I’ll say this for Stephan Pastis, for a comic strip so unabashedly proud on ripping, er, paying loving homages to just about any and everything under the sun its surprising that its taken him this long to get a Star Wars bit on the cover of a Pearls Before Swine collection. But that’s what he’s rocking on the snazzy front of Rat’s Wars, the strip’s 14th collection that packs a healthy helping of strips that originally ran in both newspapers and online form between December 2011 through September 2012, including color Sundays and black ‘n white dailies.
Funny, there’s no Star Wars-related strips to be had anywhere in its 128 pages of reprinted funnies, but whatever.
It’s been a good year for the comic with Rat’s Wars being the second collection released in 2013 (and the third Pearls-themed book, if you count Beginning Pearls), and a vast improvement over Pastis’ first attempt in the lucrative world of market-driven kiddie literature, Timmy Failure. With this latest collection the strip hits its tenth year of availability (2001 – 2011), and unlike many of its closest peers seems to remain as creatively energized as it ever was.
Pastis sashays like a champ through his well-established formula, which has blossomed into a full-force factory ‘o gags and puns. At front and center is his anthropomorphic crew, led by slow, yet lovable Pig and his sociopathic best friend Rat, as unlikely a team to lead a syndicated strip as you’ll find.
I’ve always felt Pastis’ biggest stroke of genius was putting himself in the strip, in cartoon form on the page and often in increasingly elaborate photo-form on covers, and there’s plenty of his meta-narcissism here, albeit in a truly unseemly fashion. Sadly, there’s only one Danny Donkey story included here but its a satisfyingly morbid one. You really can’t have a chain-smoking, alcoholic misanthropic jackass any other way.
There’s a healthy dose of new characters and victims (sometimes one and the same), the best of which are Dinky Duckling, the abandoned duckling who apprentices under Guard Duck, Jeff the self-absorbed Cyclist, a pair of lazy roadrunners (on a Segway), Zebra’s illegitimate son Plaid, and even the return of Death (I won’t spoil a genius Pro-Life gag for the world). Thankfully, Timmy Failure and his polar bear don’t make cameos.
Also on tap is an unhealthy skewering of his comic strip rivals and compatriots, including the likes of Beetle Bailey, Mutts, Blondie, Prince Valiant, Zits, and, of course, his reliable go-to victims Get Fuzzy and The Family Circus (poor, poor Jeffy). In a world where so many fear legal backlash over the slightest infraction I’m amazed that he keeps getting away with shellacking his rivals, but I’d wager they’re just grateful for the attention. Any attention.
It’s worth mentioning the touching tribute to the late Bill Keane, the creator of The Family Circus and Pastis’ long-running ‘foil’ who passed away in November 2011. It’s a gentle reminder just how close many of these cartoonists are that Keane would let Pastis play so liberally with his iconic characters and still write a hilarious forward in the 2008 Pearls collection, Macho Macho Animals. Keane will be missed, sorely.
If nothing else, Rat’s Wars showcases Stephan Pastis’ unique ability to make his comic strip, now blazing into its second decade, predictably unpredictable. Behind the simple artwork lay one of that most rare of things: a fully engaged, topical, and satirically relevant comic strip that’s just flat out hilarious. What a treat for longtime comic fans such as myself, who thought the days of picking up a new printed collection with glee were nearly extinct, to have such a treat to look forward to. Recommended without hesitation and looking forward to the next!