Judging from the flood of e-mails and phone calls I recieved yesterday, the rumors of the death of the comics pages are greatly exaggerated. Yes, that was “me” making a cameo appearance in the 8/27 Sunday strip “Pearls Before Swine” and, yes, I really did draw that caricature of Barbara Streisand in it. No, it was not my idea to be labeled “probably the best caricaturist in the country”… Stephan exaggerates much more than I do in my drawings. Here’s the strip:
I met “Pearls before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis at an NCS Reuben Awards weekend in San Francisco in 2003. In fact I did a caricature of him for the NCS Reuben T-Shirt and goodie bag that year, along with a number of other of the guest speakers appearing that weekend. Stephan was very gracious and told me how much he enjoyed my work and his caricature. We got a chance to chat a bit more the next year in Kansas City, when we both won divisional Reuben awards, he for best comic strip and I for advertising illustration.
Stephan is a very unique and talented guy. He worked as an attorney for many years while on the side trying to develop a syndicated strip, which was a long-time dream. After several rejections, his “Pearls Before Swine” was picked up by United Syndicate and debuted in 2002. He left his law practice later that same year in a leap of faith in the continued success of his strip. He was rewarded with ‘Pearls Before Swine” becoming very popular and one of the most successful new strips of the last decade. Stephan is also a bona-fide Charles Schulz historian, and serves in the board of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, CA. He is as friendly and generous a guy as you would ever care to meet.
As for “Pearls Before Swine”, Stephan’s strip apparently isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, some cartoonists (mostly ones not syndicated and still trying to break in to the business) dismiss his strip as crudely drawn, not very polished and some would say unworthy of syndication. With all due respect, anyone who can’t see why “Pearls Before Swine” enjoys the success it has achieved does not understand what makes a successful comic strip. Stephan would be the first to suggest, and has to me many times, that drawing is not his strong suit. He isn’t giving himself enough credit, in my opinion. His art is charming and it’s very simplicity and directness act as a compliment to the real driving force behind the success of his (and ANY) comic strip: the writing.
Comic strips are about the writing, not about the art. Many of the biggest and most popular strips of all time are not going to win any awards for their illustrations. The art of making someone smile, chuckle or all out laugh in 4 panels or less is an art of communication. Oh, you have many strips that have both good writing and good art, like “Zits”, “Mutts” and others for example, but the common denominator with any strip that has staying power is effective writing. Jack Davis tried numerous comic strip concepts over the years and none caught on because the concept and writing couldn’t match the brilliant art of Davis, or more accurately Jack’s art couldn’t sustain the strip alone. Mort Drucker had brief and modest success with ‘Benchley’, but despite the enormous art talent of Mort the strip only lasted a little while. I’m sure there are many more examples, but the point is that great art won’t carry a strip, but great writing will. Stephan’s strip is great writing. It’s funny, irreverent, often times risky and has a relevance to today’s humor sensibilities that older strips often lack. It’s sometimes weird, but it’s always funny. His insider jokes and gags work on many levels, and his characters are strong. I am a big fan and so are Anna and all my kids.
Here’s how my appearance in the strip came about: In April of this year, My niece was getting married in the San Fransisco bay area. Anna and I dragged the entire clan out to California for the event, and one of the stops we made along the way was to the Schulz museum. I told Stephan and the gang there we were going to come by ahead of time, and he was kind enough to meet us and give us a backstage tour, including the separate building that was Sparky’s studio. It’s pretty awesome to stand in the same room where Charles Schulz created countless Peanuts strips, seeing things like the deep gouges in the wall where the back of his chair slowly grooved the wooden paneling over many years of turning this way and that. Stephan had hinted that I should bring along some drawing stuff, but I had not packed any for the trip. I didn’t know what he had in mind… I just thought he wanted me to do a doodle for him or something, but instead he drove the whole family back to his home studio and he showed me a Sunday strip with me as a character… he had come up with the idea knowing I was going to visit. He had pens and markers ready for me, and this strip almost completed except for the space for me to draw Barbara Streisand. He even had some reference pictures at the ready for me. I was more than happy to do it, if a little intimidated knowing this quick drawing would be seen by millions of people! Well, I banged it out for him and he was very happy about it. I was less happy because I thought the drawing had too much of a Mort Drucker feel to it… Streisand is one of those faces where Mort’s caricature of her is burned into my head like the after image of a light bulb when you stare at it too long, and no matter how hard I try when I draw her it ends up looking like Mort’s. Too late now. As I said Stephan was pleased, and he was beyond hospitible to our rag-tag gang. He gave all my kids and some nieces and nephews who were along copies of his books and drew and signed in all of them. My kids are kind of ho-hum about the fact that dad’s art is in MAD magazine almost every month, but I’m a rock star now that I’ve been in “Pearls Before Swine”! Thanks, Stephan!
This all happened back in April, and it’s been a long wait until yesterday when the strip was printed. Stephan underestimates himself as a caricaturist… that does look a little like me! I have buggy eyes sometimes, and my lips are perpetually pursed. He could have given me bigger arms, though! Regardless, it was great fun and I vowed to get Stephan back. I’m still waiting for the opportune moment to work him into a MAD parody as some recurring character (maybe in a reality show parody sometime), but in the meantime he’s got a cameo in my Hell’s Kitchen parody due out next month:
Yes, he’s a dumpster diving KFC employee! I still can’t believe I didn’t draw rat digging through the garbage… I must be losing it (of course, one could argue I’d had to have “had it” before I could “lose it”). He’ll be getting the original in the mail as soon as the issue’s out, as his original of the strip is going on my “Wall of Shame” as soon as we clip out the print version and treat it so it won’t yellow. The only bad part about all this is that I feel I am having my Warholian 15 minutes right now and can’t figure out how to cash in on it. Maybe it’s all downhill from here….
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