"Listen, Cartoon Critic 2544, please stop criticizing my strip," he pleads to an unimpressed Goldilocks stand-in. "I try very hard with my jokes and you're really hurting my feelings."
Coincidentally, the segment ran during Pastis' first full book tour, set to stop in Portland this week. So strips depicting the artist as a prickly, petty little man had "Meet Stephan Pastis at this time and that place" blurbs grafted on to them.
Metafunny? You decide. Either way, they're unlikely to dissuade fans of Pearls, a three-panel strip that often finds humor in the darker impulses of its crudely sketched anthropomorphic (and unimaginatively named) characters, led by the blissfully naive Pig, the hard-drinking misanthrope Rat, and the latte-sipping armchair philosopher Goat.
Wikipedia tells us that Pearls "has become somewhat controversial due to its use of adult humor, mock profanity, violence, drinking and drug references and references to Middle-Eastern terrorism."
This is true. Also true: Pearls debuted a decade ago, the last time ("last" as in "former," and probably also "last" as in "final") when daily newspapers had money to go through the rigmarole of introducing new syndicated comic strips. It now seems weirdly suspended in space on comics pages where anything new (read: funny by contemporary standards) has been brushed aside to shrink pages without slashing into the legacy strips preferred by old people and half-cyborg grandkids sitting bored on their laps long enough to guiltlessly cash the $15 birthday check they'll use to buy toxic-waste-flavored energy drinks and computer gaming discs.
"They are now in such a downward arc that they're petrified," he says. "And like anyone who's petrified, they get very conservative very fast. So now they're going to take less chances than ever, which further contributes to the problem of no young readers. I feel like Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark when he goes under that stone wall that's collapsing and grabs his whip or whatever. That was me, the last one under the stone wall. The door shut behind me."
Most of Pastis' peers seem happy to go gently into the night, cashing checks on the way out. That's not Pastis' style—you don't become an attorney, then give up that career to draw little pictures of smart-mouthed animals only to half-ass things. His only recourse is to mock them in his strip. Family Circus, which is now done mostly by Bil Keane's son Jeffy, is a favorite target. This is almost always a bad dynamic, he says.
"What happens is the guy who takes over, just like the newspaper editor, doesn't want to screw up the franchise," he says. "If you look at early Family Circus, they're even edgy. The dad is kind of this brutish lout, and then it kinda gets Disneyized over the years because you don't want to be the one who stopped the gravy train."
And thus you have poor Pastis, pissing off old people and children who don't get it, then getting shredded on message boards by comic nerds who think he's not edgy enough. Despite last week's strips, he says he's learned to ignore it—mostly.
"When you start out you read everything, every message board, everything anyone says," he says. "The only thing I'll still do is Google and click 'News' and put in the name of the strip. Unfortunately, that does also pull up letters to the editor. But I've seen every comment someone can put on a message board, you only need to look for the first year of syndication, so that truly is not helpful.â
GO: Stephan Pastis appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Oct. 27. Free.