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‘Dream came true’ for Santa Rosa resident, 'Pearls Before Swine' cartoonist Stephan Pastis

Book signing

What: “‘Pearls' Hogs the Road,” with Stephan Pastis

When: 7:30 p.m., April 21

Where: Charles M. Schulz Museum, 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa

Admission: Free with museum admission, $5-$12 and free to children 3 and younger

Information: 579-4452, schulzmuseum.org

Stephan Pastis is really two people. One is a successful cartoonist and author, and the other is a comic strip character.

The real-life Pastis is the creator of both the long popular “Pearls Before Swine” syndicated comic strip, running since 2002, and a kids’ book series about the rather arrogant and inept boy detective Timmy Failure, introduced in 2013, which is in the very early stages of a possible live-action film adaptation.

“I sold the first Timmy Failure book to a major studio and I have been working on the script with a co-writer,” Pastis said. “I can say that much, but I can’t say which studio and I can’t say who the co-writer is.” It’s also too soon to say when the movie might go into production.

The sixth “Timmy Failure” book, which mixes drawings and text in a format similar to the popular “Wimpy Kid” series, comes out this month, and Pastis plans to put out two more. Then he hopes to launch a new series about a little girl.

Aside from his career, the real Pastis is also a happy family man, married to his wife, Staci, a fourth-generation Santa Rosan, for 23 years. They have a son, 19, and a daughter, 15. Wandering his three-and-a-half acre Santa Rosa property and two-story home with his faithful springer spaniel Edie, Pastis is a living picture of domestic bliss.

That’s in spite of the cartoonist’s frequent travels to promote his books. His latest nine-city national tour, in support of the newest book collection of his comic strips, “‘Pearls’ Hogs the Road,” opens April 21 at the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa.

On the other hand, Steph - the name Pastis usually uses for his recurring alter-ego in “Pearls Before Swine” - is a different story. Like Pastis, Steph has a stubbly beard (although Pastis keeps his beard neatly close-cropped) and wears a baseball cap (but Steph wears his backwards.) While Pastis is fit and trim at 49, Steph is paunchy and slovenly.

Most significantly, in a “Pearls Before Swine” story line that has confused some locals who know the Pastis family, Steph was thrown out by his wife, Staci, four years ago, and was last seen camping out on her porch.

“People were calling Staci and offering their support,” Pastis mused.

In real life, of course, the Pastis marriage is happily intact. Asked if she and Stephan were still married, Staci Pastis cheerfully replied, “What a silly question!”

“The divorce series definitely confused people, because that question has followed me for four years,” Stephan Pastis said.

Pastis originally introduced his comic strip counterpart to solve a writing problem. Addicted to clever but sometimes painful puns, the cartoonist needed to craft a mechanism for following each pun with a punchline.

So now, the characters - most often the strip’s angry antagonist, a rat named Rat - confront Steph at the end of the day’s strip to chastise him for a pun like “fake noose,” or even threaten him.

“I don’t plan these things, but you do ‘em and they work, so you stay with ‘em,” Pastis said. “It allowed me to get away with the puns. If you were to end a strip on a pun, it would look kinda dumb, but if you end it on a panel when you’re making fun of yourself, and you’re in on the joke, then it becomes a little more palatable.”

Once introduced as a regular character, Steph began to take on a humorously unpleasant life of his own.

“You always want your characters to undergo misfortune and hardship, and be in a position where people who read it can say, ‘Hey, my life is better than that!’ Thus I draw myself overweight and out of shape. I think my question was: If you portray yourself effectively in a strip, are you allowed to have the character depart from that and do things that aren’t true?”

Pastis primarily considers himself a writer and often mocks his own drawing skills in the strip, which led to the most famous “Pearls Before Swine” sequence of all, when Bill Watterson, the notoriously reclusive creator of the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip, still popular decades after it ended, came out of his self-imposed exile to appear as guest ghost artist on “Pearls” for a few days.

“The premise was a little girl named Libby who lived across the street from me in the strip would make fun of my drawing every day, so one day I got tired of it and just handed her the pen. From that moment on, anything you saw was actually drawn by Bill Watterson,” Pastis explained.

“That’s the most attention I’ve had for anything in my life - everything from the Washington Post to the New York Times to Time magazine to the ‘Today’ show. That story was everywhere.’”

Book signing

What: “‘Pearls' Hogs the Road,” with Stephan Pastis

When: 7:30 p.m., April 21

Where: Charles M. Schulz Museum, 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa

Admission: Free with museum admission, $5-$12 and free to children 3 and younger

Information: 579-4452, schulzmuseum.org

“Pearls Before Swine” also has sparked its share of controversy, most recently when its anti-hero, Rat, became president of the United States of America.

“Rat is always running for president, so I thought I’d let him win. I never said he was Trump, but you always get complaints about anything political in the strip, or about religion or sex,” Pastis said. “You can’t go by complaints. You’d just be whipsawed back and forth.”

In any case, Pastis is tougher than his comic strip self-caricature looks. Before he launched his comic strip career, the Los Angeles area native and UC Berkeley and UCLA law school grad spent nine years as a litigation attorney at a San Francisco law firm, and he says he’s still grateful for his escape and the chance to pursue his lifelong love of comic strips.

“My dream came true,” he said. “When I was a little kid, I wanted to travel really badly. We had an atlas, and I drew all over it - where I was gonna go and what I was gonna do. Then I wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist when I was eight years old. Those were my two dreams: to be a cartoonist and travel. I got ‘em both, and somebody else pays for the travel, I couldn’t have designed it better.”

Pastis has traveled on book tours all over Europe and to India, where he drew huge crowds of “Pearls Before Swine” fans.

The only drawback to his successful career? Occasional back spasms from long hours at the drawing board.

Pastis worked from 2002 to 2009 at Creative Associates in Santa Rosa, the studio founded by the late “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz, where Pastis won a reputation as a serious, hard worker.

“He’s very focused, almost bookwormish. I could see his introspection. Now he’s found his niche,” said Schulz’s widow, Jeannie.

Alexis Fajardo, a graphic novelist who works as editor of the current “Peanuts” comic book line at Creative Associates, regards Pastis fondly.

“I had a great time sharing an office with him at the Schulz studio. We would talk about everything: film, politics, art, history,” Fajardo said. “Stephan has a curious mind and a very specific point of view which comes across in his work. It’s a big part of the reason for his success.”

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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