Roger VanHaren: Funny 'Pearls Before Swine' can be somber when necessary

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

I am a big fan of Stephan Pastis’ quirky black comedy comic strip, “Pearls Before Swine.” The title for the strip most likely comes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:6): “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” I interpret that to mean “don’t offer what you hold dear to someone who won’t appreciate it.”

The strip “Pearls” uses dark humor, at times involves topics such as death, depression, and human suffering — not funny topics, usually, but Pastis’ treatment of them can deflate the seriousness of many situations. I said it was “quirky,” didn’t I?

The strip chronicles the daily lives of six major anthropromorphic animals: Pig, Rat, Zebra, Goat, Guard Duck, a fraternity of crocodiles, and the cartoonist himself who frequently appears in the strip. There’s also larger cast of semi-regular characters (most of whom have actual names (unlike the major characters).

Some of my favorite minor characters include Andy, a chained-up dog who dreams of being unchained. His optimism contrasts with the darkness of the comic strip. There’s Farina, Pig’s sister, a germaphobe who lives in a plastic bubble and is Rat’s ex-girlfriend; Pigita, Pig’s on-and-off girlfriend; Staci Pastis, Stephan’s ex-wife (Stephan lives in a basket outside her house); Max and Zach, two lions that live next door to Zebra, but they won’t eat him because it’s the female lions that do the hunting.

Another character I like is Comic Strip Censor, a man who gets mad whenever a character (usually Rat or Pig) says something close to being offensive. This character often allows Stephan to get away with making dirty jokes in the strip because “No newspaper editor wants to censor something and risk looking like me.”

So, OK, enough explanation. I’ll get to my point. Occasionally, the strip hits upon a very serious topic that has a very pointed reference to our fractured society. A case in point: “Pearls Before Swine” for Nov. 27.

In the first frame, Pig is making a list: “Places I can go and still feel safe in America.” In the second frame, the list shows “elementary school, movie theater, office, concert, restaurant, high school, church, night club, college, synagogue” (all but synagogue are crossed out). In the third frame, synagogue is crossed out. In the fourth frame, Pig is gone, the paper lies on desk.

Obviously, that’s not funny. It’s alarming, really, but it shows the versatility of Pastis’ comic strip. He can go from flat-out funny to deadly serious on any given day, and he can react to some societal situations that need to be given serious consideration. Yes, where can we feel safe?

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.