The comic strip in the age of iPad: A talk with Stephan Pastis

Stephan Pastis

Like many of society’s pop culture fixtures, the comic strip is a product of the last century’s dominant medium for information and entertainment, the daily newspaper. But as with most everything associated with the newspaper business, the comic strip finds itself struggling against the harsh reality of ever smaller page real estate, papers shutting down, and generational shifts towards other forms of entertainment.
And while there’s no doubt that comics continue today as a vibrant medium on the web where new voices such as those behind Penny Arcade and The Oatmeal thrive with millions of readers, a glance at the comic strip page in any major metropolitan newspaper gives the impression that papers themselves have given up on new voices that could attract new generation of readers, often times running strips in which the creator no longer is the driving force behind the strip or, in some cases, may have died years ago.
So what does all this mean for the newspaper comic strip artist?  To find out, I thought I’d ask Stephan Pastis, creator of perhaps the last big comic syndicate success story, Pearls Before Swine. Pastis launched his comic strip 10 years ago after a career as a lawyer, and today Pearls Before Swine runs in 650 newspapers worldwide, an impressive number given how fast and far newspaper circulation has been falling.  Pastis recently also became somewhat of a pioneer in the comic strip syndicate world, as he became the first syndicate-based comic strip artist to release a dedicated iPad app with interactive elements wrapped around the strip itself, an app called Only the Pearls.
Below I have some of the highlights from our conversation, but you can also listen to my entire conversation with Stephan in the Soundcloud player below by clicking the big orange button, or download it here to take with you and listen to on your mobile device.
Stephan Pastis & Michael Wolf – GigaOM Podcast Jan 2012 by GigaOM

The decline of newspapers and the future of the comic strip

For someone who makes his living in the daily paper, Pastis admits that the decline of the paper is something he and others in his business think about every day as they look to the future. He said that everyone in the newspaper business is looking for the magic formula, how to stay relevant. What gives him hope, however, is that he thinks people always need news.

“Regardless of what platform they find themselves on, someone has to provide them with their local news, and in theory comics would be a part of that.”

The iPad app

Stephan Pastis Character on Pearls

According to Pastis, an iPad app wasn’t a nice to have, but a necessity. Since approximately 1 in 5 books purchased today are electronic, Pastis knew he was missing an opportunity. He had amassed 18 collections of his comic strip in print, but he didn’t have an e-book.
He also knew that going into this, he wanted to take advantage of the medium, and that’s why he decided to make an enhanced e-book app complete with audio and video interviews, animated strips, as well as interactive components.  He said with print, he had models set for him by artists he had admired, such as Scott Adams (Dilbert) and Gary Larsen (The Far Side), where they would add commentary about the strips below the strips themselves. With apps, his heroes hadn’t gone there before him, so he used the principle that guides him in his strip.

“I used the guide that I use when I do the comic strip, [which] is what would I like to see? What I would like to see is video, audio, animation… a few surprises. I want to be fully immersed in it, don’t just want to turn pages or see just strips I’ve seen before.”

The Oatmeal as a model for the future

The Oatmeal

I asked Pastis about some of the newer artists who are seeing success on the web, like Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal fame, and if these new artists gave him hope. He said that when he’s asked about getting into the business, he points to The Oatmeal and others like Cyanide and Happiness.  He wasn’t sure how you could monetize the audience, but felt good content on the social web would bring the audience. He also said, as a syndicate strip artist who beat the odds, he can see both sides.

“For people that have made it in syndication, sometimes they look at the internet as something that has diluted their fame. They’ve done something very few people can do… The flip side is you can be in your bedroom and have a an audience of a million people with no gatekeeper, and that’s very appealing.”

The power (and danger) of the social web for an artist

He also had some interesting thoughts on connecting with his audience through the social web. He said that nowadays, audiences can sense an intermediary, the voice of “PR”, and things like Twitter and blogs have created the expectation that the artist is going to be the voice they hear.  If you are a wallflower, according to Pastis, this world does not benefit you.
He also said that social media presents a danger to the artist. Artists have, traditionally, created best “in a vacuum,” hearing only their own instinct, and hearing instant feedback through social media could threaten that.

“At the end of the day you are expected to lead. You cannot be whipsawed back and forth by how your audience feels. Ironically, if you follow what they tell you, they won’t like you soon enough. “

I also talked to Stephan about the future of the comic strip three panel convention, about his penchant for making fun of others strips and much more, so I’d encourage you to take a listen above or download the podcast conversation here.