Stephan Pastis is coming to the Twin Cities this weekend to promote the latest collection from his hit comic strip, "Pearls Before Swine," and to lecture at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. But the visit is about a lot more than that -- at least, from his perspective.
"For me, going to Minneapolis is like going to Mecca," he said from his California home.
He's coming to the birthplace of the man he calls "Sparky," the person the rest of us know as Charles Schulz. It's also the birthplace of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the iconic "Peanuts" comic strip that made all of them famous.
Pastis, 43, credits Schulz for giving birth to his career, too. He was a frustrated insurance lawyer yearning for a career as an artist when he approached Schulz, who was eating breakfast in a diner, and introduced himself as an aspiring cartoonist. Much to his amazement, Schulz invited him to sit down and spent an hour giving him advice. Schulz even asked Pastis to retrieve his portfolio from his car, so he could critique his work.
Energized by the conversation, Pastis drew 200 installments of his would-be strip. In late 1999, just months before Schulz's death, Pastis picked the best 40 and sent them to the comic-strip syndicates.
"The odds against me were staggering," he said. Because there is so little turnover in most newspapers' comic-page lineups, "the odds of getting a comic strip picked up for syndication are 1 in 36,000. I've been so lucky. Statistically, it shouldn't have happened."
A syndicate agreed to run the strip on its Internet site, where it received a so-so reception until "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams raved about it on his blog and helped raise its profile.
In 2001, "Pearls Before Swine" debuted in 45 newspapers, making hardly enough for Pastis to support his family. But he quit the law firm, anyway, and took a part-time job overseeing licensing agreements for the Schulz estate, a job he still does two days a week.
He no longer needs the money -- the strip runs in more than 650 newspapers and has spun off books, merchandise and even talk of a movie. But he would never give up the tie to his mentor.
"That's one of the reasons I'm so excited" about the Twin Cities visit, he said. "This is about the Sparky connection."
The strip often is described as "edgy" and "sarcastic." That might be true in context, Pastis said, but not in general.
"I guess that compared to other comic strips, I'm edgy," he said. "But put me along something like 'South Park,' and I'm Captain Kangaroo."
One of his trademarks is poking fun at other strips. Pastis always warns the other cartoonist of what's coming.
"As a lawyer, I know that I don't have to do that," he said. "But as a colleague, I feel that I owe them that."
As for risking hurting someone's feelings, Pastis said that a cartoon is a cowardly version of stand-up comedy.
"A stand-up comedian faces the audiences and gets their immediate feedback," he said. "I hide behind the comic strip, and unless people write to me, I don't know what they think."
Now that his career has come to fruition, he's determined to do for aspiring artists what Schulz did for him. In addition to his lecture at MCAD, he's visiting a Minneapolis public school. (The latter appearance is not open to the public.)
"I don't pay that much attention to sales figures or awards," he said. "To me, the big question is: Did you influence the next generation? That's my goal."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392