‘Timmy Failure’ feeds Stephan Pastis’ success

"Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan Pastis talks to pupils at Carver Elementary School in San Marino, his alma mater, about his illustrated book, "Timmy Failure."
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

The last time “Pearls Before Swine” cartoonist Stephan Pastis walked the halls of San Marino’s K.L. Carver Elementary School, he was an 11-year-old, practical-joke-loving fifth-grader with a penchant for irreverent doodling — things like the Ty-D-Bol Man being flushed down the toilet. And he was always talking.

“The very last time I was here, 30-something years ago, I was the kid who would never shut up,” Pastis recently told a crowd of third- and fourth-graders gathered in the auditorium. “So Principal Scrim singled me out and said, ‘Stephan, I know you’re excited because we’re near the end of the school year, but you have to stop talking.’”

“Now,” the 45-year-old Pastis said, “I can talk as much as I want.”

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Pastis, who now lives in Santa Rosa, returned to his elementary school alma mater in late April while in Los Angeles to promote “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (Candlewick, $14.99), a heavily illustrated novel for the 8-to-12-year-old set that focuses on the misadventures of a clueless 11-year-old detective (the aforementioned Timmy Failure) and his even more clueless sidekick (a polar bear named Total). “Timmy Failure” arrived on the bestseller list for the genre in February and has remained on it ever since.

“In my head, when I wrote the book, Timmy’s class and playground were here,” Pastis told the students. “I had a principal named Scrim, and that name became Principal Scrimshaw in the book.... In my next book I actually name Timmy’s school, and it’s Carver.”

After the squeals of 200 super-enthused students subsided, Pastis said that an already completed second Timmy Failure book is due out in February 2014 and that he plans to write and illustrate a third one this summer.

A spindly third- or fourth-grade arm shot in the air. “How many Timmy books are you planning to write?” the student asked.

“I don’t know,” Pastis replied. “Five? Six? Seven? What’s [‘Diary of a] Wimpy Kid’ up to? Seven?” To which the hive mind sitting on the floor in front of Pastis burbled briefly in agreement.

Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” could almost be the gold standard of recent kiddie-lit success stories, a seven-book franchise that has resulted in three live-action movies to date. It’s small wonder that “Timmy’s” book cover closely resembles the first “Wimpy Kid” cover or that Kinney’s enthusiastic endorsement blurb (“Timmy Failure is a winner!”) appears prominently.


Pastis’ mother, Patti Pastis, who lives in Arcadia, was among the dozen members of the extended family on hand during his recent visit. She said she first started buying him pens and pads of paper because she had a hard time keeping him in his room when he was sick as a child. “When he was 7 years old, he looked up at me and said, ‘Someday I’m going to be famous,’” she remembered. “And I said, ‘Oh, Stephan, I know you are.’”

Although he would contribute comic strips and cartoons to student publications at San Marino High School and UC Berkeley, Pastis’ dream job wouldn’t be realized until after a detour through law school and a decade-long stint as a lawyer.

“You can’t just count on becoming a syndicated cartoonist,” he said by way of explanation. “I actually tried to calculate the odds once, and the best I could come up with is a 1-in-36,000 chance. And the odds of getting hit by lightning are 1 in 7,900 — which kind of shows how long those odds are.”

So in 1993 Pastis embarked on a career as an insurance defense litigation lawyer. Within a few years he was submitting cartoon ideas to the newspaper syndicates — and getting rejected.

His early submissions focused on an arrogant know-it-all rat (named Rat). Pastis said it was only after adding a dimwitted pig (named Pig) to the mix that United Feature Syndicate tried — and ultimately failed — to sell his strip directly to newspapers. But instead of rejecting him completely, United suggested experimenting with a new approach: posting the “Pearls Before Swine” strip at its website in an attempt to gauge interest.

“It did all right, but I don’t think it would’ve gotten syndicated,” Pastis said. But in December 2000, “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams — who, as Pastis points out, “at that time was the biggest cartoonist on the planet” — recommended “Pearls” to readers subscribed to his email blasts. “I remember the hits went from something like 2,000 on a Tuesday ... to 155,000 on a Thursday.”


Adams said he saw something novel and different about Pastis’ approach: “He’s got something slightly subversive about him. It’s an X factor, an edge that defies easy description.... He loves to push the envelope.”

“Pearls Before Swine” would make its newspaper debut in January 2002, and Pastis has been an enthusiastic and unabashed pusher of envelopes ever since.

That Pig is a pig that loves to eat bacon is just the beginning; over the years, a zoo’s worth of smart-mouthed anthropomorphic animals have used everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Lance Armstrong to skewer mores.

But the strip also has the ability to — without warning — give all the heartstrings a tremendous simultaneous tug, as in the recent strip that paid homage to the victims of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre by spelling out their names across a starry, single-panel sky.

It’s an approach that appears to resonate with readers; “Pearls” runs in 750 newspapers and has spawned 20 compilation books. Pastis has also won best newspaper comic strip of 2003 and 2006 from the National Cartoonists Society and is currently one of three 2012 finalists for the group’s highest honor: the Reuben Award for outstanding cartoonist of the year, which will be bestowed May 25. (Pastis is quick to point out it’s his fifth such nomination — and he doesn’t think he’ll win.)

As his visit to Carver wound down, Pastis sounded reflective about what’s unfolded over the 34 years since he left. “I had 10 years as a lawyer, I’ll have whatever it may be as a cartoonist; I’m in my 12th year now. I want a career writing these novels that I can be proud of. And then I want one as a screenwriter. If we do sign Timmy as a movie ... I want to write that script.”


He said he’s thankful that the 11-year-old kid from Carver has had a chance to realize his dream job. He then described a scene, during a 2009 USO tour in Iraq with fellow cartoonists, in which he found himself aboard a Black Hawk helicopter that started firing its guns.

“At that moment I wondered what I’d have thought if, as a little kid, if someone said: ‘One day you’ll be seated in a Black Hawk chopper across from Garry Trudeau, the creator of ‘Doonesbury,’ and, oh, yeah, you’re in a war zone in Iraq, and you’re shooting at somebody.’”

“It’s that ‘How did I get here?’ game. How did that happen?”