Monthly Archives: September 2012

Q and A: Stephan Pastis tosses a few pearls

This Q&A will appear in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or see it online at

Pig, friend of Rat, product of Stephan Pastis’s brain.

Lawyer-turned-cartoonist-turned-tweener-novelist Stephan Pastis visits Milwaukee Monday to promote his 20th collection of “Pearls Before Swine” comic strips. “Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out!” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $16.99) collects two years’ worth of strips, and reminds us that Pastis’s dysfunctional menagerie has lost none of its twisted charm.

It’s been 10 years since Milwaukee Journal Sentinel readers were first introduced to Rat, Pig and the rest of the gang. Rat’s still the cynical, know-it-all rodent who plays yin to Pig’s exasperatingly clueless yang. The world they share with professorial Goat, long-suffering Zebra, volatile Guard Duck and other sidekicks remains goofy, irreverent, and off-kilter enough to keep you guessing.

Pastis, meanwhile, has seen his strip picked up by more than 600 newspapers worldwide, has launched a “Pearls” iPad app, and shows real star quality in his promotional videos. Just in case that comic-strip thing doesn’t work out (and perhaps desperate not to resort to his original law career), he has two more books due in the next six months: “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” an illustrated novel aimed at kids 8 to 12, and “Friends Should Know When They’re Not Wanted: A Sociopath’s Guide to Friendship.

In “Freaks,” Pastis annotates many strips with pithy comments and insightful asides (sample: “‘Sigh’ is a great way to end a strip for which you otherwise have no ending”). We asked him for a few more in advance of his appearance at Boswell Book Company.

Q. As one of our foremost promoters of pigs in popular culture, how do you feel about “Angry Birds?”
A. Rat loves any game that abuses pigs. Though as the creator of both, I try to remain neutral. On a much more insightful note, I, Stephan Pastis, have gotten all three stars on every single level of Angry Birds, including the latest update. It is the proudest accomplishment of my life.

Q. Your new book reveals your secret desire to do the Lambeau Leap after book signings. Should we be ready to catch you in Boswell’s fiction section tomorrow?

A. I fear that any fans of Rat would get more joy in seeing me fall than actually catching me. And I applaud them for that.

Q. Comic-strip celebrities often make appearances in your strip. Have they ever made odd demands? All-yellow M&Ms in the break room, things like that?

A. Dennis the Menace had demands involving women that I cannot repeat here.

Q. Album cover art, hand-written letters, the ode – all once popular, mainstream practices and now, not so much. Will the comic strip go the way of the ode, something respected but with a small, eccentric audience?

A. I’d tell you if I knew what the hell an ode was.

Q. Did Rat have an unhappy childhood?

A. His father was killed by a circus clown. Other than that, pretty normal.

Q. In “Freaks,” you remark that some characters never caught on, one tragic example being Feral Ballerina. Any particularly big disappointments?

A. There was a killer whale that lived next door to some seals and he was always trying to get into their house to eat them. I loved that whale. But I don’t think anyone else did. So I had him die as a result of an exploding meatloaf.

Q. “Freaks” also resurrects a dizzying array of characters who never re-appeared – Kiko The Lonely Cactus, Jenny Jellyfish and J. Rutherford Shrimp to name a few. Have you ever resurrected a character by popular demand?

A. I believe the aforementioned whale has died, undied, died, and undied again. He’s quite flexible.

Q. Action figures, amusement park ride, Broadway musical, clay animation movie, talk show: If you had your choice, which would be your dream PBS brand extension?

A. Guard Duck action figure that lobs actual hand grenades. (Don’t worry. We’d include detailed safety instructions.)

Q. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is coming out in February. It’s about a kid who can’t do anything right. Autobiographical?
A. Timmy is a detective who can take any mystery and make it more mysterious. He has few friends, is very arrogant, and is profoundly delusional. And yes, that about sums me up.

:: Stephan Pastis will sign books 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave.

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My “Pearls Before Swine” Legacy

When I look back on my career, just about the only lasting impact I can point to is the funny pages. For about eight years, I had control over the two pages daily and six pages Sunday whose primary, number-one, most important mission was: Make ’em laugh (except I guess for “Spider Man” and about every other episode of “Marmaduke”). This is to say that I took calls from sales reps pitching new strips and I collected piles of press kits stuffed with funny-page samples and I made the decisions about which comics to kill in order to make room for new ones. Yes, it was me, I yanked “Cathy” from the local newspaper. I know, I know.

This responsibility terrified me at first, but over the years I really warmed up to the job. I like to think I started refining my eye.

Rat, one of the main characters in “Pearls Before Swine,” is pretty much the antithesis of Nancy.

Which brings me to “Pearls Before Swine.” I am proud to take responsibility for adding this brilliant strip to the pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 10 years ago. I wish I could remember exactly what convinced me to snap this newcomer up. It could have been the fact that creator Stephan Pastis put Nancy into one of his strips in a sort of cameo appearance — a technique he would later use with characters from “Family Circus,” “Hagar,” “Blondie,” and many others. The juxtaposition of this uncool bow-decorated 1930s girl with a deeply cynical bat-carrying rat was, to me, pure genius. (Looking back, I think it resonated, on a subconscious level, with my anxiety about mediating the tension between nostalgia and relevance on the comics page, a foreboding of things to come for newspapers. But let’s not go there.)

I’ve moved on to other things and that’s good. Space for comics has shrunk for every newspaper in the country, and I don’t envy the folks who have had to manage that new reality. But at least the good people at the JS have held on to “Pearls”, which I still adore.

The newest collection of “Pearls” from Stephan Pastis

I mention all this because Stephan has a new collection of strips out (his 20th) and it’s a hoot. When I learned he was going to be in Milwaukee to promote it, I got in touch and caught up with him a little. He’s been a busy guy: doing videos to promote the strip, launching an iPad app, even working on an illustrated novel for young people.

If you’re nearby this Monday, Oct. 1, come on over and visit Stephan at Boswell Book Company. Things get started at 7 p.m. There have been some rumors of a Lambeau Leap in the fiction section afterward, but I cannot verify this.

Also, watch this space for a Q-&-A I did with Stephan in advance of his visit (it’ll be in the Journal Sentinel, too).

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Sometimes, Potato Salad is just Potato Salad

You pay good money for an artisanal stuffed dachsund at a chic art-village boutique, you mail it to your beloved nephew, you picture him embracing it with big happy eyes and a bubble over his head saying, “You are my favorite aunt.” You visit months later to find the dachsund is untouched, but the $3.49 rubber frog you picked up at the 7-Eleven the last time you visited is squeezed and chewed to within an inch of its life. There’s no bubble over the little guy’s head, either.

I suspect my reaction to this phenomenon is something like the way my Mom used to feel about her potato salad.

“You don’t want my Sour Cream Apple Cake? What about this great Bon Appetit recipe for Pan Asian Cole Slaw? You want the potato salad? Again?”

No thank you, no thank you, yes please.

Sometimes you’re stuck with the tried-and-true, however bored you might be with it. And Mom, for the record, I want to tell you that this is OK when it comes to your potato salad.

Potato. Onion. Vinegar. Mayo. And a few basic but critical ingredients in just the right proportions. Boil. Dice. Toss. The best. For going on 50 years now.

All the Golembeski daughters had their staples at the family picnics, the things they’d be expected to pack in the ice coolers without being asked. They could turn them out in their sleep (or, I imagine, when sleep deprived). If Aunt Marlene did not bring her elbow-macaroni-with-shrimp salad and if Aunt Dot did not bring her potato salad, the disappointment would be palpable.

Mind you, I grew up at a time when a fresh basil leaf was exotic. If it wasn’t in a can, a jar, or a Green Giant frozen-food box, I would not know what to make of it. Creative cuisine meant making chip dip without Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. At some time in my high school years, though, I sensed change afoot. A copy of Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cook Book showed up. Someone introduced red-skinned potatoes to one of our family picnics, with the skins still on! Mom even started putting wine into food, for God’s sake.

When I moved out on my own, I started getting invited to picnics of my own. I am not sure when the inevitable dish-to-pass question first came up, but I know that my reflexive answer was: Mom’s potato salad. I knew exactly how to make it. I could shop for the ingredients without thinking. It was always a snappy solution. And you know what? It was a hit! People started expecting it.

In more recent years – OK, decades — picnic activities have fallen off, my potato-salad fans have moved on, and I guess it’s fair to say I’ve tried rebranding myself. I felt I should evolve from Picnic Dish-to-Pass to Dinner Party Cuisine-to-Impress (“We’re thinking of regional Mexican next Saturday, does Oaxacan mole sound OK?”). But a call came a few weeks back, my first in ages: A neighborhood backyard picnic. Smoked pork shoulder, cole slaw, the works. I said I’d bring Mom’s potato salad before it occurred to me that the unthinkable had happened, and I no longer remembered how to make it.

Shockingly, it didn’t take long to find the “recipe,” stuffed into a folder that was shoved to the back of a closet shelf. There you go, scrawled onto the back of a Niagara Gazette memo slip, I’m sure as I was talking to her on the phone at work: Mom’s Potato Salad.

Potato. Onion. Vinegar. Mayo. And a few basic but critical ingredients in just the right proportions.

I boiled. I diced. I tossed. The muscle memory came back as I put each potato into my palm, took up a blunt-edged dinner knife, and cubed. I had jotted down proportions, but I knew they were rough. I had to use instinct. Was a time it would turn out just right after a few tastes, but that takes practice. It had been so many years that I didn’t trust my judgment about the celery seed, the sugar, the salt. I was just hoping for approximately right.

I tasted, adjusted, and thought – not bad.

I think everyone like it. It seemed to stand up well to the red-skinned competition someone else brought along. I think I’ll make another batch this weekend. I figure it’s my time of life to embrace my brand, even if it’s just white-skinned potatoes and mayo. I’m OK with that.

Thanks, Mom. And happy birthday!


Filed under Appetite