I think it’s time for Stephan Pastis to win an award at the World Fantasy Convention, maybe a new category, like Best Illustrated Really Short Story, or Best Collection of Illustrated Really Short Stories.
I attended a panel at WFC quite a few years ago—it may have been in Tucson in 1993. I don’t think this was the discussion topic, but a member of the audience asked the members of the panel, some very prominent authors in the field, this question: “Just what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy?” One of the answers is the reason I’m writing about Stephan Pastis today.
I remember the first answer—and the best one: In both science fiction and fantasy something weird happens. In science fiction there is some kind of scientific explanation for the weirdness. The science may not work, but it is there. In fantasy the weirdness just happens. That’s the reason that Frankenstein is science fiction, and Dracula is fantasy.
The discussion continued. One author said, “Anything that happens in the future is science fiction.” Another author said, “Fantasy frequently takes place in fantastic lands, like Neverland or Narnia or Middle Earth.”
Then someone chimed in with, “Alternate histories: If you change history, it’s science fiction.” And someone came back with, “No, there’s no science. Alternate histories are fantasy.” They batted that one back and forth for a while.
And finally someone yelled, “Talking animals, in fantasy, you almost always have talking animals.” Of course, that elicited many examples of fantasy stories that have no talking animals. But everyone agreed that any story with talking animals is definitely fantasy.
And so we have Stephan Pastis and his award-winning comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, one of the most fun works of fantasy out there these days. Pastis’s eighth collection, just released, is The Saturday Evening Pearls, with a cover illustration that just might make Norman Rockwell laugh out loud.
Pastis’s humor should put readers in mind of authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Christopher Moore (who looks a lot like Pastis, but I have been assured that they are two different lunatics), and Douglas Adams. His cynicism, satire and lackadaisical attitude toward toward death bring to mind Moore’s A Dirty Job, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Adams’ Dirk Gently series among others. Pastis’s drawings are not elaborate, more like stick figures, but the magic comes from the amazing expressions he can create with the dot of an eye or tilt of the head and the poetic turn of a word or phrase.
His two main characters are housemates. The sarcastic, narcissistic Rat and the simple, lovable Pig supply accidental philosophy on the human condition. In the same neighborhood you will find a fraternity of not-too-bright crocodiles who live next door to a zebra they can never figure out how to kill and eat. Occasional human beings stumble into the strip, but they are always even more ignorant than the crocs.
And sometimes you may get lucky enough to find people you know. Just by accident Pastis used the names of my son, Josh; my son-in-law, Dave; and my wife, Linda, in the strip below. Of course they do not really belong in the “cubicle o’ shame,” but framed copies of this strip hang in their offices.
So, if you’re looking for some really great fantasy, and you don’t have time to reread The Lord of the Rings or wade through all those volumes of the Wheel of Time, pick up a volume of Pearls Before Swine and check it out in your daily newspaper or online every day.