Is it the end of the road for newspaper cartoons and comic strips?

Mar 4, 2014

There are many reasons to lament the slow disappearance of newspapers. But here’s one you may not have considered: the loss of cartoons and comic strips.

You might be startled that an old political and news analyst would say that. But in fact, comics, both overtly political and not so, have always been great political and social barometers. Back in the late 19th century, Boss Tweed, the corrupt New York City political boss, was largely done in by Thomas Nast’s cartoons.

Before he was carted off to jail, Tweed complained bitterly. He didn’t care what the reporters wrote. After all, many of his supporters didn’t read. But Tweed said “them damned pictures are killing me!”  Thanks to Nast, he died in jail.

Nationally syndicated political cartoons aren’t as big as they were when Feiffer and Herblock reigned supreme. In modern times, the national mood seems to be captured more often in comic strips. Doonesbury was the must-read of the 1970s; Bloom County captured the 1980s.

Today, however, there’s a modern strip that, to me, captures life in this millennium better than anything: "Pearls Before Swine," written by a “recovering lawyer” named Stephan Pastis.

Pastis, who lives in Northern California, is making his first-ever trip to Michigan this week; he will appear at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor Thursday night to sign copies of his two hilarious children’s books, about a child private detective named Timmy Failure.

"Pearls," however, is aimed at adults. The main characters are a selfish, egocentric and obnoxious Rat, a naïve and trusting Pig, and an intellectual and withdrawn Goat.

Plus, there are a family of homicidal crocodiles, a weapons-obsessed guard duck, and a vast assortment of other characters. There’s a moral in Pastis’s own life. Now 46, he wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist since the second grade. But since he also wanted to eat, he became a lawyer instead.

He found law horribly boring. So he started drawing cartoons, and sending them to syndicates. They were swiftly rejected, though one editor did say he liked Rat. But Pastis didn’t give up.

Finally, 12 years ago, "Pearls" appeared in its first newspaper, the Washington Post. Today, it runs in more than 600 papers. Savagely funny and subtle, it mostly avoids anything that smacks of partisan politics. Pastis, no fool, doesn’t want to lose half his audience. But he did have the crocodiles campaigning for Newt Gingrich because they assumed he was a reptile like them.

The militaristic Duck gets in some difficulty for nuking a blighted urban area, till Rat convinces voters he was just fast-tracking urban revitalization. Pastis, who was a political science major, wants to make people laugh, but also make them think.

He told me he worries about whether democracy can survive big money and gerrymandering, and he’s not alone.

Perhaps our politics need to break the usual boundaries. "Pearls Before Swine" certainly does. Characters from other strips appear; so does Pastis himself, usually when his characters invade his office and berate him for being stupid.

Some mornings, I read "Pearls" before the headlines, drinking coffee out of a mug labeled WWRD: What Would Rat Do?

Sadly, I know that when I turn to the news, I’ll find out.