- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

THE SATURDAY EVENING PEARLS: A PEARLS BEFORE SWINE COLLECTION
By Stephan Pastis
Andrews McMeel Publishing, $10.99, 128 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY JEREMY LOTT

“Pearls Before Swine” is an award-winning comic strip about failure, suffering, stupidity and death. In case we didn’t pick up on the death part before, the first page of the most recent collection, “The Saturday Evening Pearls,” reminds us of this fact with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the back of your head. Fortunately, this head injury equals comic gold.

What happens is a family of grim reapers moves into the generic suburban neighborhood that is home to the strip’s characters: Rat, Pig, Zebra, Goat, Duck, the crocs and lions, and a few others. The Death family comes knocking on Pig’s door. “Just wanted to say hiya,” Mr. Death explains, scythe in hand, cloaked and hooded wife and trusty canine at his side.

Pig being Pig, he enthusiastically welcomes the necrotic newcomers. If the Deaths have “any questions or concerns,” he tells them they should “feel free to ask.” “Well, we do have one,” says Mr. Death. “How safe is the neighborhood?”

Not very. Holidays for the “Pearls Before Swine” crew turn out to be especially perilous. In this volume alone, Zebra is attacked by a croc posing as Gollum for Halloween. Goat, visiting his family for the first time in years, is nearly crushed by his mother’s giant “Bag O’ Guilt.” Zebra’s Uncle Peter loses half his leg during the croc/zebra Christmas festivities.

We’re led to believe that Uncle Peter’s fate could be worse than that. Both Rat and Pig complain to strip creator Stephan Pastis about the macabre turn it’s taking. Rat: “Ohhh. … This is a heartwarming Christmas story.” Pig: “Get some help, Steph.”

Here is a rough tally of the lawbreaking and assorted mayhem in the neighborhood this time around:

Near misses: The crocs sue Zebra over his failure to be eaten. Special counsel Duck pushes a poor paralegal out a sixth story window and decapitates an electronic reindeer. The backyard bunnies turn out to be Islamic terrorists who blow up Rat and Pig’s garden shed and send a video with further demands. “Greetings, great Satan,” begins one bunny with a long beard, a turban, a camouflage jacket and rifle in hand — and barren looking hills in the background.

Hostage situations: Rat is taken hostage by irate fans from a “Family Circus” convention. (“Family Circus” and several other comic strips are regular targets in “Pearls.”) He gets out of it but the settlement leads to another hostage situation involving Zebra and the surprisingly treacherous Jeffy of “Family Circus.” Superhero Ego-Man (“defender of only himself”) declines to rescue them.

Actual deaths: Half a dozen crocs die due to their misfired attempts to eat Zebra and hijack the local lions’ alimony food supply. The hungry lions devour a mailman. “I could have done without the mace aperitif,” complains one king of this suburban jungle. A flock of sheep takes to the water to avoid wolves — and is devoured by sharks. Angry Bob dies again, this time “crushed like a soft biscuit” by a falling couch that he mistook for a kite.

Political scandals: Duck takes over the mayor’s office in a coup, floods the television with “duck propaganda,” orders a secretary to eliminate the members of the city council (“Here. Hide this [bazooka] in your sweater.”) and wiretaps his opponents. Sven the Viking action figure is arrested for rubbing his foot against a police officer’s foot in an airport restroom stall and forced to resign from Vikingdom.

Then there is Rat’s legendary temper. He repeatedly clobbers Pig for being an idiot and takes a baseball bat to a patron at a movie theater who takes a call on his cellphone. Rat shrugs, “It sure beats asking politely.”

Is it any wonder the Deaths don’t stick around long?

The “Sven of the wide stance” gag derives from the story of former Sen. Larry Craig’s disastrous run-in with the law but the explicit parallel with current partisan politics is a rarity. The story of Duck’s disastrous mayoralty is crafted to refer to Nixon’s presidency, not George W. Bush’s recent tenure in office. Duck reads “All the President’s Men” as a political self-help manual and happily gives everyone a two winged, v-shaped salute as he boards the helicopter.

“Pearls Before Swine” has been around long enough, since 2001, that we can start to trace the strip’s quality and the artist’s moods. About some of his darker strips Mr. Pastis has has in the past admitted that he must have been in a foul, foul mood that day. In the period collected here — May 2007 to February 2008 — his mood is less morose and few gags fall flat. This is one of the funniest, if not the funniest, comic strip being published in newspapers today.

My one complaint is trifling, but here it is anyway. The collection concludes with a middling joke about a smellogram service. On the same page, a strip has Duck standing on the wooden “Crate O’ Sadness,” where, he explains, “you stand when your dreams don’t come true.” Soon most of the characters are up there. Rat warns, “This could get crowded.” That should have been the end.

Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”

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