Richard Thompson has announced that, due to the increasing impact of Parkinson's and the need to address it without the additional pressures of deadlines, he is retiring "Cul de Sac."
I'm going to miss the strip, but I applaud the choice because I'm sure it's in his best interests as well as that of his wife and daughters. That's a priority I would salute in a stranger, but one that particularly pleases me in this case.
Richard and I have been friends for several years, starting, odd as it seems to me, when he emailed me to express regret that, in leaving Glens Falls, I was also wrapping up a pair of weekly kids' features I had produced there, one on world news and one examining the weeks' editorial cartoons, which he had been reading online.
I was, at the time, familiar with the fact that there was a very funny, very talented guy who did things over at the Washington Post and who popped up now and then here and there, but knew "Richard Thompson" only as the genius behind Fairport Convention and didn't figure this nice fellow complimenting my work was that Richard Thompson. But I was pleased that he liked my work and we had a brief back-and-forth by email.
A short time later, I got an invitation from John Glynn at Universal to look through some strips they had in development and give him my feedback.
When the bundle of 11x17s arrived, I found that one of the strips was unoriginal but wonderfully marketable, one had promise and nice art but needed some substantial conceptual work and a third was, in my humble opinion, not ready for prime time on several critical levels.
And the fourth one knocked my socks off, which, as it turns out, was not a sign of any amazing perception on my part. Bill Watterson had dropped a line to Lee Salem suggesting that they pick it up and he was too late since they already had.
My one concern, I told John, was that editors are not very bright or perceptive and certainly not at all adventurous when it comes to things like "nuance" and "humor," and they tend to like new comic strips that look exactly like the old comic strips they already have, though they are perfectly willing to do what everyone else is doing and will joyfully be the 1,000th paper to pick up a new strip, so that the trick is to just sell those first 999.
Actually, looking back, here's exactly what I told him:
Editors are some real cloth-eared dolts, and the reason is that so many of them rise to power from copy desks where they obsess over style points.
They are very literal, they are obsessed with "rules" and they really don't know how to sing. This is why editorial cartoons have descended into gags instead of commentary -- too many editors don't understand nuance and they really can't comprehend subtle satire.
You can show them a howlingly funny strip and, if it doesn't look like some other very successful strip, they won't buy it. And, if it does look like another successful strip, they'll buy it even if it isn't at all funny.
This is a real problem for a strip like Cul de Sac that doesn't look like anything else they've ever seen.
Perhaps I should point out that I was, at the time, a newspaper editor. But, not being a complete dolt, I Googled the non-musical Richard Thompson and found out he was the wonderful chap who did things like this:
(Today, I even have a coffeecup with a post-election caricature from a few years ago, which I got here)
In any case, Universal released Cul de Sac a few months later and it was brilliant and, as I predicted, it didn't get as much launch as it would have if editors were not cloth-eared dolts (or if it had looked like every other comic strip and used the same jokes as every other comic strip), but it did quite well commercially, cloth-eared dolts not withstanding, and became an instant classic among the masses of more perceptive people, thanks to insightful, hilarious stuff like this, which I not only kept but shared with some teachers, to their delight:
In fact, I shared that strip and this one ...
... on my personal blog, and, as a courtesy, dropped Richard a note to let him know and he dropped me one back to let me know that he already knew and we struck up the friendship at a more regular pace, though I continue to go all fanboy over his work, which I try to compartmentalize because he'd be worth knowing anyway.
I say this in large part because, since the Team Cul de Sac effort to raise money in his name for Parkinson's research began, I've gotten the impression that an awful lot of people in the industry feel this same way: They stand in slack-jawed wonder at his talent but like him so much that the two things become separate factors.
We finally met in three dimensions a year and a half ago, when the Reubens were held in Boston and John Read held a showing of his "One Fine Day in the Funny Pages" exhibit, which gave non-professionals like me a chance to mingle with the folks who were in town for the actual convention.
It was a bit like being with Elvis, because he'd just won the Reuben the evening before -- to which his comment was "Oh, I've gotten over that" -- and so people kept congratulating him and asking him to sign things, but we walked the four blocks or so to his hotel and had a chance to talk, and, once we got away from the exhibit hall, we were just two guys walking down the street talking.
And now that he is retired, I hope we'll get another chance for some of those conversations, because he is a brilliant, creative, awe-inspiring artist, but also a helluva nice guy, and he's only retiring from one compartment of that compartmentalized life.
And I suspect there's more than a little of the banjoman's resilience in him.
Oh, okay: One more:
(Ha! You probably thought it was gonna be this one!)