Floundering Fathers doesn’t just mark the first collection of Pearls Before Swine daily and Sunday strips since last year’s aptly-named I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream Because Puns Suck, but it’s also the first collection of 2018. If history is anything to judge by, we should probably expect at least one more before the calendar year flips over – though your impatience will be rewarded with this nice, boxy set of strips that were originally published between June 6th, 2016 through March 11th, 2017 in newspaper and online portals everywhere.
Note those dates, as this puts the 20th collection of Pearls Before Swine funnies right smack dab in the middle of one of the most conscientious Presidential elections in modern times. Now the book’s name finally starts to make sense; if you think an observant cartoonist Stephan Pastis could possibly resist such easy pickings, you’d be mistaken!
Let’s get right to the point for this review: longtime Pearls fans are getting exactly what they expect with this collection – puns galore, some more clever than others. A growing complaint about the Pearls comic has been Pastis’ growing reliance of working-backwards for the easy joke, typically presented in a format that’s fast approaching a recognizable template. Wordplay > Observation/Misunderstanding > Character confronts the fictional Pastis (himself a regular character) about his lack of skills.
There’s still plenty of variance among the intended victims, of course, and things are kept fresh thanks to a healthy rotation of pop-culture smackdowns by the cast’s mono-named bestiary of anthropomorphic frontmen (and yes, they’re predominantly male, so light those pitchforks now if you’ve got ‘em). For this round we’ve got Pastis skewering everything from drones, Pokémon, drones, social media, and even the poor phone book. It’s not clear what poor phone books ever did to Mr. Pastis, but someone should let him know they can’t hurt him anymore. Plus, there’s an interesting ‘origin’ story about the apocalyptic genesis of the Pearls Before Swine landscape
More than anything, it’s politics, politics, politics that linger over the majority of the strips collected here (again, note their original publication dates). These strips originally appeared during the 2016 Presidential election, and while some of this period’s seedier moments are reflected here, nothing rises to the insane levels of full-blown CNN/Fox News hysteria. When your hardest-hitting new characters are Senator Bow Wow (“Doggie treats for a “no”) and Clowno the Congressman, no safe spaces are needed.
Instead, he focuses on far more generic complaints, such as the easy ‘swaying’ of candidates on specific issues or the general helplessness we all feel when nothing changes. There’s a huge tradition for comics to echo the voice of their creators during these elective years, and while Pastis’ efforts can’t possibly live up to the likes of Breathed (Bloom County), Trudeau (Doonesbury), or even Walt Kelly’s Pogo, he’s not operating on their level of political snark anyway. Rat may be crude, but he’s no Bill the Cat. Ack! Thbbft!
Yes, a certain yellow-haired candidate does get referenced from time to time, but never by name and certainly never overtly. Whether this is because Pastis understands the newspaper business metrics far better than most bloggers and Twitter zealots or because he genuinely doesn’t feel like offending half of the audience, I have no idea. Regardless, it’s not a compromise that’s going to please everyone, but it’s the best one he could’ve made.
It’s also worth noting the collection’s most ‘political’ strip is the one you won’t see, and not for the reason you might think. Longtime Pearls fans will note the, ahem, difference in art styles for the July 27th, 2016 strip included here. That’s because the strip isn’t from July 27th, or even the year 2016 at all. It’s actually one of the earliest Pearls strips – dating all the way back to 2002. The original strip was pulled before its publication, replaced with a classic version instead, leaving observant readers scratching their heads and clueless ones none the wiser.
Pastis has, from time to time, not just embraced some of his comic strip’s saucier moments but has also poked fun at them. And, because he saw fit to share the original comic with his fans online, I’m including it with this review to show fans what they’re missing.
You know, in this era of fake news, porn star scandals, and what seems like a never ending parade of protests about every little thing it’s almost refreshing to know that a dying format like paper newspapers are still capable of getting their collective panties twisted over an innocuous thing like a comic strip, and an entirely inoffensive one at that. When the time comes for historians to figure out what ‘went wrong’ with the newspaper industry it shouldn’t take long. Easiest postmortem ever.
It won’t rock the boat, but Floundering Fathers is an easy addition to your existing Pearls Before Swine collection of paper comics, if for no other reason than it’s the monumental 20th such collection. Few, if any, modern comic strips have the resilience to have reached such milestones without losing its original spark. Pearls is one such strip; a shame about that newspaper censorship, though. You’d think a dying medium would know better.