November 15, 2018


Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     On one level, there is no need whatsoever for fans of Stephan Pastis’ dark and sometimes borderline dismal comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, to buy an oversize “Treasury” volume such as Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn. These large collections simply contain the strips that have already appeared in earlier, smaller-format books, in this case I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream Because Puns Suck and Floundering Fathers. On the other hand, there are some perhaps rather rarefied reasons to buy the “Treasury” even if you already have the books whose strips it collects. For example, there is the cover. The covers of Pearls “Treasury” books are usually gems, if admittedly rough-cut ones, and this one is no exception. The front cover is a scene right out of innumerable noir movies, with a trench-coated guy, presumably a detective, being enticed to the corner of a building on a foggy night by a long-legged dame whose out-of-sight hand is holding a butcher knife. Also on the cover are multiple Pearls characters known for their violent propensities, such as Rat with a baseball bat and Guard Duck with a grenade; and also pictured is typically naïve and oblivious Pig, innocently playing a paddle game.

     That is the front cover. On the back cover are Rat and the shadowy figure of the dame walking away into the fog, only visible from the back, as Rat gives a thumbs-up sign. In the foreground is a chalk drawing, the sort used by police to show where a body has been found; and Pig, wearing the hat formerly sported by the trench-coated presumed detective, is joyfully drawing hearts, balloons, flowers and such in chalk on the pavement.

     Lest anyone wonder whether all this is in fact a weirdly off-key tribute to noir films, the inside front cover shows several Pearls characters settling in to watch a movie in an old-fashioned theater, where the screen shows the alleyway of the front cover but without any visible people or cartoons. And the inside back cover shows the Pearls characters reacting to the movie they have just seen (the screen now says “The End”) in suitable ways: Rat, for instance, is hurling a tomato.

     And there is more than this that makes Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn a value-added proposition. Many cartoonists use “Treasury” collections to make brief comments on their strips, drawing attention to a timely reference, a sequence that went well or not so well, or some aspect of the writing or drawing. But Pastis takes this to extremes (sort of the way he takes the strip itself to extremes): he makes comments on every page, ranging from the self-derogatory to the self-congratulatory to the self-revelatory. For instance, Pastis does a strip in which Goat is watching “a documentary titled ‘World’s Greatest Mysteries,’” and Pig asks whether the documentary explains why a Honda Accord’s speedometer goes up to 160 miles per hour; in the comment below, Pastis tells readers that he really does have a Honda Accord with a speedometer that goes up to 160 miles per hour, and wonders whether the manufacturer wants him to experiment to see if it can really go that fast. Elsewhere, Pastis has cynical Rat comment that “togetherness makes the heart more annoyed” in a strip – beneath which Pastis says he hopes Rat’s remark catches on but that so far, “Hallmark hasn’t called.”

     Pastis is well aware that his comments have value. Many times, he points out a strip that did not work or that confused or befuddled readers, such as one in which he uses the film-industry phrase “dolly grip” and shows a man holding onto a character who is supposed to be Dolly Parton but is drawn, ahem, less than perfectly (Pastis makes plenty of remarks, some overdone but many justified, about his own limited artistic skills). After explaining the Dolly Parton element of this strip, Pastis adds, “Too bad I can’t print these comments in the actual newspaper.” Well, yes, that is too bad in one sense – but in another, the comments are fun precisely because they explain things that readers, including those who own the smaller-size collections on which Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn is based, might not have understood until the “Treasury” became available.

     Of course, whether or not this book is in fact treasurable will depend on one’s views on Pearls Before Swine. This remains a strip on which opinion is sharply divided, and Pastis seems quite content with that. He delights in pushing the verbal boundaries of the comic pages by engaging in rather juvenile but often amusing word usage: at one point, Pig, while watching the Olympics, sees swimmers doing the breast stroke, and Pastis comments beneath the strip, “It is sort of interesting how I can say ‘breast stroke’ but could never say ‘stroke breast.’” Along those lines, Pastis occasionally introduces a comic-strip-censor character who is fed up with the way the strip stays just within the bounds of verbal acceptability. Even in strips that do not push the proverbial envelope, Pastis likes to be subtly (sometimes not so subtly) subversive: one Sunday strip has Goat talking to “Benny the beach bum” and telling him to get a job and get on with life so he can make money to build up his savings so he can one day retire and do whatever he wants, such as hanging out and sitting on the beach. Realizing what he just said, Goat plunks himself down on the sand and tells Benny, “You’re the most brilliant human alive.” And Goat, mind you, is the strip’s resident intellectual.

     Pearls Before Swine certainly isn’t for everyone, which means that neither is Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn. But for those who find Pastis’ weird characters and offbeat, often deeply sarcastic humor attractive, this “Treasury” adds authorial insight to comics whose dark-but-funny observations often seem unerringly in tune with our times.

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