Awaits the Tide: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
You know the world has become a dark, dank, dismal dungeon when even Pearls Before Swine thinks so. One of
the darkest of all comic strips, with characters created and destroyed
willy-nilly and a cynical worldview no doubt derived from creator Stephan
Pastis’ pre-cartooning work as a lawyer, Pearls
has long been finding aspects of the world simply too much – and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit: the
latest collection, Pearls Awaits the
Tide, includes strips that ran in newspapers as far back as October 2018
(although as recently as March 2020).
Speaking of newspapers: remember them? Pearls does, and one recurring theme in Pearls Awaits the Tide is that the tide has gone out for newspapers
and for journalism in general. Hyper-cynical Rat at one point offers “Recipes
for Disaster” that start with laying off half the people in the news industry,
using social media to let unchecked misinformation flow freely, giving bad
actors worldwide access to such media to exacerbate matters, and “cook[ing]
’til democracy expires.” Even by Pearls
standards, this is bleak, made more so by a final panel in which thoughtful
Goat says, “Maybe we should pay for journalism again” and Rat replies, “Don’t
bother. We’re cooked.” And that is not the only time in this collection that
Pastis makes this point. Another entry, for example, talks about “corrupt local
governments” brought down by “people paid to investigate stories” until “an
Internet appeared” and “people want[ed] their news for free,” leaving corrupt
officials giggling and Goat saying, “Excuse me while I go subscribe to seven
newspapers.” And at another point, Pastis shows Diogenes, the ancient Greek lantern
bearer searching for one honest man, now calling himself Mr. Truth and telling
a crowd of modern people that tweets, social media and TV have caused lies to
proliferate and that people need to “question things” and “question sources”
and “pay for journalism” and “read history” and “think critically” so things do
not “get much, much worse.” So the crowd uses his lantern to beat him up – and
Pastis, who offers commentary beneath many of the strips in this collection (as
he always does in the oversized Treasury
books), feels (no doubt correctly) that he has to tell readers that Mr. Truth is based on Diogenes.
The journalism concerns appear in the book along with other ones
indicating that all is not as it should be, as in a four-panel strip in which
two people preaching “love for my fellow man” fight to the death; one in which
Pig sings the Christmas carol about “dreaming of a white Christmas” and gets
called “a racist little Nazi”; one in which Goat’s preference for taking
showers at night rather than in the morning leads to him being labeled a
“left-wing, Communist, Socialist, diversity-loving, avocado-toast-eating,
liberal traitor”; and one in which Rat brightly announces he is finally happy
because he has “lost the ability to feel.” That is dark.
Of course, Pearls is always
leavened by levity, to at least some extent, and that is true in Pearls Awaits the Tide. The book’s
title, for example, relates to a photographic beach scene on the front and back
covers, showing Pastis – real-world Pastis, not the cartoon version often seen
in the strip – buried in the sand with only his head showing, with various Pearls characters around him on the
front cover; on the back, alarmed Pig and Zebra see that the tide has come in
and there is nothing where Pastis’ head was except his trademark baseball cap.
This is still dark, but it is silly dark, not societally dark.
Pastis does have some out-and-out fun with the strip and with readers from time to time. Pig, wanting to prove he is a risk-taker to attract women, proclaims that he uses an iPhone without a protective case. Rat “improves” a pro-teamwork workplace poster by adding one explaining that co-workers on teams backstab each other “because only the suck-ups win.” Ultra-arrogant Jef the Cyclist eagerly anticipates the Rapture, “the day all the cyclists are taken to Heaven,” because God “loves us best.” The Comic Strip Censor appears repeatedly when Pastis engages in slightly risqué word play, as when a female character who wants to get her hair permed at a salon run by Lo of the Hi and Lois strip needs to find out how many people have already booked appointments, which means she needs to call about “Lo’s perm count.” Groaners that do not get the Comic Strip Censor treatment are here, too, as when Pig and Rat finish a restaurant meal and ask for the check, and a man from Prague shows up. But it is the emotional strips, and not only the ones showcasing worries about society and the world, that have the greatest impact in Pearls Awaits the Tide. There is an extended Sunday strip (eight panels) in memory of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain; there is an incredibly touching tribute to Pastis’ dog, Edee, who had advanced cancer and had to be put to sleep while Pastis was out of town on a family emergency; and there is a simple, very simply drawn daily strip created by Pastis after a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 – Pig tries writing down “places I can go and still feel safe in America” and finds he has to cross out “elementary school, movie theater, office, concert,” and on and on, and then at the end crosses out “synagogue.” Pearls Before Swine has always been an acquired taste, even more emphatically so than usual in the case of Pearls Awaits the Tide. But for all the strip’s bleakness, Pastis’ weirdly skewed sense of humor continues to make Pearls a comic like no other: it started on the last day of 2001 and, 20 years later, is casting its occasional pearls of wisdom among more swine than ever – or at least it seems as if there are more swine out there than in the past.