Thursday, March 7, 2013

Blind Spot

Stephan Pastis at the Bank Street School for Children in NY.
We got to talk to Stephan Pastis about his inspiration for Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. He calls Timmy a boy with a "blind spot." 

You are a comics artist. What have comics taught you about pacing a scene and character development?
Comics is all about pacing. I literally control the shutter of a camera. I give you four panels and each operates as a beat. You have to strip away everything that's extraneous. Comics teach you to be very direct. You have to be able to describe each of your characters in one word. Mean. Dumb. Smart.

Describe Timmy Failure in one word.
I see Timmy as an example of a blind spot. I need two words: arrogant and dumb. He was built entirely around the notion that a blind spot is what makes a character compelling. He sees himself one way, and the rest of the world sees him another way. Confederacy of Dunces was my model: Ignatius Reilly.

But Timmy is also very sympathetic.
In at least one aspect of our lives, we see ourselves in one way and the rest of the world sees us as another. We all lie to ourselves to some extent. In that way, Timmy is relatable. If you see Total [his polar bear sidekick] as a figment of his imagination, that's a measure of how alone he is. I think people respond to that. Despite his arrogance and pomposity, he is sort of sympathetic.

How did Total evolve?
I knew Timmy needed a partner, and I wanted it to be an animal because animals are fun for me. Timmy doesn't have a dad, and the polar bear is large and therefore subliminally protective; soft, so subliminally comforting. Then I thought it would be fun to have an animal who's just a polar bear, as opposed to the anthropomorphic animals in my strip. Timmy takes Total as much more, as a partner, as secretary, as filer, and he's terrible because he's just a bear. Without Total, there's no Timmy. The question I've heard the most is whether he's real, and I think that's a fascinating question. I like people to see it if they want to see it.

How did you come up with Timmy's voice?
His voice is really just mine. Timmy has a lot of me in him. A little bit arrogant, a big dreamer, but not that great at anything. A little bit oblivious. He shares a lot with the characters in the strip. I probably only have one voice, and that's it. Someone who's dumb but thought himself smart. I just write and what comes out, comes out. I have to figure out logically what I created instinctively.

Tell us how you met Charles Schulz.
I was a lawyer in San Francisco, and I was burned out. I read in a weekly newspaper that Charles Schulz had breakfast every day in the same place. I got in my car and drove for an hour to Santa Rosa to this diner, near an ice rink, and watched the skaters. I just waited and waited, and about an hour later, I see a man with white hair walk in, and I knew it was him. This was huge for me. I watched him eat his breakfast. He finally finishes, and I get up my courage and kneel down at the side of the table. I said, "I'm Stephan Pastis and I'm an attorney." I saw him withdraw immediately. I caught myself and told him I was a cartoonist, and that changed everything.

He talked to me for an hour. He asked if I had my drawings with me. They were in the car, and I showed them to him. He said nice things. He gave me some tips about changing the pen I used. How often do you get to meet your hero? The last 60 years of cartooning stems directly from Peanuts. He was to cartooning what Brando was to acting. Brando had a new style of acting, the Method. It changed acting forever. That's what Schulz did in cartooning--the timing, the dryness, the melancholy--that all comes from Peanuts.

This interview was adapted from a longer article in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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