Since its quiet debut online in 2001, Pearls Before Swine, Stephan Pastis’s strip about an anthropomorphic and acerbic band of animals trading barbs and cultural commentary, has become one of the bigger success stories in modern-day cartooning. Take a look at a few things you might not have realized about the strip’s history, including its origins and why the notoriously reclusive Bill Watterson once paid it an illustrated visit.
1. STEPHAN PASTIS STARTED OUT AS A CARTOONING LAWYER.
Before he committed to cartooning as a profession, Stephan Pastis studied to become an attorney. The San Marino, California native practiced in the field of insurance defense from 1993 to 2002, representing insurance companies who were being sued by policyholders. At night, he would draw and send samples to syndicates. “When you’re in law school, you think you’re going to be a lawyer like Oliver Wendell Holmes, arguing esoteric points of law,” he told Cartoonician.com in 2014. “But in truth, what you do is, you get in petty fights with other lawyers about who served whom and when, and how well you can bury someone in discovery, and keep someone in deposition for hours.”
2. CHARLES SCHULZ ENCOURAGED HIM.
Hearing that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz stopped in for breakfast every morning at a Santa Rosa ice skating rink, Pastis staked out the arena in 1996 in the hopes of soliciting some advice from the legendary cartoonist. Schulz graciously invited him to sit down and gave him some input on The Infirm, a legal comedy Pastis was working on at the time. The meeting emboldened Pastis, who took to reading Dilbert collections to try and evaluate why successful strips worked. Focusing more on two misanthropic animal characters, Rat and Pig, Pastis started circulating samples of Pearls Before Swine in 1999. (The title comes from a Bible verse, Matthew 7:6: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.”)
3. A SALES GUY ALMOST KILLED THE STRIP.
After honing his skills, Pastis’s Pearls drew the attention of several syndicates. One of them, United, offered a “trial” run where they would verify he could turn in strips on a consistent basis before going out to newspapers. After that phase, Pastis expected to start appearing in print. But one salesman at the syndicate changed that with just one word. Pearls, he said, “sucks.” Fearing the strip wouldn’t catch on, United let Pastis shop the strip around in 2000 before calling him back and offering to put the strip on their website to see if readers responded. They did. Bolstered by an endorsement from Dilbert creator Scott Adams, Pearls wound up in newspapers in 2002. Eight months after its debut, Pastis quit practicing law for good.
4. IT MIGHT BE THE DON RICKLES OF COMIC STRIPS.
In 2006, Pastis drew some criticism for poking fun at the comparatively mundane strips Baby Blues and Zits, as well as the highly homogenized Family Circus. Some fans of those strips wrote in to complain, but the targets of his ribbing didn’t take things so seriously. Bil Keane of Family Circus requested to see the strips mocking Jeffy and company—Pastis depicted them as profanity-spewing alcoholics—while Baby Blues referenced Pearls by having the kids in the strip play with a toy crocodile, a nod to his acerbic crocodile characters.
5. HE UPSET CATHY GUISEWITE.
One of Pastis's repeated targets has been Cathy, the laconic strip about a harried single woman that ran through 2010. On his blog, Pastis recalled a phone conversation he had with Cathy creator Cathy Guisewite in which he called to inform her he wanted to depict her playing naked Twister in the strip. An appalled Guisewite insisted he withhold it from publication. Later, Pastis won a National Cartoonists Society award for Best Comic Strip, an honor presented by Guisewite during the ceremony. Pastis feared some reprisal, but Guisewite just said she was proud of his accomplishment.
6. ONE STRIP ABOUT ISIS WAS WITHHELD FROM PRINT.
In 2016, Pastis depicted the character of Pig on the phone with his sister and trying to correct her grammar from using “me” to “I.” His insistence leads to screaming, "I, sis!” into the receiver, with the National Security Agency subsequently hauling him away. His syndicate refused to run the strip, citing concerns people would be upset if a terrorist attack happened to unfold in the days or weeks surrounding publication.
7. BILL WATTERSON MADE HIS RETURN TO COMICS IN THE STRIP.
After finishing his 10-year run on Calvin and Hobbes in 1995, cartoonist Bill Watterson largely stepped away from the public eye. He ended his extended sabbatical from comics in 2014, covertly stepping in as a guest artist for Pearls. Watterson was a fan of Pastis’s work and got in touch via a mutual friend. Watterson wound up doing three daily strips, leaving readers to wonder why the Pearls style was suddenly hewing so closely to Watterson’s, before Pastis broke the news. Once the story was out, the strips blew out a server on Universal’s Uclick site.
8. PASTIS IS A CHARACTER IN THE STRIP.
While Pastis has said that the character of Rat exhibits some of his humor, he has been known to frequently insert himself into the strip. This can confuse some readers, as in the case when the illustrated Pastis divorced his wife, Staci, within the narrative of the comic. That led people to believe the cartoonist was really getting a divorce. (He wasn’t.)
9. YOU CAN BUY PLUSH PEARLS CHARACTERS.
In 2009, Pastis and Universal struck a deal with plush toy manufacturer Aurora for a line of stuffed Pearls Before Swine characters, including Pig, Rat, and a Croc. Pastis joked that the three-dimensional products would help him “draw the back-view” of his cast when he needs a visual reference.
10. IT GOT AN ENDORSEMENT FROM A CONVICTED MURDERER.
In 2010, Pastis was somewhat horrified to read that a man awaiting trial for a double homicide in Utah wrote in to a local newspaper to chastise the prosecution and offer his view of the offending circumstances. At the end, in a weird non-sequitur, he implored the paper to “bring back Pearls Before Swines [sic] and Garfield.” The defendant, Jeremy Valdes, pled guilty in 2015 and was ordered to serve two life sentences.