Michael Cavna in Comic Riffs:
‘Cul de Sac’ creator Richard Thompson faces life’s cruel twists with artful wit
|“Cul de Sac” creator Richard Thompson sketches Petey — his most personal character — last month in his Arlington home studio. (Dustin Fenstermacher for THE WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE)|
One name, one talent entices Watterson to give what his syndicate says is only his second interview in two decades: Richard Thompson — creator of “Cul de Sac” and father to little “Alice Otterloop” and her child’s-eye view of life in Washington’s suburbs.
“Where to start?... ” Watterson says in an e-mail. “The strip has a unique and honest voice, a seemingly intuitive feel for what comics do best ... a very funny intelligence ... the artwork, which I just slobber over. It’s a wonderful surprise to see that this level of talent is still out there, and that a strip like this is still possible.”
Within comics, many colleagues share that sentiment. On May 28 in Boston, Thompson will learn whether he has won the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for cartoonist of the year; it is his second straight nomination for a strip that was first syndicated almost four years ago. “Cul de Sac” is carried by nearly 150 newspapers, including The Washington Post, where it began. It has spawned four books, a handful of animated shorts — and legions of fans.
“Cul de Sac” is a sly, whimsical skip through suburban life with Alice, her friends Beni and Dill, elder brother Petey and her classmates at Blisshaven Academy preschool. It’s all about sidewalk discoveries, childhood invention, parents and other authority figures who are one step behind the children’s antics. At summoning our early years, Watterson says: “The strip depicts all sorts of moments that ring true.”
And residing within this skewed suburbia is also the macro-satire: Mom and Dad Otterloop drive a minivan whose color is so neutral, “it doesn’t appear in nature.”
A 2007 offering is the prototypical “Cul de Sac.” Alice — “who’s not afraid of anything” — is momentarily cowed by winged cicadas. Petey, typically squeamish out of doors, advises: “Do what I do. Construct a distancing fantasy as a coping mechanism.” Next thing we know, Alice is costuming the cicadas in napkin dresses and naming them. By the last panel, with precise elliptical wit, the Otterloop parents are reading headlines about intelligent “superbugs” wearing paper clothes. “Don’t tell the kids,” Mom says. “It’ll just scare them.”
Thompson “has this huge range of cartooning skills ... ,” Watterson says. “Richard draws all sorts of complex stuff — architecture, traffic jams, playground sets — that I would never touch. And how does he accomplish this? Well, I like to imagine him ignoring his family, living on caffeine and sugar, with his feet in a bucket of ice, working 20 hours a day.
“Otherwise, it’s not really fair.”
Watterson wrote the foreword for Thompson’s first “Cul de Sac” book in 2008. The foreword to an earlier Thompson collection was written by another industry legend, Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist.
“You would never suspect it by looking at him, but behind the quiet, mild-mannered Richard Thompson exterior lurks the real Richard Thompson,” Oliphant says now. “I know he would hate to be termed a genius, but that is exactly what he is.”
So after a measured, decades-long career ascent, Richard Thompson sits at the comics mountaintop. Still, he is keenly aware of a constant fact: The pinnacle is crumbling.
Thompson — who at 53 is a year older than the long-retired Watterson — arrived at print syndication in an era of strapped newspapers and comics sections that are so shrunken they could double as eye charts.
And then there’s the second cruel twist:
Less than a year after “Cul de Sac” became syndicated, Thompson learned he has Parkinson’s, the incurable neurodegenerative disease that robs patients of motor skills. His deft line and lithe mind are under attack by his own cells.
Yet here is Thompson, grinning behind his wire rims on a sunny March afternoon as he walks the half-dozen blocks from a taqueria to his modest brick home in Arlington. His gait is tentative. Each day with the disease, he says, brings “a new normality.” But each day also brings the chance to sit at the drafting board, ink-dipped crow quill in hand, and explore new worlds.
As Alice says: “Every day, I test the boundaries of my domain.”
.THE WATTERSON PAINTING: The “Calvin and Hobbes” creator on how he painted Petey
THE ‘RIFFS INTERVIEW: Alaska cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl on life with Parkinson’s
ART GALLERY: Special original art from the “Cul de Sac” creator
ANIMATION GALLERY: The “Cul de Sac” shorts
PHOTO GALLERY: The work and home of Richard Thompson
THE BUTTONED-DOWN WOMAN was dropping off her daughter at the suburban Virginia preschool before whisking off to tackle the world’s concerns. This is just the sort of friction point where, morning after morning, Official Washington meets Real-Life Washington.
It was 2003, when Thompson’s younger daughter was preschool age. “I was just watching and thinking: This is a strange little place they’ve got going here,” Thompson recalls. “This single mom had a pretty good government job, dressing up every day, to go work on slightly more momentous things. Just then, the mom picked up one of those [plastic] hamster balls, and suddenly a real hamster popped out.”
The mother reared back and shrieked: “My God, it’s alive!”
In that moment, “Cul de Sac” was born.
“I was struck by adults trying to deal with this childhood reality,” Thompson says. “They were completely out of their depth, with these 4-year-olds running around.”.
On Feb. 12, 2004, Alice debuted inside a heart on the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, her surname a pun on the “Outer Loop” of the Beltway. It was Thompson’s Valentine to Washington — the Other Washington.
“I lived in the suburbs of Montgomery County for practically 20 years,” Thompson says. “I love the place.”
So what better setting to gently mock? “I enjoy satirizing things I love,” he says. “You’ve got to have a love for something to see its flaws, too.”
Thompson, who spent years as a freelance artist for government agencies, various publications and even a neighborhood deli, had been drawing the weekly comic “Richard’s Poor Almanac” for The Post’s Style section since 1997. Tom Shroder, the then-Magazine editor, urged Thompson to develop a weekly strip about Washington.
“I just thought his talent for integrating a gag in a situation, and doing it with real nuance and voice, would be perfect for developing and sustaining characters,” Shroder says. “He said he’d be willing to talk about it, and we scheduled a lunch.
“It took two years to get that lunch to happen. Then it took another two years before he handed me the first dozen strips.”
“I was kind of chicken[expletive] about it ... ,” Thompson says. “I have a habit of putting stuff off. Till next year.”
“The thing is,” Shroder notes of Thompson’s first samples, “they were fully formed — exactly the ‘Cul de Sac’ you see now.”
In 2006, the keen-eyed Lee Salem — the top executive for the Universal Uclick syndicate who signed Watterson — came across a “Richard’s Poor Almanac” about the first George W. Bush inauguration, titled “Make the Pie Higher,” that had gone viral five years earlier. He sent Thompson a note: “You ever thought about syndication?”
Not long after, the cartoonist met Salem — as well as company colleagues John McMeel and John Vivona — at a Washington hotel, toting photocopied “Cul de Sac” strips. After an affable chat, Thompson left the meeting thinking: “Well, there’s another shot in the dark.”
Months later, Thompson and his family were at the beach near Charleston, S.C., when Salem called. The syndicate wanted to turn “Cul de Sac” into a daily feature. Thompson had been reluctant to go daily. “There’s the fear of the thing running dry on you really fast,” the cartoonist says. “What a nightmare that would be.”
Yet, “I began wondering what my characters were doing the rest of the week, beyond Sunday to Sunday,” he says. “Obviously, they take on a life of their own — a novelist would tell you this — and they demand some kind of say in it.”
He walked for two hours on the Carolina beach. It had been nearly three decades since he’d first published illustrations. Approaching 50, admitting a midlife desire, Thompson says he realized: “I really wantthis.”
AMERICAN NEWSPAPER COMICS, for more than a century a staple of popular culture, are arguably suffering through their hardest days since 1895, when the Yellow Kid first popped in full color into R.F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley.”
As newspapers grapple with shrinking budgets, print strip sizes have been reduced, comics-page lineups have largely calcified and new syndication sales have declined. “Zits” is the most recently introduced strip to reach 1,000 papers, according to syndicates; it was launched nearly 15 years ago. The majority of the features with the most print clients — “Peanuts,” “Garfield,” “Hagar the Horrible,” “Beetle Bailey”and “Blondie” — were born decades ago.
As “Cul de Sac” nears its fourth birthday, it’s syndicated to 140 papers.
“Richard’s only apparent weakness is his timing — in a fair world, his brilliant reimagining of childhood would rule the comics page,” says Garry Trudeau, who launched his Pulitzer-winning “Doonesbury” in 1970. “But shrinking pages have compelled comics editors to fight a cautious rear-guard action, defending the tried-and-true at the expense of the new.”
“It is depressing,” Thompson acknowledges. “They say in comedy, timing is everything — and I’ve managed to time my little splash into the field at the worst imaginable time.”
When was the last heyday for print comics? Many fans mourn 1995, when three superstar strips — “Calvin and Hobbes,” “The Far Side” and the “Bloom County” Sunday spinoff “Outland” — were retired, and the online life of comics began to alter the playing field.
“Talent gravitates to places where it can have an impact,” Watterson says. “Newspaper comic strips are still the high end of cartooning with a daily audience in the tens of millions, but the mass-media model seems to be disintegrating before our eyes.
“The sudden climate change may offer great opportunities ahead for the scrappy little mammals that used to cower in the underbrush,” continues the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator, crisply illustrating his point, “but it’s probably bad news for those of us who liked thundering around with our heads above the treetops.”
Even in a diminished jungle, though, the strip that cartoonists most often say is most worthy of inheriting the “Calvin and Hobbes” mantle is “Cul de Sac.”
“Of all the new comics I’ve read, only two registered as winners immediately — literally within a strip or two,” Trudeau says. “The first was ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’ Nineteen years later, it was ‘Cul de Sac.’ A distinctive, fully evolved style married to consistently funny, character-driven wit — we don’t see this often.”
“He actually sounds like the kids he draws in that amazing strip,” says Oliphant. “What a gift that is, to write the way you talk. No strain, no presumption, just simple wry storytelling with characters you can care about and love. When did you last see that in comic strips?
“Not since Calvin and his tiger rode off into the sunset.”
Such praise is too heady for Thompson, who demurs. “That’s something that makes me blush hard enough to induce a nosebleed.”
Nick GalifiIanakis vividly remembers the moment he knew something was wrong with Thompson. While abroad, Galifianakis noticed that emails from his friend were getting shorter — to the point he even kidded Thompson about the atypical brevity. Now, though, seeing Thompson for the first time in some months, at a neighborhood diner, he became alarmed.
“He seemed to hold his arm stiff,” says Galifianakis, who draws the cartoons for The Post’s advice column “Tell Me About It,” written by his ex-wife, Carolyn Hax. “As my dad and I walked away, we said to each other in Greek: ‘Richard’s had a stroke.’ ”
Galifianakis’s bond with Thompson dates to the early ’90s, when they admired each other’s work and would discuss art for hours — Galifianakis, outgoing and garrulous; Thompson, quieter and wry. Soon, the two young couples, Nick and Carolyn, Richard and Amy, would talk till dawn. So, it was with heartfelt concern that Galifianakis arranged for Thompson to talk to a doctor in 2008.
“I was having dinner at Nick’s house,” Thompson recounts. “His dad’s girlfriend is an emergency-room physician at Georgetown University Hospital who’s an ace diagnostician. She asked me a string of questions and had me do some fairly simple things and said, ‘That’s neurological — probably Parkinson’s.’
“I am ever in her debt.”
That June, the diagnosis was confirmed.
“Getting diagnosed with this disease is to have your world struck by a meteor, transformed to ash in an instant of unexpected impact ... ,” says Peter Dunlap-Shohl, a former Anchorage Daily News political cartoonist who received a Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2002, at age 43. “All I could focus on were the words ‘progressive,’ ‘incurable’ and ‘disabling.’ ”
Thompson, though, found a certain silver lining. “Strangely enough, I was kinda relieved,” he says. “Just knowing what it is gave me some focus.”
His wife was blind-sided. “He has never taken care of himself, so I thought it was exhaustion,” Amy Thompson says of her reed-thin husband. “He had started to look like a zombie.” It hadn’t occurred to her that it could be something as serious as Parkinson’s.
He shared the news with his fans a year later on his “Cul de Sac” blog:
“For the last year or so, I’ve noticed a few odd symptoms: shakiness, hoarseness, silly walks, random clumsiness and the like. So the other day, I went to see a neurologist and, after having me jump through hoops, stand on my head and juggle chain saws, he said I’ve got Parkinson’s. It’s a pain in the fundament and it slows me down, but it hasn’t really affected my drawing hand at all and it’s treatable.
“ And it could be a useful ploy in my ever-losing battle against deadlines.”
THE FIRST FLOOR OF Thompson’s house brims with a spirit as irrepressible as Alice — this is the eclectic stuff of life that collects in a creative home. “Our house is full of costumes, props and art supplies,” Thompson says, “some of it hard to explain or justify.”
Some is his wife’s work. She teaches theater at schools and in educational programs, including at the Folger Shakespeare Library. That explains the papier-mache donkey head on the dining room table, “ ‘ A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ ” Amy says. (Richard’s mother set them up after meeting Amy in a Gaithersburg bookstore. “Clearly we were meant for each other,” Amy says.)
The couple’s daughter Charlotte, 12, breezes in from school and starts telling her dad about her day as he pops his yellow pills for Parkinson’s. Emma, 15, isn’t home yet. On the refrigerator over Thompson’s shoulder is a photo of both girls — beaming, joy captured in time — posing with Nick’s cousin, comedian and “The Hangover” star Zach Galifianakis. Both daughters have asked whether they are the inspiration for Alice.
“No one of anybody in my family has inspired any one of my characters,” Thompson says. But, “One of the things I was aware of when my daughters were younger was the process of socialization that all kids go through — it’s the whole theme and point of childhood. To learn to get along and stand your ground and form relationships.”
Watching his daughters play over the years does inform the strip’s sidewalk truisms. “I know street names and addresses and all,” Thompson says, “but the kids know where interesting piles of dirt are, or where the good sticks can be found or where a scary dog lives.”
As we head downstairs toward his basement studio, we’re clearly entering the land of Petey, Thompson’s most personal character. The 8-year-old is an aspiring cartoonist who abhors nature and sports. An introvert, he sits on his bed for hours devouring comic books and drawing his graphic novel, “Toad Zombies.”
“Petey is a truly original insight. I don’t actually identify with Petey much myself of course,” Watterson says with a wink, “but wow, what a window into introversion and the childhood craving for stability, order and control.
“Alice has no filters, and Petey is all filter. I think Richard’s caught it.”
Thompson acknowledges that “Cul de Sac” is infused with his own personality.
“Alice has my obliviousness to what’s going on,” he says. “Petey is much closer to me, or at least the worst of me. He worries about dumb things; he’s a perfectionist when it’s unnecessary; he deals with the world best at a distance” — and keeps it at a distance by creating comics and shoe-box dioramas.
“One of my favorite things to do with him is to take him out of his comfort zone. ... Fish-out-of-water is always a great plot device — and Petey swims in a very small bowl.”
A ground-level window lets a welcome shaft of sunlight into the peaceful studio, roughly 12 by 20 feet. It is a fertile place for creating worlds, for “complete disregard for time.”
Along one wall are shelves of CDs. While he draws, Thompson listens to Brahms — the favorite composer of late “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, too. He also likes to listen to the Irish flute of Matt Molloy — a nod to part of Thompson’s heritage. Propped against another wall is a banjo, a visual inspiration for the upbeat “Cul de Sac” character Timmy Fretwork — aka “the Banjo Man.” Fretwork is engaged to preschool teacher Miss Bliss, but as Petey insists as if reciting an immutable law of nature: “You can’t tie down a Banjo Man!”
Above the instrument, shelves burst with artistic inspiration. Searle. Sendak. Degas. Watterson. Oliphant. “Pogo.” “If I stare at these too long,” says Thompson, smiling mischievously, “I don’t get any work done.”
Ah, the work. Against the opposite wall is Thompson’s double-lamped drafting table, where he has rendered countless sketches and doodles and final inspired works. Each ”Cul de Sac” takes from three to six hours to draw and ink, but Thompson admits: “The drawing can expand to fill more than the time allotted.”
On each side of the table are Thompson’s artistic scalpels: Sable brushes and crow-quill pens and Micron liners and, most strikingly, hundreds upon hundreds of nibs — the metal pen points that allow Thompson to lay down such a rich variety of line widths. The artist’s trusty favorite is a Hunt 101 Imperial nib. “That’s been my favorite for about 10 years,” he says.
Out of that still-sure hand and mind flow, too, the ideas.
“The ideas are a continuous process,” Thompson says. “I usually feel like it’s going on in the back of my head most of the time. The way I’ve set up the strip, with a lot of small gags and some slight forward momentum in little arcs, means that ideas aren’t hard to come by.
“Ideas are easy. Knowing what to do with them are hard.”
AT JOHNS HOPKINS — the Baltimore hospital where Thompson was born and where both his parents once worked administrative jobs — researchers such as Ray Dorsey help lead the fight against Parkinson’s.
One million Americans have the disease, according to the hospital’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center, which says that number is expected to triple in the next 50 years as the U.S. population ages. Symptoms can include tremors, rigidity, difficulty with walking or balance, and a slowing of movement. Plus, there are the psychological symptoms. “As many as 40 percent of individuals will have depression, which can precede the motor symptoms,” says Dorsey, the center’s director.
The average age people experience symptoms is 60; only 5 percent to 10 percent have symptoms before 40. Thompson says he experienced his symptoms “for years” before his diagnosis at 50. Symptoms develop when dopamine depletion approaches 80 percent, researchers say. But much about the disease remains mysterious.
Dopamine was first identified as an independent neurotransmitter in the nervous system in 1957 — the year Thompson was born. A decade later, a high-dose regimen of a drug called levodopa was introduced as a treatment for Parkinson’s. “The advance with levodopa was revolutionary,” says Todd Sherer, chief program officer for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. But “these treatments are only effective for a period of time.”
Thompson takes the drug four times a day. When the medicine loses its effectiveness, the next step could be deep-brain stimulation. “It’s almost laughably crude,” says Thompson with characteristic humor. “They put an electrode deep in your head and turn it on, and boom! You’re good to go again.”
Then he has his own special treatment: “Daydreaming,” he says. It has “gotten me through everything else so far.”
AT THE BRIGHT-EYED REQUEST of a tween girl, Thompson is personalizing a copy of a “Cul de Sac” collection with painstaking precision. His pen glides, pivots and gains pressure until — voilà! — Alice Otterloop is peering back joyfully from the page. An assistant gives the book and its still-drying creation, open-faced, to the girl. She stares, smiles, then contentedly bounds off into the crowd. For the artist, it’s one down, dozens more to go.
The cartoonist is working a table stocked with original art at last fall’s annual Small Press Expo in Washington’s suburban Bethesda — the same terrain where he himself, as a boy, would frequent comic shops. Today, Thompson wields a sublime line honed by tens upon tens of thousands of inky attempts since he first discovered “Pogo” and “Peanuts” and Saturday-morning animations. Like other top illustrators, he describes the search for laying down that just-right line like an elusive quest. “The perfect line would be some combination of Ronald Searle and George Herriman,” says Thompson, citing the influential English illustrator and the great New Orleans-born creator of the classic strip “Krazy Kat.” “But then, that line would be so perfect, it wouldn’t be human.”
Thompson has a single cartoon indulgence in his home: an original Searle work he bought for $1,200. After gazing at it for a half-minute on the dining-room wall, Thompson says: “Sometimes you can stare at Searle for too long. Its influence becomes too strong.”
Thompson’s distinct style leaves its own strong impression.
“Richard dances down the thin line between something and nothing, line and volume, two dimensions and three,” says Henry Allen, a Pulitzer-winning culture critic who formerly edited “Richard’s Poor Almanac” for the Style section. “In his stories and humor, he has the weird inner light or genetic kink or hyperperception of great standup comedians — of all artists we remember and go back to, actually.”
Oliphant, the Australian-born cartoonist who has influenced generations of political cartoonists, revels in Thompson’s gift with pen and brush. “From the beginning of my observation, his drawing line has been as sophisticated as his sense of humor.” He then re-emphasizes his point:
“The bugger is indeed a genius.”
THE REAL CUL-DE-SAC IS a leafy, loping beauty of a street, still a testament to a past generation’s hopes and modesty. It sits in the Maryland neighborhood of Montgomery Village, on Judge Place immediately past Ironhorse Lane — a name that harks back to Lou “Iron Horse” Gehrig, the great Yankees ballplayer whose career was cut short by the neurodegenerative disease nicknamed for him.
Judge Place is one of three cul-de-sacs from Thompson’s childhood, the one he would live on the longest and where his father, Richard Sr., 88, has long resided.
Parked in front of the elder Richard’s bone-white, two-story house is a green Ford Mustang that easily would have fit in on the cul-de-sac in the early ’70s, back when Richard Jr. was “the kid who draws” as well as “the kid who sucks at sports.” The Mustang has been rebuilt by Tim Thompson, Richard’s kid brother by seven years and a master sound designer at Washington’s Arena Stage.
The cartoonist has fond memories of this cul-de-sac, where cherry trees blossomed for many years before dying off in the ’80s. It was a welcoming place for a young family of four. Richard Thompson Sr. and Anne Whitt Thompson worked various bureaucratic jobs, often for government agencies. They were together nearly a half-century, until her death in 1996. Like them, the Otterloop parents embody understanding, security and stability.
Anne Whitt Thompson’s childhood, though, was starkly different. In a 1982 memoir, she wrote the story of her painful voyage through a string of Charlotte area orphanages after age 6, when her mother died and her grieving father lost custody of his children. The book, titled “The Suitcases: Three Orphaned Sisters in the Great Depression in the South,” begins with Ephesians 4:14: “Children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind. . . .”
On the book’s cover is an especially poignant illustration by Thompson, drawn when he was in his early 20s, fresh off studying art at Montgomery College. In tenderly rendered pencil-work is a Raggedy Ann leaning against two small suitcases. There’s an open door, a threshold into a world of loss and uncertainty.
More Thompson illustrations populate the book — three young sisters playing, or listening, or standing atop a slide. The images have an undeniable gravity, reflecting moments of childhood sweetness, yet also a grim foreboding. “I admired her for surviving a childhood out of Dickens so gracefully,” Thompson says of his mother, “emerging not just whole but eminently sane.”
As a young woman, Anne Whitt Thompson met her Michigan-native husband during her second year in Washington. He was a writer-photographer for the State Department, and she would write in her memoir: “I was intrigued by his wit, good manners, and adventurous nature. ... We might sit by the Potomac reading Shakespeare or ‘Pogo.’ ”
Thompson says his dry sense of humor is much like his dad’s — but “I’d hope my natural insight into people was as acute as my mom’s.”
AS RICHARD THOMPSON TAKES his small yellow pills, the question lingers: Is the cartoonist hopeful that science will find a cure for Parkinson’s in his lifetime? Thompson is encouraged, he says, that “researchers have found a treatment that halts the progress of Parkinson’s disease in mice.”
Among Parkinson’s scientists and patients, the responses are as individualistic as the treatments themselves.
Dorsey, the Johns Hopkins director, says his work focuses on reducing the burdens and barriers of the disease. The Michael J. Fox Foundation, by comparison, states that a goal of its research is to find a cure. “I guess I’m more optimistic than most folks that within my lifetime, there will be a cure,” says the Fox Foundation’s Sherer, who is 38. “I’ve been in Parkinson’s research for 15 years, and even in that time period, there’s been a total refocus and renewed energy in Parkinson’s based on increased information,” continues Sherer, citing developing technologies, new genetic studies and the influx of researchers into his field.
Dunlap-Shohl, the Alaska artist, speaks from the vantage point of having had the disease for nearly a decade. “In 2002, when I was diagnosed, the standard line was that a cure within 10 years was in our grasp. This is not the standard line anymore ... ,” says the cartoonist, who notes that his symptoms compelled him to learn to draw with an electronic pad. The disease is “much less easy to understand than we thought then. At the same time, the tools at our disposal to unravel this complexity are the best we’ve ever had, and improving all the time.”
Still, Dunlap-Shohl says: “Parkinson’s disease is hellishly complex.”
IN JUNE 2008, CHRIS SPARKS headed to the Heroes Convention in Charlotte looking to geek out to a world of comic-book superheroes. What he found instead, he says, was an inspiring paladin and friend in Thompson. It was the same month Thompson’s illness was confirmed. That June would continue to present profoundly life-altering turns.
“I became a fan of his work as soon as I started reading his originals that were for sale at this table,” says Sparks, an Asheville, N.C., print and Web designer. “I was laughing and snorting so hard at one strip, I had to buy it.”
He and Thompson stayed in touch, a friendship that led to Sparks’s design of CuldeSacArt.com. Not long after, Sparks learned of Thompson’s illness. His wife, Jennifer, bought him a book by Michael J. Fox that details the actor’s struggle with the disease. “I wasn’t even done with the book when I had my idea.” With Thompson’s blessing, he launched a Parkinson’s fundraising effort called Team Cul de Sac. “He was all for it and was touched that I wanted to take it on,” Sparks says. “At the same time, I think he knew I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Sparks reached out to Thompson’s syndicate, his publisher Andrews McMeel and to Team Fox, the grass-roots fundraising arm of the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Their plan: Invite cartoonists to create art for a “Cul de Sac” book and auction. Their goal is to raise $250,000.
Sparks, comics blogger Mike Rhode and former Nickelodeon Magazine editor Chris Duffy helped Thompson nail down the book’s concept: To ask creators to use “Cul de Sac” characters however they might. Thompson’s guiding words: “Please run with them; deconstruct them, parody them, confuse them, cubisize them, psychoanalyze them, draw them in your own strip, whatever tickles your fancy.”
As of early May, more than 100 cartoonists had signed up. Work has come in from such veterans as “Garfield’s” Jim Davis and “For Better or for Worse’s” Lynn Johnston, from such Thompson peers as “Pearls Before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis and Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker.
Watterson contributed an oil painting — his first public art in 16 years. It’s a soulful portrait of Petey, looking cartoon goofy yet hauntingly real. (“I was reluctant to goof around with Richard’s creation, so I had trouble thinking of an approach that interested me until I got the idea of painting a portrait,” Watterson says. “I thought it might be funny to paint Petey ‘seriously,’ as if this were the actual boy Richard hired as a model for his character.”)
Even as Thompson jokes that he is a reluctant “poster child” for this Parkinson’s project, he says he is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. This is all much bigger than just him, he says, a lone cartoonist who can barely think about his next deadline, let alone his long-term expectations as an artist with Parkinson’s. “I’m only a few weeks ahead, so thinking too far ahead is even harder for me,” Thompson says.
“Especially these days where the whole cartoon business is teetering on a yawning chasm.”
WALKING AROUND THE 2010 NCS Reuben Awards last May in Jersey City, N.J., Richard Thompson fielded professional compliments from old-time cartoonists nearing 90, as well as young artists working on webcomics or with Pixar. Wearing a timeless tuxedo, Thompson was embodying both the past and future of newspaper comics.
Thompson is a true student of the art form whose work nods to such predecessors as Schulz and Winsor McCay, the creator of “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” “ ‘Cul de Sac’ is a throwback to the strips of yore,” Universal Uclick’s Salem says, “when character, artwork and writing all benefitted from more space in newspapers and an avid readership.”
That same talent also inspires such current colleagues as Pastis, who a decade ago launched “Pearls Before Swine” with United Media (a longtime syndication giant that is set to shutter its Madison Avenue doors next month — another sign of the industry’s shifting times). “Richard’s the kind of cartoonist whose work you look at and say to yourself, ‘I need to do better,’ ” says Pastis, who at the May 28 ceremony is up against Thompson for the Reuben. (The third finalist is “Tangled” filmmaker Glen Keane of Disney.)
Mike Peters, the Pulitzer-winning creator of “Mother Goose and Grimm,” says with a cartoonist’s admiration: “There will be a group of us cartoonists at the Reubens who will be waiting for Richard to drop [a 2011 award], and when he does, we will all stomp on his hands.”
All the professional bouquets, all the notecards of encouragement. It’s tribute to a talent whose strip evokes the glory days of newspaper comics. An artist who, in depicting the quirky world of childhood, also paves the hopeful way for his profession.
“ ‘Cul de Sac’ may be the end of the road for syndicated newspaper strips,” says Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel “Maus.” “But what a classy place to get turned around.”