The last collection, sorry, Treasury of Pearls Before Swine comics was 2021’s Pearls Awaits the Tide, a celebration of sorts for cartoonist Stephan Pastis’ enjoying its twentieth anniversary of survival as a dying medium (comic strips) published via a dying medium (newspapers), reprinted though a surprisingly resilient medium (paperback books). It arrived smack dab in the middle of the world-shuttering Covid-19 pandemic. Say what you will, but that’s pretty resilient.
Enter Pearls Seeks Enlightenment, the 13th Treasury collects (yeah, I said it) daily and Sunday funnies that ran between March 30, 2020 to October 10, 2021, with a few caveats I’ll get into later. The book’s cover, as has become tradition, the real Pastis’ scaling the world’s shortest mountain seeking enlightenment from the sagely Wise Ass. You’ll be seeing a lot of Wise Ass inside these pages, and I hope you like revisiting the pandemic, lockdowns, masks, and vaccinations, because you’ll be getting that as well.
As you might already know, the reason for the longer-than-expected wait between new books is that the familiar paper square collections are no longer being produced, the last being 2018’s Floundering Fathers. The upside is that newer Treasuries have contained a lot more whimsical commentary from the creator himself, as well as other page-filling odds and ends to justify printing expenses. And no more double-dipping, thank goodness. The only downside is diehard Pearls fans have to wait a little longer to get their republished comic strip fix.
I mean, you don’t really have to wait…you could always clip them from newspapers or read them online for free. But that wouldn’t make you much of a diehard fan now, would it?
Apart from the actual funnies Pastis includes his familiar repertoire of extras, including an introduction that somehow mixes a story of self-promotion with defecation, demonstrating how stir crazy he became during the never-ending pandemic lockdowns with anecdotes of his zipping across the country. He also shares cute pix of his dog Total (named after his Timmy Failure series), uncute pix of a scary baby doll, and other various pix of wherever and whatever he happened upon during his journeys.
Also present is his running commentary on various strips or anything else he’s looking to share with readers, which could be anything. This book is basically his personal Instagram, so get ready for those snaps.
It’s no surprise that most of the strips and their content will be instantly familiar to millions of Pearls fans across the world, for better or worse (I can do bad puns, too). Puns, puns, and more puns remain the jokes du jour as Pig, Rat, Zebra, Goat, and the rest of the cast keep on keeping on. As groan-worthy as they come across, it’s pretty remarkable how effortlessly Pastis can still reverse-engineer a phrase in clever and guffawing ways. Creating these things can’t be as easy as he makes it look, right?
This collection’s light on new or updated characters, but that doesn’t stop the great Wise Ass (and his ever-evolving ears) on the hill from dispensing sage wisdom again and again. Also new to the party are Neighbor Nancy (think of Neighbor Bob in a wig), Noteman, Pig’s positivity spreading alter-ego, the insomnia-inducing Worry Wonk, and various other one-offs.
Less fun are the sheer number of Covid-19 themed strips, which make up the vast majority of those included in the book. I’m certain Pastis had good intentions trying to add humor to what often felt like a cold and humorless period we all shared, but looking back many of his efforts can feel like he’s reinforcing the status quo rather that trying to find healthier ways to discuss our collective anxiety about lockdowns, masks, vaccinations, Zoom meetings, social-distancing, and so many other “essential” activities we’d all rather forget.
I bet even reading that last sentence caused your blood pressure to spike a little. Imagine having one of your favorite comic strips talk incessantly about them and little else. Those endless puns sound pretty great about now, don’t they?
Even less fun is learning how a tiny series of January 2021 strips was deemed too hot for print at the time and were pushed back slightly. They show President Rat (a storyline Pastis resurrected just for this) ousted by a “coup” led by the chain-smoking Guard Duck. As Pastis admits the actual strips are fairly toothless, having nothing in common with the so-called “insurrection” that took place on January 6 at the Capital. They’re reprinted here, however, but everyone involved in this silly little saga should feel embarrassed by their (in)action.
A second set of strips showing Larry the crocodile installed as US President were also moved to a new spot, and are even more innocuous. It’s a shame Pastis never continued this thread as having Larry as leader of the free world seems like comedy gold.
Pearls Seeks Enlightenment is the 13th Pearls Before Swine Treasury, which makes it an easy buy for collectors too invested in these paper publications to quit now. As much fun as having new Pearls strips is, having the majority of them stained by the unavoidable pandemic can be a rough sell, and I’m not sure anyone is eager to relive those days yet, in comic form or otherwise. Still, there’s more than enough classic anthropomorphic, punning fun within its 200+ pages to justify a look by diehard fans who’ve come to expect nothing less from one of the medium’s last remaining highlights.