April 16, 2020
(++++) AS PIGGISH AS USUAL
Pearls Goes Hollywood: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
The first thing to know about the latest Pearls Before Swine collection is that the strips in it have nothing to do with Hollywood. However, cartoonist Stephan Pastis goes into a major bout of self-love in the four-page introduction to the book, extolling at length his own virtues as a “movie mogul” in connection with a film project that is not based on Pearls Before Swine but on Pastis’ other work, the Timmy Failure series for children. Pastis’ love of his movie experience translates, in typically overdone Pearls Before Swine fashion, into inside front and back covers showing 50, count ’em, 50 photos of Pastis costumed as an Old West gunslinger; a front cover with Pastis tied to railway tracks as a train approaches, while various members of the Pearls Before Swine cast get ready to film his incipient demise; a back cover in which love-starved Elly the Elephant gazes longingly at Pastis-as-gunslinger as portrayed on a movie-theater poster advertising “El Desperado de Santa Rosa”; and a fold-out (or tear-out) version of that very same movie poster, bound into the back of Pearls Goes Hollywood.
Wretched excess is a stock-in-trade for Pastis, as it is for Hollywood, and the excess is even more wretched than usual this time – and the wretchedness is even more excessive. Yet none of that will bother Pearls Before Swine fans in the slightest – or interest anyone else in any way whatsoever. Pearls Before Swine is an acquired taste that many people never acquire, and that is actually fine with Pastis, who appears to carry a good deal of the darkness and snarkiness of the strip into the real world. And that is only fair, since he carries a good deal of the darkness and snarkiness of the real world into the strip in the first place.
The strips in the book, not to be confused with the new, Hollywood-themed material, offer the usual mishmash of not-very-well-drawn characters with no names except ones explaining what they are: Rat is named Rat, Pig is called Pig, Goat is Goat, and so on. Pastis often makes fun of his own drawing skill, or lack thereof (“it took me 45 minutes to draw that dartboard and it still looks terrible”), but he is laughing all the way to the bank: the strip remains distinctly bankable despite the fading of so many newspapers. Pastis also makes fun of himself: one strip talks about people taking selfies because they do not have friends to take the photos – because everyone spends so much time on the phone. Beneath that strip, Pastis, who offers commentary on many of his strips, says that this one “doesn’t apply to me. I had no friends even before smartphones.” He also creates some strips that younger readers will not understand, such as one featuring a communist from the former Soviet Union – Pastis says “if it were still 1975, you’d find this joke hilarious.”
Pearls Before Swine works – for those for whom it works at all – because it is very much for adults despite the rather childlike appearance of the characters. Pastis draws “cartoon Pastis” as a regular, unappealing-looking character, for example, and has his alter ego constantly creating strips that result in really bad puns, after which other characters in the strip insult or attack him. That sort of cartooning-about-cartooning “meta” angle gives Pearls Before Swine part of its unique approach. Another part, accentuated in this collection by the beneath-strip comments, comes from Pastis’ attitude toward modern technology. In addition to the selfies/smartphone strip, there is one in which Goat, the resident intellectual among the characters, tells Rat, the resident cynic, that he is simply standing atop a hill enjoying the moment, not tweeting about it or posting it on Instagram or at Facebook. Rat says that means Goat has lost his mind. Beneath the strip, Pastis writes, “I posted this strip on both Facebook and Instagram.” There is the “meta” matter again, along with a certain combination of self-aggrandizement and self-criticism. It’s a heady mixture if you like that sort of thing.
Pearls Goes Hollywood zips in and out of the many types of stories that Pastis has going at any given time. In some strips that pop up occasionally, Rat is president of the United States, making unending inane and nasty comments and bad decisions. In other strips, the top-hatted “Comic Strip Censor” loudly objects to something the characters are saying, or almost saying – as in one strip about security for religious groups that contains the phrase “unprotected sects.” And in some strips, the influence of Peanuts comes to the fore, as when Pig is seen within a version of Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help” booth that simply has the word “Help” on it. Rat asks what kind of help Pig is offering, and Pig replies, “None. I’m crying out for it.” And just to drive the point about Peanuts home, Pastis writes underneath these particular panels, “In strips like this, you can really see the influence that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had on me.” And then there are the “croc” strips, in which Larry, the father in the neighborhood crocodile family, “speaks” in different lettering from that used everywhere else, to emphasize the way he expresses himself: “Dis muss be best hiding place ever.” Larry also turns up in the “Rat as president” strips as press secretary, making comments such as, “Kees Larry butt, journilleests!”
Some Pastis remarks in Pearls Goes Hollywood are considerably more useful than other comments. For example, his direct statement that “I use Rat to get out all my aggressions in life” is a useful encapsulation that explains a lot of Rat’s behavior. But Pearls Before Swine is passive-aggressive as often as it is overtly on the attack. Thus, “probably the most popular strip of the year,” says Pastis, is one in which Rat asks Pig why Pig is still in bed at noon; Pig replies, “Because nothing that will happen today will be better than the warmth and comfort that I have here”; so Rat climbs into bed as well, saying, “You may have solved life.” Rat may be aggression channeled, but Pig is the resident idiot savant when he is not being the resident idiot. And while Pastis’ primary characters may be unnamed and have stick-figure arms and legs, they are very much in tune with, and tuned into, the real world that Pastis views through a funhouse mirror in Pearls Before Swine. That is why he manages to get away with all the atrocious puns, almost-profanity and less-than-optimal art: none of those flaws seems like a flaw to people who share Pastis’ admittedly skewed but often unerringly on-target view of the world.