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Interview: Stephan Pastis: Attorney Turned Cartoonist

Stephan Pastis started drawing cartoons as a kid -- and loved it. However, he decided to attend law school after considering that "the odds were really against making a living as a cartoonist."

Starting out as a litigator, Pastis quickly became disenchanted with practicing law - he didn't like the adversarial nature of it, nor "the anxiety and tension it produced." As a release, he resumed cartooning in his spare time.

In 1997, Pastis developed the concept that today is the popular strip Pearls Before Swine, starring the character of Pig, who is gentle and guileless, and Rat, who is arrogant and self-centered. The strip was rejected multiple times until it was accepted by United Features Syndicate. By January 2002, it was running in newspapers and Pastis left law for good. Pearls Before Swine was nominated in each of its first two years as "Best Newspaper Comic Strip" by the National Cartoonists Society, and won the award in 2004. Articles about Pastis' increasingly popular strip (now running in hundreds of papers) have appeared on sites such as MSNBC, and cartoon luminaries such as Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) have praised Pastis' technique.

Pastis' advice for unhappy or burned out attorneys seeking alternative careers? "Attorneys may be reluctant to leave practice because they’re afraid they’ll initially make less money . . . But there’s no comparison between that kind of sacrifice and the joy you can get from doing what you really love to do . . . It takes hard work and some luck, but I think pursuing what you really love to do is always the best option."

Click below to read our interview with Pastis.

JD Bliss (JDB): Your comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” made its official debut in 2002 when you were still an attorney. This year it won the “Best Newspaper Comic Strip” Award from the National Cartoonists Society. How did your evolution from the law to cartooning start?

Pastis:  I first started cartooning as a little kid, when my mother brought me pens and paper to have something to do when I was sick in bed – and I was sick a lot – and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.  But by the time I was in high school and college I certainly realized that the odds were really against making a living as a cartoonist.  I needed a career where I could make some money, and I enjoyed debating, so I thought the law would be a good option.

JDB:  How long did you practice law, and what was your attitude toward it?

Pastis:  I entered UCLA Law School in 1990 and from 1993 to 2002 practiced as an insurance defense litigator in the San Francisco area, mostly first party representation.  As for my attitude, let’s just say I didn’t like the law – the adversarial nature of it, the anxiety and tension it produced in me.

JDB:  Why and at what point did you decide to return to cartooning on your own time?

Pastis:  I never really stopped cartooning.  I first drew Rat, one of the main characters in Pearls Before Swine, while I was bored during a law school class on the European Economic Community.  By the mid 90s I was so unhappy in my practice that I was devoting much of my spare time – after 9:00 at night, on the weekends – to cartooning as a release.  I submitted my strips to different syndicates, and got rejected repeatedly.  In 1997 I came up with the concept that today is Pearls Before Swine, by pairing the character of Pig, who is gentle and guileless, along with Rat, who is arrogant and self-centered.  Pig came from one of my rejected strips, which had an attorney who defended an evil pig farmer.  I drew about 200 of the new strips and let them sit for two years without drawing anything, because I didn’t want to get rejected again.

JDB:  Was your legal practice generally a source of ideas or inspiration for your cartooning?

Pastis:  Only in the sense that I was very unhappy as a lawyer, and humor is a reaction to and defense against unhappiness.  Also, the law inspired me because if you dislike what you’re doing to the extent that I did, it gives you the impetus to get out.

JDB:  What was the process by which you actually did “get out” of the law?

Pastis:  In 1999, I got up my courage again and sent 40 of my best Pearls Before Swine strips to three different syndicates including United, which I had not previously contacted, and drew interest from all three.  United was willing to take a chance on me and did something they never did before:  in 2000 they started running the strips on the Web to see if readers would like them.  They did, and in January of 2002 Pearls Before Swine began running in newspapers.

JDB:  Did your background in the law help you during the syndication process?

Pastis:  That was the one time I was grateful for having been an attorney.  I hired one of the few lawyers who practice in syndication law, but at least I could understand what he was talking about.  I knew the basics of contract law, but my attorney had the experience to negotiate the best terms with the syndicate on my behalf.

JDB:  In addition to the help from your lawyer, what other mentoring and guidance did you receive during your transition to full-time cartoonist?

Pastis:  Other cartoonists were very helpful to me.  Charles Schulz and Peanuts had a huge influence on me throughout my life.  I got to meet him when I was still developing my ideas in the mid 90s and he was tremendously encouraging.  As the strip developed he continued to be very helpful.  Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, encouraged me after my strip started running on the Internet.  Darby Conley, who draws the Get Fuzzy strip, is a friend who taught me a lot and walked me through much of what I needed to know.

JDB:  Eight months after the strip began running in the newspapers, you quit the practice of law completely.  What were your emotions at that point?

Pastis:  It was exhilarating.  I felt like a jail cell door had just swung open.  My last day as a lawyer was one of the happiest of my life, and I vividly remember the final moment:  at a deposition in San Diego I shook the hand of the plaintiff’s counsel and said to myself, ‘I’ll never have to do this again!’

JDB:  What thoughts would you offer to attorneys who are similarly dissatisfied with what they’re doing but are reluctant to change?

Pastis:  Attorneys may be reluctant to leave practice because they’re afraid they’ll initially make less money.  The lower income was something I dealt with initially too.  But there’s no comparison between that kind of sacrifice and the joy you can get from doing what you really love to do.  As a lawyer, Sunday nights were absolutely terrible for me because I dreaded going back to the office.  Now Monday is just like any other day of the week – no matter what the ups or downs, the dread is gone.  It takes hard work and some luck, but I think pursuing what you really love to do is always the best option.

Click here to visit the Pearls Before Swine page on the United Features Syndicate website.

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Hi, we are a VERY big fan of Pearls.Except I can't get over the fact that it's a little too dark.Oh well I guess that's just how you are.I (Carter)love how you put the writers comment at the bottom of the comic, I don't no why I just do. I was reading one of your comics and it said that you visit book stores and sign Pearls comic books, well I was wondering if you could come to our book store and sign comic books there. I'll tell you more about where the book store is if you E-mail me back at [email protected]. PLEASE COME TO OUR BOOK STORE!!!!

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