Pearls Before Swine is not the best comic strip, nor is it this author’s favorite. But it does tend to be funny more often than not, and sometimes it can even be profound. Witness the three panel comic below:
I will admit that I smiled when I first read this strip. No matter how you look at it, it is amusing. But it is also makes a salient point – one not related to either kale or onion rings.
The item this comic highlights is that the image of modern life does not really include joy. Does it include things that make people happy, or are supposed to make them happy? Yes, it does. But these items often come with a price, one which tends to strip away the joy to be found in life. For some, this means that joy – real, honest pleasure – is as elusive as a unicorn to a large segment of the population.
Jef, Fred, and Pig demonstrate this in the course of the comic. Jef is smugly superior, sure that his healthy lifestyle makes him better than Pig stuffing his face with greasy onion rings. His only concern is his pride; he wants to be better than everyone else, to stand above the riffraff who do not care for themselves as he does for himself. And he is willing to pay any price to accomplish this goal.
Pig proves that some things cost more than they are worth. Rather than focus on what Jef and others think of him, he simply eats what he likes and enjoys it. Although he could stand some personal improvement, Pig’s humility allows him to take pleasure in the simple things in life. He does not worry about what others think of him, nor take himself so seriously that he makes himself miserable while attempting an air of superiority.
This startles the second biker, Fred, into asking if “joy” is even an option in life. I do not know if Fred is a recurring character in Pearls Before Swine, so for the sake of this piece I will assume he was added for this strip alone. If I am mistaken, feel free to correct me in the comments.
Accepting the proposed premise that Fred only appears here, his words offer us an interesting view into his thoughts and the thoughts of those like him. It seems that the second biker is a man who has been conditioned to believe Jef’s way is the only possible path to a fulfilling life. There are numerous ways this habituation could have occurred; he could have absorbed it via osmosis from various advertisements, or Jef may have somehow exerted some extensive influence over his choices. It may be that he set out to improve himself and took it to an extreme.
Whichever is true, the fact is that Fred’s knowledge of the world and the purpose of human life has been rendered no wider than his bike wheels. He has little to no context for the word joy, and is flabbergasted at the idea of being able to do something simple – and, apparently, unhealthy – just because it makes him happy. While Pig is a notorious glutton, this does not mean that his eating onion rings every now and then is harmful to his health, which Jef appears to believe. In attempting to “maintain [his] superiority” over others, Jef has led his fellow biker down a path that is stultifying, both spiritually and emotionally.
But while this is an interesting character study to draw from the funny papers, one has to wonder what point this author is trying to make with it. If you have been following her writings here at Song, as well as the articles created by those of writers she counts as acquaintances and friends, you may have a fair idea. The sad fact is that Jef’s approach to life is very similar to how modern fiction treats its subject matter and its readers. Life is for “the superior man,” as Dr. Erskine put it in Captain America: The First Avenger*, and not for slobs like Pig or the cowed, lost souls like Fred. Everyone needs to follow the program, as Jef does, in order to have any real worth. If someone is not following their regimen – well then, that person must be inferior to them somehow.
We can see this attitude displayed by those critics who pounce on any story that offers audiences the least bit of joy, or the tiniest crack through which they may momentarily escape their troubles in this world. Star Wars*? “It is a space western,” they say, and therefore worthless. Stargate SG-1*? Variety’s Tony Scott said it had “…pedestrian writing, pulp-mag plotting, shopworn characters,” and “hackneyed dialogue.” My Hero Academia*? “Who pays attention to anime?” the critics sniff.
They might as well say, “Look at you shoving The Lord of the Rings* in your face while us critics plumb the depths of The Shape of Water. Yes, it bombed at the box office. That doesn’t matter. It is art, something you clearly do not appreciate.”
To which this author responds, as both a writer and a consumer of fiction: “The Lord of the Rings brings me joy, Jef. And I like joy in my life. What is more, I like bringing joy into other people’s lives. Especially if, like Fred here, they did not realize it was an option.”
Did you realize it was an option, future writers? It is. It is possible to write a story just to bring a smile to another person’s face. Not only is it possible, it is a joyous thing to tell a tale with no other point except to have fun by brightening your audience’s day. After all, who does not appreciate having the storm clouds part so a ray of sunshine can slip through?
Yes, fiction needs a moral (not necessarily a message) to function. Just look at the Planetary Anthology Series*, including the upcoming Sol Anthology*. Every writer who landed in this series had to tie their tales into the themes proffered for each planet in the collection. It is impossible to tell a story without including some kind of moral, point – or yes, message.
But most, if not all, of the writers who wrote for this series did so with the idea of making readers happy. We just wanted to have fun, and we wanted to invite all of you to join us in our dance across the page. Remember when, in Tangled*, Rapunzel starts dancing while Flynn is purchasing food for them? She is not at it long before she brings numerous bystanders into the dance with her. Within moments, she has the whole courtyard dancing and smiling with joy.
That is what authors ought to strive to do. No matter what type of fiction one prefers to write, whether it is a fluffy children’s book or spine-tingling horror, the idea behind it is to have fun. It is to give readers something to “experience” from the safety of their couches, or to gasp over while hiding under the covers. Real authors want to see their audiences “dance,” not beat them over the head with their “superiority.”
So if you have an idea for a fun story, do not let the Jefs in life and in the publishing business put you in Fred’s position. And while it is better to avoid Pig’s slothful habits, try to remember his point about keeping joy in your life. It is a worthwhile pearl from a less-than-exemplary swine.
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer. If you liked this article friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry has appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Her latest story is available in Cirsova Magazine’s recently released Summer Issue. Order them today!