An interesting thing about Stephan’s Web, the 18th collection of daily and Sunday Pearls Before Swine comic strips, is that one of its most popular characters, Larry the Crocodile, doesn’t even appear until roughly halfway through. And yet, later strips showcase his emerging softer side when his son, Junior, packs and heads off to boarding school, leaving the English-mangling croc without his best friend.
How can Larry, the strip’s most notorious bloodthirsty carnivore (with a taste for fried chicken and beer), at the same time be its sweetest? Such is the strange paradox of Pearls Before Swine and its peculiarities. Just go with it.
The second such compilation this year following May’s I’m Only In This For Me, Stephan’s Web collects those (glorious) black ‘n white and colorized Sundays strips originally published from December 7th 2014 through September 6th 2015 in both newspaper and digital form. If you can’t possibly live without another dose of inane puns and anthropomorphic animal hijinks, not to mention a missing volume playing hell with your OCD, you don’t need me telling you what needs to be done. Plus, you’d be missing out on Pastis’ grotesque mockery of Garth Williams’ original artwork for E.B. White’s classic (which is, ironically, still more reverential than the 2006 live-action turd adaptation).
As we’ve come to expect from each and every Pearls Before Swine collection, creator Stephan Pastis opens with an irreverent anecdote of what’s been happening in his life, this time about his own publishing cash cow, the Timmy Failure books for young children. A nice photo showcasing a sampling of the thirty international covers for the series (love Timmy Flop, Timmy Fiasco, and Timmy Lalouse) frame’s our hero cartoonist’s travails in introducing pun-tastic characters to kids around the world, particularly in Norway (“the fourth happiest place on Earth”).
So what’s new this time around? Surprisingly, not much, as Pastis opts to keep much of his focus on mainstay characters Rat, Pig, Zebra, and the rest. Series’ favorites Guard Duck and (as explained above) Larry the Crocodile are largely absent this time around, and some may find the near absence of – usually sarcastic – cognizant food and other items distressing, though a much-appreciated chicken breast gag does the trick.
Standouts include series Rat going to war against Santa, the return of apathy coffee, as well as a surprising number of strips dedicated to the absurdities of rampant smartphone usage. While not featuring much in this collection, Larry does show up as a party clown for kids and in what can only be described as the nightmarishly icky cross-breeding of crocodile and Pastis (you’ll know it when you see it).
The reviled Jef the Cyclist expands his own niche of insufferables with a few new antagonists by adding Victor the Vegan, Freddy the Fruitarian, and Ernest the Electric Vehicle Driver to the hilariously appropriate “Conference of the Self-Righteous” to the mix. In the cold, unfeeling land of Pearls, there’s never a lack of cultural smugness needing taken down a peg or two.
Stephan’s Web gives longtime Pearls Before Swine fans almost exactly what they came for, and by almost I mean a nice pun-heavy sampler of what’s helped make it the funniest comic strip still running. At 18 such collections in, there’s no reason you shouldn’t add this one to your library of high-quality paper rectangles if you haven’t already.