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‘Pearls Before Swine’ comic strips about military coup pulled from newspapers by syndicate

An upcoming storyline in “Pearls Before Swine,” the popular comic strip created by Santa Rosa cartoonist Stephan Pastis, has been pulled from 850 newspapers by its distributor because five installments scheduled to run next week depicted a military coup.

Pastis submitted the strips more than a month ago and never meant to comment on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., by supporters of President Donald Trump as Congress met to recognize the Electoral College victory of President-elect Joe Biden, a syndicate spokesman said.

Rather than risk reader misperception that the strips had been inspired by the uprising, Andrews McMeel Syndication, which distributes “Pearls Before Swine,” decided to withdraw them from the publication schedule.

“The syndicate almost never stops any strips I run, so this is really unusual,” Pastis said in an email interview. “But these are unusual times.”

The strips were scheduled to start Jan. 18 and run during the week of the U.S. presidential inauguration. On Friday, two days after a violent mob stormed the Capitol, the syndicate sent a notice to subscriber newspapers that next week’s strips would be replaced with substitutes already created by Pastis. The strips haven’t been killed but merely delayed, said Andy Sareyan, the syndicate’s chief executive officer, based in Kansas City.

“We’ll run the strips when things calm down,” Sareyan said. “He wrote these strips long before everything that happened last week, but to run them now just seemed like bad timing. They were about to come out at the time when tensions are running so high in the country.”

Pastis offered a succinct summary of the strips in question involving two ongoing characters, series star Rat, who has been posing as president for years as a running gag in “Pearls Before Swine,” and the militaristic Guard Duck.

“Guard Duck, in his little army helmet, invades the White House to remove President Rat, whose elite guard unit (the crocodiles) are lured away from their post by a Cinnabon. Rat scrambles to pardon himself before he is dragged from the Oval Office.”

In a tweet Thursday before the syndicate pulled the strip, Pastis alerted readers to the unintended timing of the storyline. “They were all created at least a month in advance of yesterday’s events and are not a commentary on them,” Pastis tweeted, posting a panel from the strip showing Rat sitting behind the president’s desk as Guard Duck peeks at him from behind a curtain.

Pastis is confident that the withdrawn strips will be safe to run six months from now.

“The strips themselves are fairly harmless. It’s just that, unbelievably enough, they concern a coup attempt involving the president of the United States,” he said. “And most people don’t know how far in advance syndicated cartoonists have to work. So they’ll assume it’s a commentary on what just happened and not know they were done way in advance of the events.”

In fact, some of the strips in question were drawn several years ago.

“There are five strips. Two of them were drawn in 2017 and for whatever reason, I just never ran them. Three of them were drawn in early December 2020,” Pastis explained. “I normally work around eight months in advance, but lately I’ve been substituting strips in so that I could cover the pandemic. The syndicate has ‘Pearls’ strips that run through the end of August 2021.”

Pastis has cultivated a reputation for edgy humor and has even jokingly mocked syndicate censors in his comic strip. But he is highly regarded by his distributor, Sareyan said.

“He is certainly one of our favorite people we represent. There certainly is no friction between us,” the syndicate chief explained. “We defend any cartoonist’s right to comment on events. But Stephan wasn’t trying to comment on last week’s event at all. He didn’t know it was coming. He isn’t prescient.”

Pastis said he respects the record of Andrews McMeel Syndication, formed in 2009 after the merger between Universal Press Syndicate and Uclick.

“Universal has been the syndicate of ‘Doonesbury,’ ‘Boondocks’ and many other strips that really pushed the limits of what a comic strip can do. So they are far from a fearful syndicate,” Pastis said.

“They are known for defending their creators against angry editors, readers, etc. But the country right now is at such a delicate inflection point. No one knows what's going to happen,” said.

This is not the first time Pastis has seemed to foretell the future by accident.

“The even odder strip was the ‘Pearls’ strip from December 29, 2019, which seems to predict the pandemic year of 2020,” he said.

“I think that the bottom line is that when you do a series of comic strips about an insurrection in the United States government, you never think there will be an actual insurrection in the United States government,” he added. “Or, maybe it’s just that in the last couple years, if you do strips that assume the worst, you will generally be proven right.”

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

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