Today and tomorrow’s CSOTDs are a light edit of something I wrote for my own blog nearly four years ago, when the comic strip Cul de Sac closed up shop because Parkinson’s disease had made it too hard for creator Richard Thompson to continue. Aside from being an easy way to fill a column, how’s it relevant now? What’s new?
Two related books have since come out: the Complete Cul de Sac and the Art of Richard Thompson. I have them both, they’re great. If you’re an artist, Richard’s “Art of” book will inspire you to either work harder or give up. Your call.
In addition, Picture This Press will soon release two books as part of its Richard Thompson Library: The Incompleat Art of Why Things Are, collecting Richard's illustrations for Joel Achenbach's column in the Washington Post, and Compleating Cul de Sac.
Team Cul de Sac, which raises money for Parkinson’s research and published a Cul de Sac tribute book I was happy to contribute a drawing to, is still active, doing comics conventions and auctioning original art. Proceeds go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Chris Sparks, Mike Rhode and the Team are good people doing good work.
Richard Thompson and I have exchanged a few messages and he sent me a very gracious note after I first posted this piece, but I don’t really know him nor how he’s doing. Hanging in there, I hear. His wife Amy wrote a Cul de Sac stage play that had a successful run at the Encore Stage and Studio children’s theater in Arlington, Virginia in June.
And I still think Cul de Sac is the best comic strip of the 21st Century.
(August 2012.) In a recent Facebook note about cartoonist Richard Thompson’s decision to quit doing his comic strip Cul de Sac I called it “the best comic strip being drawn today.” That's not praise I lavish lightly. I mean it.
I’m not going to rage against Parkinson’s disease, which Richard has and is why he's quitting his 5-year-old strip. It’s an awful degenerative disease and it’s terrible that Richard is afflicted with it, and what more can be said? Nor do I have much to contribute to testimonials about what a swell guy Richard is because I don’t really know him. Everyone who does know him says he’s swell, and his peers in the National Cartoonists Society named him their 2011 "Cartoonist of the Year," to which my second-hand opinion adds nothing.
Instead, I thought I’d explain why I think Cul de Sac is the best comic strip being drawn today. What I—someone who loves comics, studies comics, makes comics, and aspires to make better comics—see when I look at Richard’s.
But which examples to pick? One mark of Cul de Sac’s excellence is that you could choose any dozen strips at random and find something admirable and teachable in nearly all of them. In fact, I simply did a Google Image search and chose the first 30 that popped up, from which I culled these examples.
I love that borderless second panel of Alice running, her scarf blowing behind her. The first panel is a moment of self-recognition for me: you think your kid is going to be the next Olympic champion when all they really want to do is splash around in the wading pool. And the third panel is the twist: the vast gulf between who you think your kids are versus who they actually are.
I have been this parent, although I like to think I always made time to push a swing.
First, I want to tell a story on my wife, Karen, which I hope she forgives because this is the perfect time to use it. Way back when Calvin and Hobbes was published daily, Karen looked over the top of the newspaper one morning and asked, “Is Bill Watterson a really good cartoonist?”
I assured her that he was one of the best, maybe an all-time great.
“I thought so,” she said. “But sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
I sympathize. Sometimes it is hard to tell! The fact is, you don’t have to be a great artist to be a very successful cartoonist. There was a time you had to at least be a competent artist, but those days gave way to valuing authentic authorial voices over skillful rendering. What a creator had to say became more important than how they said it. You can dress it up any way you want, and I strongly defend the proposition that a bad artist can still be a great cartoonist, but the fact remains that some simply can’t draw. Their work looks crude and simple, almost child-like.
Which is exactly how the work of the very best cartoonists can look, too.
How’s the reader supposed to tell?
I have also been this parent. Remembering how much I hated being embarrassed when I was a kid, I'm sometimes amazed by how much I enjoy dishing it out to my own children.
We've all had a kid in a restaurant stare at us like this, but I don't recall any cartoonist or comedian noting it before. Petey's bulbous head and wide eyes peeking over the seat in Panel 4 are the perfect punctuation. Even Mom is sneaking a peek. This situation is not improving.
When I look at Cul de Sac, I see the work of an artist who completed the Picassoesque loop from simplicity through mastery all the way back to (apparent) simplicity. Unlike unskilled artists who avoid portraying things they can’t draw, Richard can draw anything. An unskilled artist’s world is small, their settings constrained to the same shapeless couch, office cubicle, or unconvincing shrub. The Cul de Sac world is vast—limitless!—and always distilled to its essence so that the reader knows where they are without a wasted detail. His objects have volume and mass, shape and shadow. When his perspective is wonky, it’s wonky with a purpose.
Like they say, he works very hard to make it look so easy.
Beautiful art, costumes and expressions. How far apart can the universes of people living in the same house be? Alice's haunted gaze in Panel 4 slays me. This is one of my favorites.