Monday, August 27, 2012

On Richard Thompson and Cul de Sac

R.C. Harvey in The Comics Journal.

Richard Thompson, the creator of Cul de Sac, is reluctantly retiring from daily comic stripping, effective in September. The last Cul de Sac will be published on Sunday, September 23. Lee Salem, speaking for Thompson’s syndicate, Universal Uclick, explained in a letter to subscribing newspapers:

On September 9, 2007, the remarkable talent of Richard Thompson hit the newspaper pages in the comic strip Cul de Sac. The buzz began even before the strip debuted; Bill Watterson emerged from his retirement to praise the strip’s writing, artwork and imagination. In May, 2011, Richard received the Reuben, the Cartoonist of the Year award from the National Cartoonists Society, an amazing achievement in so short a time. But the last year has been a struggle for Richard. Parkinson’s Disease, first diagnosed in 2009, has so weakened him that he is unable to meet the demands of a comic strip. For a time, he worked with another artist, but the deadlines became too much of a task. So it is with personal and professional sadness that I inform you he has decided to end Cul de Sac.
In accompanying notes and in a subsequent interview with ComicRiffs’ Michael Cavna, Thompson added some details.
I was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease in the summer of 2008,” he said. “At first it didn’t affect my drawing, but that’s gradually changed. … I’ve known for a year or more that I was working on borrowed time. My lettering had begun to wander off in 2009, but that could be fixed easily enough. But when Alice’s and Dill’s heads began to look under-inflated last winter, I figured I was losing control of the drawing, too. When I needed help with the inking (the hardest but most satisfying part of drawing the strip)—well, that was probably a tipping point. Parkinson’s disease is horribly selfish and demanding. A daily comic strip is too and I can only deal with one at a time. So it was a long, gradual, sudden decision. … Last winter I got an excellent cartoonist, Stacy Curtis, to ink my roughs, which was a great help. But now I’ve gotten too unreliable to produce a daily strip.”
But he considered several options other than outright retiring. “Everything,” he said, “— hiring an artist, going Sunday-only, trying to do the whole thing with Photoshop, leaving blank pages on my drawing board overnight and hoping elves would show up and draw some strips. But none of the solutions I came up with satisfied me. They all seemed to suck the fun of the job. And really, if you’re going to have a job as intensive as drawing a comic strip, it’d better be fun.”
Meeting deadlines proved problematical, but that wasn’t all, Thompson explained, supplying a remarkable insight into his (and most other cartoonists’) creative process: “I’ve hated and feared deadlines all my life — true of most cartoonists, I’ve found. Yeah, I thought about passing along more of the drawing to Stacy. I thought he did a wonderful job inking my roughs. But I was having trouble separating the writing and the drawing. I found that one fed off the other more than I’d realized, that it was an organic process, to use pretentious art talk. Most of the time I’d start a strip with no clear idea where it was going, or there’d be an end without a beginning. And I’d figure it all out as I was inking it, which isn’t the best way to work and would’ve driven a conscientious editor crazy. One reason I hate and fear a deadline is that I can’t finish a damn thing without one, and everything is mutable right up till the last minute. And often beyond.”
Cavna asked him how he was feeling and what the prognosis was.
Said Thompson: “Parkinson’s is incurable, but it is treatable to a certain extent. The treatment combines medication and movement exercises designed to slow the progress of the disease. You pretty much have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place. … I need some work. Last winter I took time off for a month of BIG therapy at Body Kinetics Rehab and it was tremendously helpful. Basically it recalibrates your body using big, exaggerated movements and yelling and silly walks. But then I went back to work and slacked off and began to decline physically. This was when it became clear Parkinson’s didn’t mesh too well with a daily deadline. I got wobblier and had a few falls, and I’ve pushed the meds as far as they’ll go. So the next step is something called Deep Brain Stimulation, where they implant wires in your brain, adjust the current and Boom, you’re good to go. It’s a process that takes four to six months and I’m just starting out.”
In answer to another Cavna question, Thompson said he felt a parade of emotions at quitting—relief, sadness, resignation, gratitude. “Relief because I’ve not lived without a deadline of some kind hanging overhead for almost 30 years. Sadness because there was more I wanted to do with the strip that would only be possible with a daily format. Resigned joy because I don’t know, because it sounds good. And deep gratitude because I fell into this dream job at the last possible moment and got to produce work I’ll always be proud of and made friends I’ll always respect.”
Thompson said he’d probably continuing drawing in some venue or another. “I’m not ready to quit,” he said, “but I’m sure my work will change. It may look like it was done by Cy Twombly using his sleeve.” He paused; then: “Don’t wander off yet! There’ll be a joke after the credits.”
That’s Thompson. His sense humor is indefatigable. Unconquerable. Beyond the reach of Parkinson.
The National Cartoonists Society admires Thompson’s work—his sense of humor, his quirky drawing style—so much that it named him Cartoonist of the Year last year, and conferred upon him the outward and visible sign of its esteem, the Reuben trophy.
“It took me forever to figure out the Reuben,” Thompson said later, “because it’s one of those ‘not in my wildest dreams’ things. But I finally got it: it’s like finding this fabulous object, an artifact of an ancient civilization that’s far in advance of our own, and it’s crashed in my backyard so I get to keep it.”
Thompson’s getting the Reuben prompted me to write at length in my online magazine Rants & Raves about him and his work, quoting many of his admirers in the Society; what follows is a slightly adjusted version of that article.
Pearls Before Swine’s Stephen Pastis has been nominated for the Reuben four times but hasn’t won yet. In 2011, he lost to Thompson. He is a good friend of Thompson’s and admires him unguardedly, saying “Richard is phenomenally talented. … He draws incredibly.” Pastis thinks his own drawing ability is “okay” but admits it is “mediocre” compared to Thompson’s.
Pastis is scarcely alone in holding Thompson’s drawing skills in high regard. Bill Watterson, whose Calvin and Hobbes won accolades for its artwork, says he “just slobbers” over Thompson’s drawings. Writing the introduction to the first reprint collection, Cul de Sac: This Exit, Watterson praised Thompson’s language, subtlety and whimsy, writing that the strip “has it all—intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings. It’s a wonderful surprise to see that this level of talent is still out there,” Watterson went on elsewhere, “and that a strip like this is still possible.”
Interviewed by ComicRiffs’ Michael Cavna, Watterson said that Thompson “has this huge range of cartooning skills. 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.”
Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau said: “Of all the new comics I’ve read, only two registered as winners immediately—literally within a strip or two. The first was Calvin and Hobbes. Nineteen years later, it was Cul de Sac. A distinctive, fully evolved drawing style married to consistently funny, character-driven wit—we don’t see this often.”
The extravagant admiration of Thompson’s scratchy-scrawly-wispy drawing style by other cartoonists is for the lay reader perhaps a little hard to understand. Anatomically, the figures are scarcely so fully realized as to serve as models; the figures are composed of simple geometric assemblages of circles for heads, squares for bodies, and tubes for arms and legs. The drawings sometimes seem preliminary rather than polished: we can often see the line that outlines the circle of the young heroine’s head through her nose as if Thompson hasn’t quite refined his sketch into a final drawing. His pictures bristle with sketchy scratching—casual and informal perhaps, even seeming careless—but the congeries of such lines form filigrees of thin and fragile lines. And that is what fellow cartoonists extol so enthusiastically—the simple linework, enhanced—made complex and solid appearing—by laying in variegated textures, cross-hatches, patterns, and swirls and flecks for body and modeling.

“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 once edited Thompson’s contributions to the Post’s Style section.
Editorial cartooning giant Pat Oliphant “revels” (says Cavna) in Thompson’s gift with pen and brush: “From the beginning of my observation,” Oliphant said, “his drawing line has been as sophisticated as his sense of humor. The bugger is indeed a genius.” No appreciation of cartoon artistry can long avoid coming to grips with the impulse that drives those who draw. Some things are more fun to draw than others, Thompson acknowledges, and “some days I give myself something fun to draw and some days something hard. Unless I’m feeling lazy; then it’s all just talking heads.”
Like all cartoonists—and everyone who draws—Thompson is forever engaged, drawing by drawing, in a continual search for the perfect line. Says he: “The perfect line would be some combination of Ronald Searle and George Herriman. But then, that line would be so perfect, it wouldn’t be human.”
In the age of the emerging stick figure, it is refreshing—invigorating—to see actual drawing skill lauded so loudly. But Thompson’s talent doesn’t end with his drawing ability: his lines, interesting and sublime in their simplicity and complexity, merely visualize the world he has created in Cul de Sac, which Cavna describes as “a sly, whimsical skip through suburban life with Alice Otterloop, 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 kinds of moments than ring true.’”
Oliphant says: “Thompson actually sounds like the kids he draws in that amazing strip. 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 comics strips? Not since Calvin and his tiger rode off into the sunset. You would never suspect it by looking at him, but behind the quiet, mild-mannered Richard Thompson exterior lurks the real Richard Thompson. I know he would hate to be termed a genius, but that is exactly what he is.”
Praise like this nearly overwhelms the unprepossessing Thompson, who shies away, leaving a fragment of his wit: “That’s something that makes me blush hard enough to induce a nosebleed.”
Pastis agrees with Oliphant, saying his friend’s strip should be in every paper in the country. “There is a unique voice there,” he said. “I saw ten of his dailies when he first started. They were the samples that his syndicate, Universal, had put on their site. It was amazing. I mean, just little touches like the size of the father’s car, this tiny little car, and you know there’s something that hits you so hard about that. Like your father should be your defender; he should be strong. And to have a father who is so weak or whatever that his car can fall into a little hole in a sandbox and be lost—that’s an absolutely, utterly crazy, brilliant mind, and they don’t come along very often. He should be in 2,000 papers as far as I’m concerned.”
Cul de Sac, however, is in only about 250 papers these days.
Clearly, it’s not impressive circulation that won the admiration of Thompson’s peers. Nor is it longevity: at the time of his winning the Reuben, the strip had been syndicated for just over three years. Only Watterson, who won his first Reuben in 1986 when his strip was less than two years old, attracted the applause of the inky-fingered fraternity in less time than Thompson. Thompson’s achievement, then, lies in the uniqueness of his vision as well as in his skill in translating that vision.
My introduction to Thompson’s cartooning was a 2004 booklet reprinting a selection of his weekly cartoon, Richard’s Poor Almanac, that he produced for the Washington Post. In this slim paperback volume, I met Thompson at his most playful, his drawings rich in caricature and textures, his comedic concepts springing from one to the next with only a nodding acquaintance between them. His pictures are funny enough by themselves, but the comedy arises in equal measure from the words, sometimes as simple verbal constructs independent of the accompanying drawings. Typically, Thompson’s humor is not of the punchline sort. He is an adept at language, and he flings it around, having a great Frisby-like time conjuring up unlikely juxtapositions and comic coinages.
One Almanac offering is entitled “Manifest Disney,” the title lettered in the familiar “Disney signature” style. Elsewhere, for two pages, Thompson provides descriptions of band instruments in an effort to help readers find the “right one for you.” The bagpipe “features two settings, ‘on’ and ‘really loud.’” The Glockenspiel, he advises, “is about as musical as a baby’s pull-toy. You might as well just jingle the loose change in your pants pocket.” An inspired description.
Two pages are devoted to depicting different kinds of trick-or-treaters on Hallowe’en. In the penultimate panel, we encounter a hysterical personage who shouts: “I’m the Spirit of Unreasoning Fear! Red Alert! Boil your water! Boil your mail!” Boil your water? Where did that come from? By a leapfrogging free association, Thompson goes from a danger signal—Red Alert—to the folkloric remedy for contaminated water, and from there to the next wildly improbable threat—the mail. (Or is it improbable? Anthrax was only a couple years in the past.)
The next Thompson oeuvre I witnessed was Cul de Sac itself. While I admired his playful renderings, it wasn’t until I saw the strip in which Alice is watching excavation for new houses that I was thoroughly and permanently smitten. Beni, standing next to Alice, observes a backhoe at work and says: “Look, they’re digging for new houses.” To which Alice, quite reasonably, says: “Is that how they get new houses? Dig for them like potatoes?” The irrefutable logic is high comedy. Cul de Sac has been compared to Calvin and Hobbes, but the comic sensibility is not at all the same. Calvin and Alice are both imaginative, but Calvin’s imagination is not so childlike as Alice’s. Calvin is Watterson being a kid—or, rather, Watterson imagining himself a kid but with his adult abilities intact so that he can not only achieve his wildest imaginings but enhance those imaginings with the empowering energy of mature creativity. When Calvin and Hobbes put the loose end of the roll of toilet paper into the toilet and flush, delighting hysterically in the frantic revolutions of the roll of tissue as it unrolls, its entire length pulled inexorably into the maelstrom by the cascading water, they are implementing a highly sophisticated scheme. It’s not a kid’s prank; it’s an adult’s.
In contrast, Alice’s enterprises are wholly childlike. Determining that rocks are too glum, she paints smiley faces on “millions of them” and “releases them into the wild for everyone to enjoy.” The joke arises when we see her brother Petey, en route to school, cringing and hesitating because, he says, “I keep feeling like I’m being stared at and laughed at.” No wonder: the lawn he’s standing near is infested with smiley-faced rocks that his sister has “released.”
Once he’d decided to do a strip about kids, Thompson said, “Alice and Petey came into focus pretty quickly. I knew they should be opposites; I thought of them as an irresistible force and an immovable object. Alice is a type that’d been done before in strips, the wild little hellion.” He had Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest in mind. Petey, on the other hand, is a more original if also more predictable creation. Said Thompson: “As a comic strip character, Petey seemed like unexplored territory. He’s an anhedonic contrarian, fussy, picky and inert, with a fear of change. The combination of Alice and Pete is what makes the strip interesting to me.”
Petey likes comics, but “his taste in comics is like his taste in most things,” Thompson went on. “When I was putting his character together in my head, I knew he wouldn’t like superheroes or violent action comics.” Instead, Petey is a devotee of “Little Neuro,” an invocation of Winsor McCay’s brilliant turn-of-the-last-century creation. “Little Neuro is a parody of Little Nemo,” Thompson explained: “he’s a little boy practically bedridden by neuroses who prefers to avoid adventures. He’s inert and therefore perfect for Petey.”
Alice, on the other hand, is all carefree adventure and freefall experimentation. “Alice has my obliviousness to what’s going on,” Thompson told Cavna. “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. 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.”
“Alice has no filters,” said Watterson in appreciation. “Petey is all filter. What a window into introversion and the childhood craving for stability, order and control.”
Still, as a character Petey is much more predictable than his younger sister: we know he’ll shy away from almost anything outside his bedroom. With Alice, we never know what she’ll do next. She is the other aspect of childhood: she’s eager for experience. All the kids in the strip are almost entirely self-absorbed: they live in their own worlds, derived from their tenuous grasp of reality, and they are so self-centered that they often talk past each other, failing to connect. Thompson, as usual, is perfectly aware of what he’s doing:
“Each of the characters is off in his or her own little world,” he said at, “and the strip is about the small places where they overlap. I’ve always had a feeling that life is a series of non-sequiturs, and that we’re all untrustworthy narrators.  The friction among the clashing points of view is an important part of the strip. It makes it richer and livelier and lets me have several things going on at once. It also lets me build strips on what might otherwise be pretty thin material, like following bugs, buying sneakers, going over a bump in the sidewalk with a kiddie car. And it puts the burden of the strip on the strength of the characters: if they don’t have an interesting point of view, the material falls apart.”
Before Alice and Cul de Sac, Thompson, who has lived for nearly half his 55 years in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., earned his living as a freelance illustrator, doing work for government agencies and assorted publications, collecting honors as he drew. He won a Gold and a Silver Funny Bone Award from the Society of Illustrators for humorous illustration in 1989, and in 1995, he picked up two Reuben Division Awards from NCS—for Best Magazine/Book Illustration and for Best Newspaper Illustration. Soon thereafter, he began producing Richard’s Poor Almanac for the Post in the paper’s Saturday Style section.
“The reason I got the Almanac gig was the work I did on a column the Post ran called Why Things Are. It was written by Joel Achenbach, who answered any odd or interesting question thrown at him by readers from the ridiculous to the sublime, and the editor gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted as long as it was at least tangentially about the given subject. So I ended up doing the illustrations as free-standing cartoons with dialogue in balloons and as many gags as I could cram in. Drawing a real cartoon as the next logical step,” Thompson told Tom Spurgeon at, “and I thank the Washington Postfor pushing me into that next logical step,” he added at
The editor who hired Thompson to decorate Achenbach’s column was Gene Weingarten, now the Post’s humor columnist. When Achenbach’s column ended sometime around 1995, Weingarten phoned Thompson and asked him to try a weekly cartoon. “He’s a dream editor to work with,” Thompson said, “you just want to make him laugh good and hard, especially at something inappropriate. We had lunch and then, a year later, I gave him a couple dozen roughs and he said, ‘Okay—it took you long enough; let’s go.’ It started in June 1997 without an actual title.”
Thompson remembered one of the cartoons was about the one-eyed man who was king in the country of the blind.“Who knows what this stuff was doing in a respected newspaper,” Thompson marveled, “but it cracked me up, and Gene liked it, and nobody actively complained. I was always expecting it to be plowed under and replaced by tire ads or garden center coupons. I’d calm my fears with the likelihood that no one was actually reading it, so why worry if the jokes made sense to anyone else?”
Thompson’s third editor in the Style section, Tom Shroder, finally gave the feature a title in approximately 1999: “I’d included a reference to ‘Richard’s Poor Almanac’ in one cartoon,” Thompson remembered, “and he said, ‘Call it that.’” Shroder also urged the cartoonist to develop a weekly comic strip about Washington, but Thompson, as usual,  procrastinated. It wasn’t until 2003 that he found his inspiration, as reported by Cavna.
Thompson was dropping off his daughter at preschool, and he saw a “button-down woman” doing the same thing and started thinking: “This is a strange little place they’ve got going here. 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, Cavna says, Cul de Sac was born: “I was struck by adults trying to deal with this childhood reality,” Thompson said. “They were completely out of their depth, with these four-year-olds running around.” Shortly thereafter, on February 4, 2004, Cul de Sac and Alice Otterloop debuted in the Sunday Post, her surname an allusion to the suburban life beyond the D.C. beltway, in the “outer loop” of Montgomery County that Thompson loves.
Alice and her friends had appeared in the Almanac before that, as anonymous “mouthy little kids” at a toddler’s roundtable “venting on the issues of the day,” Thompson said. In Cul de Sac, they acquired names and absorbed Thompson’s attention. “I don’t fool myself that the kids are particularly realistic,” he said, “but I think their concerns are those that a child would have, and their fears and the small things that they notice are true to a child’s way of thinking. A friend said the strip describes how, to a child, life is often a pile of unfamiliar things that they need to sort and understand. I like that.”
Much of the subsequent Cul de Sac ambiance draws from the same well: “If you watch Alice’s mother,” Thompson wrote about one of the strips, “she is often doing odd chores: carrying things, fixing things, writing things—nothing too odd or weird, but nothing too easily identifiable. This is how I imagine a child views a parent: someone who’s always busy at some activity that the child doesn’t understand or much care about.”
A couple years after the Sunday Cul de Sac started in the Post, Lee Salem, Universal Uclick’s top comics executive, spied one of Thompson’s Almanac entries—a free verse “poem” the lines of which are made up of George W. Bush’s malapropisms. Entitled “Make the Pie Higher,” it had gone viral through the Web soon after GeeDubya’s inauguration. Salem liked it and sent Thompson a note, asking if he’d ever thought about syndication. 

Although initially intimidated by the prospect of coming up with ideas for a daily comic strip, Thompson realized that he really wanted it: “I began wondering what my characters were doing the rest of the week, beyond Sunday-to-Sunday,” he told Cavna. “Obviously, they take on a life of their own—a novelist would tell you this—and they demand some kind of say in it.”
On September 10, 2007, Alice and her friends started in 70 of the nation’s newspapers. It was, Thompson admits, the worst possible time to start a new comic strip. And “the worst possible time” has been going on for several years now.
Said Trudeau: “Richard’s only apparent weakness is his timing: in a fair world, his brilliant reimagining of childhood would rule the comics page, 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.”
“Talent gravitates were it can have an impact,” adds Watterson. “Newspaper comic strips are still the high end of cartooning with daily audience in the tens of millions, but the mass-media model seems to be disintegrating before our eyes.”
Thompson, however, was focused on the task at hand, not the changing climate for newspaper comic strips. “When I was doing Cul de Sac as a Sunday only feature,” he told ComicBookResources, “I tried to cram as much stuff into each strip as I could so that each was almost the equal of a full week of dailies. … When it was syndicated and I had to fill seven days, I felt less compelled to squeeze so much stuff in. … I also felt freer to stretch things over a wider span of time, and to focus on something tiny, to do silly little stuff like a full week of Dill following a bug across the lawn. The catch, of course, is to make the silly little stuff comically compelling.”
The other catch, fate’s cruel quirk, is that about a year after Cul de Sac went into syndication, Thompson learned that he had Parkinson’s, the incurable neurodegenerative disease that slowly robs its victims of motor skills. He finally wrote about it on his blog on May 16, 2009: “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.”
Peter Dunlap-Shohl, formerly editorial cartoonist at the Anchorage Daily News, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2002, said about it: “Getting diagnosed with this disease is to have your world struck by a meteor, transformed to ash in an instant of unexpected impact. … All I could focus on were the words progressive, incurable, and disabling.”
In his blog announcement, Thompson stressed the comically compelling—juggling with chain saws and outmaneuvering his deadlines. At the time, he was taking pills four times a day and kept on drawing.
Going to the podium to accept the Reuben, he walked slowly, almost tentatively, but, at last, he grasped the heavy metal trophy and expressed his pleasure and gratitude at winning it. Later, at his blog, he said: “I’m grateful in countless ways, not the least being that I didn’t fall over.” Irrepressible.

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