Cartoonist Stephen Pastis, creator of the popular comic Pearls Before Swine, announced on his Facebook yesterday that his July 27 strip was pulled by syndicators and newspapers for being overly offensive.
Pearls Before Swine is a daily comic strip that runs in over 750 newspapers. Its main characters are the sarcastic, narcissistic, beer-loving Rat and his roommate, the blissfully ignorant Pig. Other main characters include Goat, an arrogant intellectual; Zebra, who seeks to avoid the incompetent fraternity of imbecilic crocodiles next door; and Guard Duck, a violent and delusional veteran. Pearls Before Swine won the National Cartoonists’ Society Newspaper Comic Strip Award in 2003 and 2006 and the 2015 Reuben Award for Best Newspaper Comic. It is beloved for its dark humor, violence, foul language, and infamously elaborate puns.
In the censored Pearls Before Swine strip, the character Pig seemingly screams “ISIS” over the phone. An NSA surveillance agent monitors the phone call, leading to Pig’s arrest by the FBI. The strip’s humor results from a clever pun—Pig is not, in fact, yelling “ISIS”—thus mocking inept government officials. The strip can also reasonably be interpreted as a work of political protest and a condemnation of perceived violations of Fourth Amendment Rights.
Mr. Pastis tweeted that the strip “seems harmless to me, but I guess these are sensitive times.” His Facebook post on the issue was less apologetic. “As you will see,” he wrote, “it’s not offensive at all. At least not to me.” Newspapers nevertheless censored the strip simply because it uses the name of a terrorist organization that undoubtedly appears in print each day.
It's sadly not uncommon for newspaper strips to face editorial redactions or censorship. Comics combine stylistic elements of books and visual art and are therefore challenged by censors for the same reasons other media are challenged; censors oppose their use of offensive language, inclusion of sexual content, and references to drugs, alcohol, or so-called “touchy subjects.” According to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, comics are often misconstrued as “low value speech” despite their unique ability to employ a powerful synthesis of words and images to convey emotional and political messages in clever and humorous ways.
Indeed, this is not the first time that Pearls Before Swine has aroused controversy. Mr. Pastis details some previous incidents in his book Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My! For instance, a Midwestern newspaper once promised to change its policies in response to Mr. Pastis’s August 2003 cartoon that mocked President Bush’s intelligence and hawkish foreign policy, and the Washington Post pulled a March 2014 cartoon that contained the allegedly offensive word “midget.” His greatest controversy, however, was his January 9 and 10, 2007 strips, whose character Ataturk the llama enraged Turkish readers who believed Pastis was mocking former Turkish president Mustafa Atatürk; Mr. Pastis received numerous death threats and a letter from the Turkish ambassador demanding an apology.
Speaking to the Columbia Journalism Review, author of The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power Victor Navasky says that a comic strip can provoke particular ire because “it’s a form of public humiliation, and people receive it differently than they receive words.” The CJR continues,
At least some of the ire stems from the visual nature of the medium, which makes cartoons both striking and accessible. They sow discomfort for subjects and their followers, with no recourse for the aggrieved, Navasky says. “The response to these things is disproportionate.”