Saturday, August 19, 2006


By Stephan Pastis

Andrews McMeel Publishing, $10.95,

128 pages


The “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip began running in newspapers at the tail end of December 2001 in precisely one paper. It has since been picked up by about 200 papers and received two nominations for best newspaper comic strip. Creator Stephan Pastis walked away with the National Cartoonists Society’s top honor in 2004.

Mr. Pastis’ success was surprising, considering the themes his strip regularly exploits: suffering, heartbreak, death, rank stupidity, infidelity, unfairness, bad puns and why most comic strips today are awful.

It’s easier to imagine a strip with all of those components that doesn’t try to make you laugh. Not all strips go for the funny bone, after all. But “Pearls” is a regular yukfest — a comic comic strip, you might say. Students of our funny pages will see in this fourth collection, “The Ratvolution Will Not Be Televised,” that even the strip’s drier periods are oases in the desert of modern comics.

“Pearls” is excellent because it is ambitious. Other than “Dilbert,” there is no syndicated comic strip that can beat the gags in the current collection, and not even Dilbert’s creator works as hard to improve the quality of the strip for the future.

For instance, this collection includes a series of strips about Toby the Agoraphobic Turtle, whose head is wedged permanently in his shell for fear of open spaces. He deals with his problems in life by shotgunning beer through a beer bong and passing out. The idealistic but stupid Pig attempts to talk Toby out into the open:

Pig: “Just because Toby … is afraid of public places is no reason for him to live in his shell and guzzle from a beer bong. I think that life is beautiful and wonderful and maybe with help, Toby can realize that too.”

Toby: “HIIYAA!” (Hits Pig across the face with the beer bong, knocking him to the ground, and continues to mutter curses under his shell.)

Pig’s best friend Rat then explains, “Toby rejects your theory.”

If I were writing “Pearls,” I would have opted to keep that sort of comic gold around for awhile, but Mr. Pastis decided that this particular character would become a crutch. So he wrote him out of “Pearls” with a strip in which he (Mr. Pastis) explains to Rat that Toby simply had to go because there was “just no licensing potential” in drunken turtles.

An angry Rat calls Mr. Pastis a “sell-out” and a “hypocritical weasel” (let me say, as an author of a book about hypocrisy, that weasels get a bad rap), and contrasts him unfavorably with Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. Mr. Pastis, surrounded on all sides by piles of Pig plush dolls, denies the charge.

In that one panel, Mr. Pastis combines the essential ruthlessness of any good storyteller with the obsession of the comedian. His characters will pay any cost, bear any burden, suffer any indignity, slip on any banana peel, position themselves under any oncoming anvil, to get a laugh. And Mr. Pastis gives it a postmodern twist by inserting himself into the story — as an object of ridicule.

“The Ratvolution Will Not Be Televised” contains about a dozen really memorable gags like that one, from the Mallet O’ Understanding to the tragic Zebra-Crocodile family exchange program to an affair with a Mrs. Buttersworth look-alike to the latest Angry Bob story (“Angry Bob was angry,” it begins). Rat and Pig join the two other regulars, Goat and Zebra, and an extremely odd cast of characters that rotate in and out of the strip to keep things interesting.

To wit, this reviewer’s favorite single strip concerns Yasser Arafat. Pig writes a letter to the late PLO chairman, asking why he always wears a scarf on his head. “It looks kinda weird,” Pig complains. Enter Rat, who says that he is wasting time and postage: “Yasser Arafat doesn’t care what you think …” The next panel features picture of Arafat holding the letter, a desert in the background. A single tear runs down his left cheek.

And yet, for all the laughs, “The Ratvolution Will Not Be Televised” isn’t “Pearls” at the top of its game. Too many gags misfire or produce smirks rather than laughs, and you can tell that Mr. Pastis was struggling against the normal burnout that plagues all smart comic-strip creators after several years. The material currently running in the strip is a notch above this collection.

Think of this as the Abbey Road of “Pearls” collections, a merely solid performance that would be great coming from any other artist. The Beatles comparison works because the best bet for readers to experience the strip for themselves would be through the first giant collection. Title? “Sgt. Piggy’s Lonely Hearts Club Comic.”

Jeremy Lott is author of “In Defense of Hypocrisy,” recently released by Nelson Current.

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