Lexicon Valley

Why Did a ​Pearls Before Swine Strip About ISIS Get Spiked? A Slate Investigation.

Cartoonist Stephan Pastis appears at the 12th Annual L.A. Times Festival of Books.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images

On Thursday, Stephan Pastis, who pens the comic Pearls Before Swine, tweeted that one of his strips had been rejected in these, our “sensitive times”:

In the strip, a naïve pig’s effort to correct his sister’s grammar moves him to cry “I, sis” into the phone. Naturally, the National Security Agency is alarmed and leads the pig away in handcuffs. (Imagine that Aesop got sunstroke and then tried to illustrate a cautionary fable against pedantry.) It was hard to tell from the tweet whether the syndicate was concerned that the strip was mocking the government, trivializing ISIS, or trafficking in terminally not-funny wordplay. When I reached out to Pastis for an explanation, he unbosomed the backstory.

Pearls runs in newspapers across the country, and Pastis, who says he’s never run a repeat in 15 years, files completed strips weeks or months ahead of their publication date. After he submitted the “ISIS” panel, a representative of his syndicate contacted him to warn that if some kind of terrorist event occurred on or near the day that the strip was slated to appear, he’d become a “lightning rod for readers’ anger and sadness.”

“Oddly enough, people think the artist is commenting on that day’s events, even though he or she has sent in the work up to eight weeks in advance,” Pastis continued. The newspapers couldn’t risk such a painful coincidence.

There’s also the twisty matter of media sensibilities. Pastis, a creature of the buttoned-up print world, sometimes yearns to channel the subversions of the web. “I wish I could have a fraction of the edginess of the online guys,” he admitted. “Internet writers don’t realize how extraordinarily tame newspapers can be. You reference Lincoln’s assassination, and readers shout, ‘Too soon!’ It’s a different world, and it’s inhabited by your parents and grandparents.”

John Glynn, of the Universal Uclick syndicate that handles Pastis’ work, confirmed that “there’s lots of sensitivity—the strip would have caused serious problems if it had been coupled with a terrorist event.” Though Universal has never outright rejected a Pearls panel, the group has sent advisory notes back to Pastis and various newspaper editors cautioning them against publishing particular comics. They tend to shy away from themes of “drugs, drinking, sex—for lack of a better word, anything beyond PG-13,” Glynn said. Pastis remembered one message that reprimanded him for using the word midget, even though the strip itself only evoked the term to highlight its inappropriateness. (“You should say ‘little person,’ ” a character explains.) But Pastis is not interested in fighting his editors’ decisions. “That’s how it works,” he said. “What I think is great is how this story has taken off on Twitter, how it’s generating discussion and allowing the online world to see what the world of traditional media is all about.”

After all, “this was simply one of my dumb plays on words,” Pastis added. “I wasn’t trying to say anything more. I heard the words and realized I could make a pun.”

OK. This is all very plausible and sane. But could it be that Universal Uclick bagged the strip because it’s not, well … because it, ah, it, you know, it’s not …

Did they kill the strip because it’s not funny?

The syndicate does not monitor comics for quality, Glynn insisted. “We’re too busy.”

Really? You can tell us.

“Yes, really.”

Off the record?

“We’re too busy saying how good they are.”