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CORRECTION: January 18, 2011

A story on Page B1 Monday about cartoonist Stephan Pastis said he lives and draws "Pearls Before Swine" at a Rincon Valley-area condo. The condo serves as Pastis' studio; he and his family live in Larkfield.


Life has gotten good for Stephan Pastis, who's gone from being a lawyer who couldn't stand his job to a cartoonist who can't draw.

Well, it's not that Pastis can't draw. The creator of the toothy and hilarious "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip obviously can.

It's just that writing the dialogue and gags is his joyous forte. The drawing, which for some cartoonists is the best part of the work, is for him quite secondary.

He believes the quality of his drawing falls well short of cartoons by most of his funnies-section colleagues. His most avid fans may not even notice that his sardonic Rat, sweet and clueless Pig, ridiculous crocs and exasperated "zeebas" all sport stick legs and stick arms.

"I'm a much better writer than I am an artist," Pastis said. Among comics doodlers, he said, "I'm probably the worst on the page."

He makes the writing and the drawing of "Pearls Before Swine," a hugely popular strip just now entering its 10th year, two distinct functions. He doesn't even perform the tasks in the same place.

Most Monday mornings, the Los Angeles native leaves the Rincon Valley-area condo that he and his Santa Rosa-born wife, the former Staci Daniels, share with kids Thomas, 13, and Julia, 9. He drives to a downtown coffeehouse, where he hunkers down to work in blue jeans and a baseball cap.

Pastis, who celebrated his 43rd birthday on Sunday, is by now famous. He's published 15 comics books and often includes a not-so-flattering caricature of himself in the award-winning strip, which runs in more than 600 newspapers, including The Press Democrat. But he's rarely recognized as he takes out a notebook at the cafe, plugs in his iPod headphones and sets to work writing the dialogue for his comic strips.

The music Pastis works to could distract or depress someone else, but it works for him as he creates storylines for a strip whose star character is a potty-mouthed rat who detests idiots and regards just about everybody as one. As he writes, Pastis listens to Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Neil Young, Pink Floyd and Van Morrison.

"My playlist has been described as music to kill yourself by," he said.

He'll sit there on a Monday for a couple of hours, maybe three, and write and refine the script for one to five "Pearls" strips. "Usually, two," he said.

When he leaves the cafe, which he wants to keep secret because he doesn't want to be interrupted, he's typically done with his strip work for the day. He might pop into Barnes & Noble and autograph "Pearls" collection books that the store quickly sells, or answer a portion of his daily flood of mostly adoring and sometimes outraged e-mails from readers, or advance his myriad other creative projects.

Then comes Tuesday. Typically Pastis spends the morning at the old wooden desk in his home office, drawing the characters and action and visual puns and absurdities that accompany the dialogue he wrote the previous day. He draws first with a pencil and finishes with a brush pen. While on Mondays he needs distressed rock in his ears, for his drawing on Tuesdays, "I can listen to anything." Chances are he's tuned to NPR and taking in "Fresh Air," BBC News or "This American Life" as he completes the less intellectually taxing and focused phase of his work.

Before he e-mails a strip to the editors and distributors at United Feature Syndicate, Pastis likes to pass it by his in-home editor.

It's always a good sign if a strip makes Thomas Pastis laugh.

"My son has the best ear (for humor) of anyone I've ever met," the cartoonist said.

A decade into his dream profession, the graduate of Cal and UCLA law school has found that what works for him is to complete seven daily strips and a Sunday strip each week. He doesn't want to produce more and risk that quality will slip.

"I may suck, but it's not for lack of effort," he said.

Earlier in his career, Pastis created more strips per week and built up an inventory that's a rarity among newspaper cartoonists, most of whom work much closer to deadline. In his office, he has a stack of about seven and a half months' worth of unpublished "Pearls Before Swine" strips. To him, that pile of work means freedom.

Working so far ahead allows him to pursue opportunities like the recent invitation by the USO to accompany fellow cartoonists Mike Luckovich, Jeff Keane, Rick Kirkman, Garry Trudeau and Tom Richmond to Afghanistan to cheer U.S. troops.

He's also co-written with Craig Schulz, son of late "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz, the script for a new animated "Peanuts" feature, "Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown," due for release soon on DVD.

Pastis said people sometimes assume that he lives in Santa Rosa because it's where the great comics cartoonist lived and worked. In fact, he's in Santa Rosa because it is his wife's hometown, but as an aspiring cartoonist he did get a bolt of encouragement when he approached Schulz and showed him his work at a table at his ice arena cafe in 1996.

After Pastis and his wife left the East Bay for Santa Rosa in 2002, the year his strip hit the newspapers, he took a part-time job with the Schulz family's Creative Associates. Until just months ago, he helped judge whether proposed uses of "Peanuts" characters for licensed products and promotions were consistent with the personalities Schulz gave them.

Pastis also has worked with the Fox movie studio on a possible "Pearls" film. He continues to compile books of his comics, he speaks publicly sometimes and most Friday afternoons he goes on KSRO with talk-show host Steve Jaxon.

Beyond all that, Pastis yearns to write a children's book and perhaps films that have nothing to do with his comic strip. "I want to see if I can succeed in another arena," he said.

Ten years into "Pearls," there's a heap of fans who believe the disciplined ex-lawyer full of imagination is capable of just about anything, and one comic strip rat who's got his doubts.