have also felt a responsibility to comfort. So I pretty much gave the strip over to Pig, who’s uniquely suited for that. He has a genuinely good heart. I feel what all of us feel, real fear and desperation. But I have this platform where I can make people feel just a little better for three seconds. So I’ve done that as much as I can.

Comic strip characters are in an interesting position. I sometimes equate them to this guy—there used to be this guy in our old neighborhood in North Berkeley, who would stand on his lawn and wave to everybody as they drove to work in the morning, and people loved it. And that always stuck in my head because I think that’s one of my jobs: people are getting up in the morning, they have their coffee, they have all their routines, and they want to see this person or character that makes them happy for just a second. About the same amount of time it would take you to drive past that guy. And I think, now more than ever, that's my job, because the need for it is really huge.

Stephan Pastis flips through his book ‘Pearls Goes Hollywood.’ Pastis says he enjoyed making small nod at Santa Rosa in the book’s pull-out poster.
Stephan Pastis flips through his book ‘Pearls Goes Hollywood.’ Pastis says he enjoyed making small nod at Santa Rosa in the book’s pull-out poster. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

Are there any local measures, or issues that aren't necessarily giant national talking points, that you’re particularly invested in?

Well, our local one is giant, which is that if you don't believe climate change is real, the past week has taught you that. It is so frightening what we're experiencing. There was a moment during the lightning storms in August where a breeze blew through our house that was so hot, it was unlike anything I'd ever felt before.

Nobody else, no other countries are debating climate change. It would be like fighting about oxygen and whether it's necessary. Or masks! How do you debate masks?! What do you do if someone walks up to you and says "Yeah, gravity, people say it's there, I don't know..." What do you do? Like, even if everyone was wrong about [fossil fuels and pollution causing] climate change, wouldn't you like to live in a world where you could breathe the air, where there wasn't the chance of an Exxon Valdez [oil spill]?. This stuff drives me nuts.

Some things do encourage me. The younger generation encourages me. This stuff with the NBA and activism [protesting police brutality] encourages me. There was this great, challenging bit that I think about a lot from Dave Chapelle, who I think might be a prophet. He explained that he saw the election of Trump as Emmett Till—a horrible tragedy that ultimately lets everyone see the face of this thing, and that it's around you. And that once you can see it, and acknowledge its presence, then we can start to deal with it. I thought that was really prescient and really smart. A light got shone, and everyone got to see what, of course, lots of people have already been talking about for years.

'Pearls Before Swine,' May 23, 2020.
'Pearls Before Swine,' May 23, 2020. (Stephan Pastis)

After the election—no matter how it goes—what are your hopes and goals for the country, and for the Bay Area?

That we are engaged, and that we see our responsibility to support some form of local journalism, because without it we will feel the pain. And maybe we get a little less materialistic while we're at it.

Stay up on 'Pearls Before Swine' here, or on Stephan Pastis' Twitter. And, if you're a 'Calvin & Hobbes' fan, be sure to read Pastis' story of secretly collaborating with Bill Watterson.

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