For those who read the funny pages, the name Stephan Pastis should sound familiar. A former lawyer, Pastis is the cartoonist behind Pearls Before Swine, a critically acclaimed comic strip syndicated in more than five hundred U.S. newspapers. The National Cartoonists Society awarded it the Best Newspaper Comic Strip in 2003 and 2006. We recently chatted with the self-described “goofball” to find out how he got the hell out of the law, what the life of a prolific cartoonist is really like, and his favorite curse word.]
Where did you go to law school, Stephan?
Did you practice law before you became a cartoonist?
Yes. I practiced in San Francisco at Thornton, Taylor, Downs, Becker. We did insurance defense litigation. As firms go, they are pretty cool.
What was your worst moment in the law?
The worst moment was the worst because I was scared sh*tless at this deposition. I was at a depo with a lawyer who was a really big, nasty guy. He was getting angrier and angrier. I can’t remember why, [I think] he was just that kind of a guy. Anyway, at one point, he unclipped his tie and threw it at me.
What did you do?
I ducked. I’m pretty quick. There were a lot of bad depos, but that was the worst.
What was the best moment?
That’s tough. I don’t know if there were a lot of good moments. I guess anytime I won it felt good. And there were some summary judgments where I just knocked down the opposition’s case. That felt pretty good. But I can’t really think of a best moment.
What’s a typical day in the life of a cartoonist? Is it better than practicing law?
There’s no question, being a cartoonist is way better. The worst day as cartoonist is better than best day as lawyer.
First, I do what I want. Period. [This is] how I start my day: I drive into beautiful Napa Valley. I go to a café, take a seat, write, drink coffee, and listen to my iPod. After a few hours I have a few strips. Then I come home and turn on more music. Lately, I’ve also been listening to the commentary on The Simpsons DVDs. I might also sit around in my boxers at home and draw. I light incense. I drink more coffee.
Good coffee, incense, music, and working in your boxers are four pluses to not practicing law.
Is three strips a lot to write in a day?
It is. I’m eight months ahead of deadline. That’s very nice. But I like doing it, so it doesn’t feel like work. A lot of cartoonists complain about a deadline or the workload, but I say you should try being a lawyer. Writing three comic strips in a day is nothing compared to the dread of having to answer one interrogatory.
Do you think being a lawyer helps you get ahead of deadline?
Not to be too dramatic, but when you’ve been in prison and then suddenly you’re not in prison, everything else just feels like playing around. You won’t take the freedom for granted. So, I guess the fact that I’m not practicing is what keeps me ahead of deadline. Law isn’t exactly a prison, but it’s close.
Keeping with that metaphor, how did you escape from prison, switching from lawyer to cartoonist?
I used to draw on weekends and at night. I always wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist. Once I had about 30 strips, I would submit them to syndicates. But the odds of making it are about 6,000 to 1. It’s really a long shot. I would submit and get a rejection letter. Finally I hit with Pearls and they liked it. I think I wrote something like, “Please tell me you like this so I can quit being a lawyer” on the cover letter, but I don’t think that really mattered. It comes down to the strip, and they showed it to Scott Adams of Dilbert and he liked it. That was a huge break, getting his endorsement. That’s how I broke in.
Did you leave the law right away?
No. It was a risky endeavor, and I wasn’t sure it would work. I quit in August of 2002 [about a year after Pearls launched], but I did a stepping stone. I knew the person who was in charge of Charles Schulz’s studio in Santa Rosa [California]. I took a part-time job doing licensing work. It was more of an artistic job, determining if the licensee’s proposed use of the Peanuts characters fit with the strip. I actually still have that job. And now, I’m writing the next Peanuts animated special.
What’s the concept of Pearls Before Swine? Who are the main characters, and what do they represent?
It’s basically the pairing of these two opposites. There’s Rat, a megalomaniac, and Pig, a sweet, dumb loving pig. They live together. They are joined by some inarticulate, barely competent crocodiles, who are always trying to eat their helpless neighbor, Zebra. And there’s an alcoholic donkey (every strip needs that). And there’s Guard Duck, an angry character in the army. Sort of.
Why did you make them all animals? Is it some kind of homage to George Orwell?
No. I wish I were that clever. With animals, you can get away with more, that’s all. To me they’re really people. But with animals, you can do a lot of edgy things and readers and editors won’t think twice about it. But if you used people, you wouldn’t be able to be as provocative.
Was the outlook of Pearls Before Swine informed at all by your experiences in the law?
No. Not really. The law plays into the strip only in that I just don’t want to go back, so I guess that drives me to make it good.
You told The New York Times in December [HERE] that as a print cartoonist, you’re worried about the newspaper industry. Is the decline of print hurting you?
We’re all scared. Nobody knows what will happen. Most cartoonists have taken a hit from a failed newspaper. But I’ve been lucky so far. For me, it comes back to the same thing. People need local news and there’s only one place to get it. There’s a need there. But they have to stop giving it away for free.
One of your earlier strips that didn’t get picked up was called The Infirm, which chronicled the miserable life of a hapless, young associate. Can you share the inspiration for that? Were any real-life lawyers or law professors the basis for any of the characters or scenes?
That one got good feedback. It wasn’t about any specific lawyer, but it did portray the general fear that an associate has about screwing up. It’s rarely a natural correlation that something in life goes exactly onto the page. Something happens in my life and it marinates inside for months, and then it comes out on the page, and I make changes a couple of times before it’s actually published. The process is kind of like a stew.
Did you ever find yourself sketching out a scene while you were in court or in a deposition?
I was always drawing in law school. I did a comic about another law student at UCLA, and it appeared in the school paper. Rat was actually first drawn at UCLA Law, but I think I was just daydreaming. It wasn’t about a specific person.
Were you always a good artist?
I’m not sure if I am a particularly good artist now. I’ve never been very strong at drawing. I think what really drives the strip is story. I’m more of a writer. But I think that’s actually true of a lot of comic strip artists. It’s always more about the story to be honest.
In an interview with Donny Deutsch (see video below) you mentioned that you had been approached by some producers about creating an animated TV series. Is something in the works?
I can’t tell you until it’s official. But I’m in talks with a studio about making a feature out of Pearls. [If it happens] that would be awesome.
Would you write it?
I would be involved in some capacity. That’s all I know right now.
Did you ever consider yourself a Bitter Lawyer?
I don’t know who I had to be bitter at. I think I was just a frustrated cartoonist working as a lawyer. If I had been firefighting, I would have hated it. Law just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had a good firm; it was the perfect situation. I once dressed up as a Power Ranger, not a lot of firms would put up with that. Had I been at a Big Firm, I wouldn’t have lasted. But I guess I didn’t want to be in any firm really.
Any advice for lawyers or law students looking to leave the law?
I never looked back. You’ve got to find what you love and really pursue it. A lot of people think there isn’t enough time in the day. But there is time before work, in the evenings and on weekends. You just need a sense of urgency. If it’s do or die, you’ll do it.
Hey, this is kind of like that Inside The Actor’s Studio show. Aren’t you going to ask me my favorite curse word?
What’s your favorite curse word?
I always wanted to do that.
To stay current on Stephan Pastis’ world, check out his blog or open your local paper.