Cartoonist Stephan Pastis indulges in an unlikely routine whenever he comes to Kansas City.
“I have to go to Westport. I’m obsessed,” says Pastis, creator of the acclaimed comic “Pearls Before Swine.”
“Specifically, there’s a place called Buzzard Beach.”
This obsession started when the California native watched a TV show titled “Drinking Made Easy” that visited Westport on a quest to taste the bar’s signature beverage. The drink is named the Bergen Malt: a concoction created in the 1990s by KC’s Mike Bergen that features a shot of Jägermeister dropped into a half pint of draft beer and capped with Baileys Irish Cream.
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“It sounds horrific as I describe it. But it’s really good,” says Pastis, who will be back in town this week for a free talk and meet-and-greet Friday at the KC offices of Andrews McMeel Universal, his press syndicate. “Although, I may be the only one who thinks that.”
For years, that’s also how Pastis’ cartooning was perceived.
A lawyer by trade, he began to dabble unsuccessfully in the mid-’90s with cartooning. But inspired by the mentoring of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, who died in 2000, Pastis quit his job in 2001 to pursue his artistic side.
He concocted a clever and candid world of anthropomorphic animals — Rat, Pig, Zebra, Goat and the Fraternity of Crocodiles — whose daily struggles continue to provide sharp commentary on contemporary society.
To many readers, “Pearls Before Swine” ranks among the funniest comics of all time.
“But we’re terribly unfunny people in person,” Pastis says of the cartooning profession. “Also, most of us — although I’m not — are sort of withdrawn, shy and antisocial. Because of what you do for a living, people expect you to tell a joke or say something funny. By and large, we’re not like that.”
Pastis may be underselling his easygoing charm a bit.
“I think Stephan doesn’t necessarily write for the newspaper comics-reading audience but rather to make himself laugh,” says John Glynn, president and editorial director of Andrews McMeel Syndication. The strip runs in more than 800 newspapers.
“He also likes to push the envelope on what newspapers would be willing to publish. He’s made jokes about subject matter that is traditionally off-limits in the comics section — drinking, religion, sex — and on occasion can get pretty dark. He also breaks the fourth wall and appears as himself in the comic. And of which I would like to note that the caricature he draws of himself is spot-on.”
The biblical phrase “pearls before swine” refers to offering valuable things to those who don’t understand their worth. Pastis says there is one particular thing he values now whose worth he didn’t understand when he was younger.
“I’m still in touch with some of the lawyers that I worked with, and they’re still at the firm 16 years after I left. ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ ” he says of his San Francisco-based occupation. “I could have still been a lawyer. That’s where I would have been. Instead, I got this crazy life where I get to do what I love to do. I don’t feel like I have a job. If you can’t appreciate that …”
So what’s his favorite lawyer joke?
He says, “There’s a good news/bad news one about a busload of lawyers at the bottom of the sea, but I forget what it was.”
When he’s not on tour, the 49-year-old Pastis says a standard workday consists of heading to a café and writing for several hours. (“The café loves that when you sit there for as long as you can with a $2 cup of coffee in your hand,” he quips.)
“Then I come home and have pieces of notebook paper that look almost like a film script. It will say, ‘Rat: blah, blah, blah.’ ‘Pig: blah, blah, blah.’ Then I draw them. I typically draw three dailies or a daily and a Sunday,” he says.
Pastis tackles this pace Monday through Thursday, hoping to generate 10 strips.
He adds, “If I do 10 strips, that’s three extra a week. So if you multiply that out by 52, that buys you 19 weeks a year to do other stuff.”
That “other stuff” includes penning “Timmy Failure,” a series of children’s books concerning an 11-year-old CEO who cluelessly runs his own detective agency. This month, Pastis’ time is mainly dedicated to the “Pearls Hogs the Road” tour, a nine-city jaunt that crosses the country in support of his collection of the same name (releasing Tuesday).
“I love going to different cities, and I go to Kansas City quite a bit,” he says.
In addition to his Buzzard Beach opener, his itinerary usually takes him to the Country Club Plaza, then the Power & Light District. He closes out the evening at Flying Saucer Draught Emporium.
Every year and a half he also makes a stop at Thomas Gibson Studios in Lecompton (15 miles west of Lawrence) to shoot a book cover at the photography studio. The “Pearls Hogs the Road” cover features Pastis seated on a bicycle in front of a motorcycle bar, sporting a “Ladies Man” T-shirt and confronting a biker gang populated by his creature characters.
“Stephan is a one of a kind in so many ways,” Gibson says. “He has a gift for the absurd yet walks a fine line of part genius and part madman.”
The photographer reveals that Pastis frequently hands him a “cryptic cocktail napkin illustration” envisioning the cover. These range from “a man in a medieval castle to a person in a roller coaster going at nano speed at a local theme park.”
Gibson describes it as a “crazy gamut.”
That spirit of irreverence permeates all of Pastis’ work, even though “family audiences” are his primary consumers.
“If you do something that is considered ‘edgier’ — and I always put quotes around it because I don’t think I’m that edgy — it makes for a rough beginning,” says Pastis, who lives with his wife and two children in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“But 16 years in, it gives you a wide room to swing your bat in. Then you have a defined voice and a personality. People respect that. That’s why the book tours are successful. There’s an element in everybody who would like to do what they want to do and say what they want to say.”
Sometimes, though, not everybody agrees with what Pastis does or says. Last July, he crafted a “Pearls” strip that showcased Pig correcting his sister’s grammar over the telephone. Pig’s correction of “I, Sis,” ended up sounding like “Isis,” which tipped off the NSA and prompted FBI agents to arrest him.
Not exactly the equivalent of drawing the Prophet Muhammad, yet it did lead to the strip being replaced with a rerun. (Pastis later posted the censored one on social media.)
“Sometimes there are editors who don’t like you,” he says of the newspaper industry. “They’re either conservative with a small ‘c,’ and they like “Beetle Bailey” — because the kids just clamor for that. Or they want to hear nothing from the comics page. So anything that looks like a complaint, it’s a four-alarm fire.
“I thought the point was to get people in a cafe talking. Isn’t that the goal? If people are talking about what you print, that’s a good thing — as opposed to being so milquetoast that nobody notices.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”