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.
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.
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).