A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to see Stephan Pastis at the Pittsburgh Toonseum (That’s “cartoon museum” for you out of towners.) Stephan Pastis is the cartoonist behind, Pearls Before Swine – one of my favorite newspaper comics. He was giving a lecture on cartooning. I had to be there.

I didn’t know what to expect from Mr. Pastis. What do cartoonists talk about? Would he discuss his drawing methods? His writing methods? The advantages and disadvantages of digital distribution versus print distribution? (Would anyone else find that interesting?)

He kept it light and gave a talk that everyone could appreciate. This was good because there were a lot of kids in the audience (kudos to the parents who brought them there – you are parenting right.) Stephan talked about his characters, his inspirations, and how he started his cartooning career. He even shared some favorite complaint letters.

The lion’s share of his lecture was a “book reading.” How does a cartoonist do a book reading? He picks out some favorite comic strips and reads the dialogue out loud while a large screen projection of each panel is displayed on the wall behind him. Usually, he didn’t even have to read the last panel. As soon as the punchline went up, the crowd was laughing too hard to hear him anyway.

Stephan puts a lot of himself into his art, but it’s hard to get a sense of who he is as a person just from reading his work or listening to his talk. He presents himself in an accurate and straight-forward way, but then he wraps that presentation in a thick layer of self-deprecating humor. (Regular “Pearls” readers know that he beats himself up quite a bit.) Trying to know the man through his work is like looking at him through water, but then that self-deprecation is like that handful of dust thrown in that water, keeping us from getting a clearer look. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing him for it. I think this method allows him to be honest about himself without becoming too intense. If he didn’t cloak himself in a little self-abuse, he’d be too exposed.

A very memorable and poignant moment of the talk was when a kid in the audience asked Mr. Pastis to tell us which Pearls strips were his favorites. Stephan didn’t just talk about the funny ones. He mentioned the thoughtful, sensitive comics a well. He told us that if a cartoonist tries to be touching too often, heartfelt comics lose their power. But if the profound moments are used carefully, they can be magic.

Thanks for visiting us in Pittsburgh, Stephan. Come back whenever you like.

-Marjorie Rishel