It might surprise fans of Stephan Pastis’ popular daily comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” that the cartoonist also writes books for children. After all, the hilarious strip boasts a decidedly dark, even subversive, sense of humor, and occasionally features characters who smoke and curse.
But Pastis has created a successful illustrated book series for middle school-age kids called “Timmy Failure,” about a “clueless, comically self-confident kid detective” and his very large sidekick, a polar bear named Total.
Pastis appears Sunday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, where he’ll discuss the second book in the series, “Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done” (Candlewick, $14.99), as well as “Pearls Before Swine.” He talked to Miami.com (and created this drawing especially for this article) about Timmy, why he became a lawyer, and why his “Pearl” characters make fun of him.
What inspired “Timmy Failure”?
The thing is, when you do a comic strip, and I guess people may or may not realize this, it’s so limiting in terms of space. You have three panels or four panels to tell a story. And then the next day, when you continue the story, you have to reset the entire premise, which makes you lose a whole panel. In other words, it’s very tough to tell a story. So when somebody says to you, “Hey, you can write a book and it can be 300 pages and you can be as long-winded as you want, and make the pictures as big as you want,” it’s sort of freeing from what you normally do.
Was it difficult to tone down the irreverent style in “Pearls” for a kids’ book?
[Laughs] Everybody asks me that – am I that bad?!? I watch things like “Family Guy” and say to myself, “Oh my God – I’m so tame.” I’m almost embarrassed by how tame I am. But I guess for newspapers I’m not tame. But no, it wasn’t tough – all I did was just the same thing I always do, which is write something that makes me laugh, and, you know, leave out the smoking.
The name itself is pretty subversive – “Timmy Failure.” Not exactly feel-good, “Barney” stuff.
Well, that’s true. I liked it because it was so blunt. Timmy is like the prototypical 1950s “good boy” name. And “failure” is such a blunt word to put it up against. Especially nowadays, when everything’s so PC – I like that combo.
So what can people expect at your Books & Books appearance?
When I do the “Timmy” show, I do a 15-minute presentation where I show a little bit about “Pearls” and a little bit about “Timmy.” And I talk about how I went from being a lawyer to a cartoonist. And I show a few strips and a few excerpts from the book. And after that’s done, I take questions. People tend to have a lot of questions [laughs], particularly about the strip. And afterward I do the signing – and it’s really fun, fun to meet the people.
Are you in any talks regarding turning “Timmy” into an animated show?
Yeah, I am. I’m always hesitant to say the director’s name because I fear it will all fall through, and I also don’t know how much he wants me to talk about it, but the director has a very good name making films that are regarded well. I have spoken with him twice and met with him in New York, and he seems to really like the book, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that something will happen, because I would love to get it made into a movie, but more importantly I would love to get it made well. And I think this guy can do it.
Why did you become a lawyer in the first place?
Money. That’s it. The worst reason to do anything. Just coming out of school, an undergrad with a lot of debt and wanting to go into something that could make money. Doctor, lawyer – I didn’t like blood, so … I mean, I knew from the first semester of law school that I didn’t like the people I was with and I didn’t like the kind of people who became lawyers. And that turned out to be a good prediction, because I never liked being a lawyer. Very few lawyers like being a lawyer, by the way. No lawyer ever said to me, “Oh my God, why’d you quit?”
What gave you the idea to have your “Pearls” characters make fun of you within the strip?
I did it once years ago, where I pretended my friend was drawing the strip for the day. And my friend used it as a forum to just rip on me, and everything embarrassing that ever happened to me as a kid. Of course I had drawn that, and in doing so, I made myself sort of the object of ridicule, and it seemed to work. And it opens up all these weird avenues. It flirts with this sort of autobiographical aspect in a very direct way. I mean, I’m right there. And I can make the strip reflect something directly that really happened in my life, or I can fudge it and make it something that didn’t happen, but might be funny. And then there’s the fun thing in literature with the creator and the created, the Dr. Frankenstein scenario. You can have the created be angry that they were created, and not like the creator. The bottom line is, it seems to be a rich avenue that I can run with. I can make fun of myself when I tell a pun that would otherwise be too painful and stupid. If I make fun of myself at the end of the pun, then people go, “OK, he’s in on it, too.” Because in 2014, you cannot end on a pun. You’ll look like Henny Youngman.