Reviewed: Stephan Pastis sets high bar for iPad app

Two weeks ago Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis launched an iPad app called Only The Pearls – a 250 best of collection with audio commentary, interactive features and 22 videos of Stephan acting like an egotistical “ass#%$*” (his description, not mine. Okay, maybe I inserted the word egotistical). There’s something troubling about the app and it has nothing to do with the technical aspects or the humor. It’s the price. It’s currently priced at $3.99 and if you look at the app as an ebook of 250 of Stephan’s best work, it’s ridiculously cheap. His last print collection retailed at $12.99. I purchased the app late one night soon after it came out. I brushed my teeth while it downloaded and then took it into the master closet and casually started playing through it and finding it hard not to laugh too loudly lest I wake up my dear wife. An hour later I forced myself to close the app down and go to bed. Four dollars is slightly higher than the average entertainment app, but it was money well spent.

Most of the comic apps I read are pretty simple – a single repurposed comic on a white background with a swipe gesture to advance to the next strip in the series. It’s about as interactive as a print book. If you believe the hype, the iPad is changing several industries – education and medicine are oft cited examples. Only the Pearls has in my opinion raised the bar for comic apps and hopefully inspired other publishers to take advantage of the capabilities of the iPad.

About 2 years ago, Stephan met with a former college-mate who is now a VP at Chronicle Books. She described a new cookbook app that had audio and video and as Stephan tells me, “the light went on.” His earlier interaction with kids at schools and book signings told him connection to fans through newspapers was diminishing. When he asked their favorite comics no one knew Calvin and Hobbes and everyone thought Boondocks was only a TV show. Stephan realized the next generation has “a lot of options that aren’t you.” If he were to create an app, it had to at minimum compete with a DVD.

Various screenshots of different pages ro video in the app.

The app took about 14 months from idea, contract negotiations, recording audio, shooting video and all the writing, designing, development and meetings that would go along with a project of this size – a sum of 100 hours of his personal time. Stephan determined the content and Chronicle designed and developed the app. As an aside, I’d rate their work very highly. Very intuitive, simple, and focused attention to detail.

Now back to Stephan being an ass. He admits that an app with lots of video of the cartoonist isn’t for everyone. He describes a future where the cartoonist will need to be just as entertaining as the strip. During the shooting of the video Stephan was surrounded by a crew of 20-30 year-olds. “If I had a fragile ego, it would have hurt. You work by yourself and you think you’re funny. A stand-up comedian has no delusions whether they’re funny or not.” The video series is shot as if it were the outtakes of Stephan trying to be a serious cartoonist and the crew often part of the gags.

Video of Stephan goofing off after a successful day of writing

If you have an iPad and $4 (come on, skip today’s latte and you’re covered) I highly recommend the app.

Related media coverage:

GigaOm talks to Stephan about his motivation for the iPad app

Tom Racine interviews Stephan on Tall Tale Radio.

21 thoughts on “Reviewed: Stephan Pastis sets high bar for iPad app

  1. I bought the app as well and I’d highly recommend it.

    I don’t see other cartoonists jumping on the ‘let’s make 22 videos’ bandwagon anytime soon, but I do think this presents an option that is definitely worth exploring.

    What if every six months or so, a cartoonist releases an app that has:
    — 200 strips with commentary like you see in some of the bigger printed collections, only the app has audio commentary.
    And maybe two features like:
    — A slideshow or video tour of the cartoonist’s studio.
    — A cool feature like Stephan’s bulletin board (which is totally worth the $3.99 you pay for the app).
    — Sketches of the strips that didn’t make it into the newspaper.
    — A step-by-step of how the comic strip is created.

    I think Stephan just killed the printed comic strip collection market.
    Not only is this cheaper than a printed comic strip collection, it’s way, way, way better. And I don’t have to make room for it on my bookshelf.

    For strips that don’t get published in a printed book collection, this could be a great alternative.

  2. Nice article, Alan. The “light” that went on in Stephan’s mind is especially worth noting: the “connection to fans through newspapers was diminishing. When he asked their favorite comics no one knew Calvin and Hobbes and everyone thought Boondocks was only a TV show.”

    I’ll certainly check out the app and meantime praise Stephan for good business sense in knowing how to develop it.

  3. In response to B.J. Dewey’s post. Connections to fans through newspapers are diminishing. Last year when I did a presentation on cartooning I brought up a few of my favorite daily reads through the printed pages. Nobody knew about Stephan’s strip or even heard of it, but they did recognize Garfield. The presentation was to just under 1000 students at a high school. That was a sad indication to me of the declining newspaper readership of the younger generation. Sadly also the Faculty also had no clue what PBS was.

  4. Congrats on the app–I hope Stefan sells a lot of them. But while it’s true that practically no one reads contemporary comic strips in print newspapers anymore, from what I’ve seen, “Calvin and Hobbes” collections are extremely popular with kids. I’m pretty sure that if you asked around most elementary schools, you’d find that most are still quite familiar with it.

  5. Stephan’s app is bridging the gap between the print world, where all is static and there is zero interaction, and the internet world where entire communities are being built around a creator’s comics. This dynamic is part of the future of cartooning. Stephen realized that the digital medium offers so much more than just 1-4 panels, and took full advantage by creating a multimedia tour-de-force that offers so much more than just the comic strip itself. He’s created added value that is impossible in the pages of a book. Brilliant and innovative stuff.

  6. On the Calvin and Hobbes recognition:

    I spoke at a whole bunch of schools during my book tour in the fall….I think in most schools, a good 40% or so knew of Calvin and Hobbes….But the majority of them didn’t….

    And in the school I spoke at in KC (a group of 125 or so), not one person knew what it was…..

    Mileage may vary, but truly, the newspaper world is far less on their landscape than most of us realize…

  7. This is very cool, and is paving the road toward the future. Thank you for that, Stephen.

    Is this ONLY viewable on an ipad? What about a Kindle? Any way to see this on a regular computer? Any way to order it on an airplane? Just wondering….probably stupid questions.

  8. You have better self control, Alan, because I was up until about five in the morning reading it.

    I really think this takes comic strip collections full circle, where a collection that is packed with material is not only inexpensive but can attract the eye of somebody who doesn’t normally read the comics.

    This could take comics out of its niche market and back into the mainstream.

    Oh, and the book is a must-have. Even cartoonists who don’t want to be the “star” of their book could pack an app with the kind of great extras this offers. Yes, buy an iPad just for this because there will be other collections to come.

  9. I also bought the app and I think there is one error worth pointing out: the egotistical asshole character that Stephan plays is not a character. It seems funny when you think he’s acting, but just ask Mrs. Pastis how funny Stephan Pastis is. I’ll say no more. Frankly, I found the whole thing irritating. I feel a bit ripped off with the 4 dollar price tag, but the fart piano app was free, so it’s sort of a wash.

  10. I’d love it if products like this weren’t tied to purchasing yet another expensive new technology. I have a laptop, not an iPad and I don’t plan on acquiring one soon. I think there’s probably a big untapped market for ‘apps’ for regular computers.

  11. What I’d do for just a smidgen of Pastis’s quirky charisma and business savvy! Why spend money on an app when you can just google him on da intranet all day long? Well done, Stephan!

  12. @Stephan I spoke at a whole bunch of schools during my book tour in the fall?.I think in most schools, a good 40% or so knew of Calvin and Hobbes?

    40% for a strip that hasn’t run in 16 years is pretty good! I’ll bet anything that 40% of them wouldn’t recognize “Mutts”.

  13. Reminds me of comics great Winsor McKay upping the ante in his day when he animated his drawings and interacted with them in vaudeville shows. Hats off to Stephan.

    We need MORE forward thinkers like this in our profession.

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