This is the second half of a testimonial I originally wrote in 2012 upon the retirement of the comic strip Cul de Sac due to its creator Richard Thompson’s Parkinson’s disease. As I mentioned yesterday, since I originally wrote this piece two books about Cul de Sac (the Complete Cul de Sac and The Art of Richard Thompson) have been published, two more (The Incompleat Art of Why Things Are and Compleating Cul de Sac) are forthcoming, a Cul de Sac play has been produced, and Team Cul de Sac continues to raise funds to support Parkinson’s disease research.
Richard Thompson is a cartoonist's cartoonist, an overused phrase that in this case means other cartoonists look on slack-jawed in awe. He worked very, very hard to make his comics look so effortless.
(August 2012, cont'd.) Richard’s art is a bit of a throwback. Let’s spin that positively and call it “timeless.” He uses dip-pen nibs and ink, favoring the classic Hunt #101 Imperial (below right). Ink-dipped nibs were predominantly used to draw newspaper comics from their first publication until maybe the 1940s and ‘50s, when artists like Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) and Walt Kelly (Pogo) made brushes cool. Brushes and nibs shared cartoonists’ affections (and of course many artists used both) for decades.
Both tools let an artist vary line width by bearing down or lightening pressure, creating lively lines with motion, mass, personality. Both also take time and practice to master. When you’re in the zone, the nib or brush becomes an extension of your brain. In recent years, more and more artists use technical pens, Staedtlers or Microns (basically permanent-ink felt-tips), or work digitally directly on the computer. Those are easier to control but, unless the artist is skilled and careful, the resulting line art can look uniform, sterile and dead. Pen guys like Richard and brush guys like me are increasingly considered dinosaurs.
Richard’s scritchy pen line is alive with nervous energy. It practically vibrates. It may look spontaneous and sloppy but in fact it’s quite thoughtful and disciplined. Confident. One way to tell: you never have to stop to figure out what something is or what’s going on. Richard would’ve fit right alongside the great Cliff Sterrett (Polly and Her Pals) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat) 70 years ago but shines like a lonely beacon of quirk and quality on the contemporary comics page.
So in the same way a carpenter might admire another woodworker’s fine dovetailing, I see a craftsman who knows how to use his tools.
I am always a sucker for an outer space gag, but the idea of drawing the garbage in orbit literally piling up overhead would not have occurred to me in a hundred years. This is one of those representations that looks easy and obvious until you realize you couldn't have done it yourself.
Cul de Sac’s characters have distinct personalities without descending to simple archetypes. They can’t be summed up in one word. Richard calls his protagonist, 4-year-old Alice, a “fireball.” She’s a creative, extroverted, self-centered anarchist. Something I once said about Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid, Greg Heffley, applies to Alice as well: she always tries to do the right thing, as long as it’s the right thing for her. Alice’s brother, 8-year-old Petey, is a neurotic, introspective oddball with a passion for making shoebox dioramas. Mom and Dad mean well but don’t seem entirely up to the challenge of wrangling these two kids, who’ll probably turn out all right anyway. Because most kids do. The strip’s deep supporting cast has its own quirks and foibles, none of them completely admirable but all clearly loved by Richard.
Building complex personalities day-by-day in a few tiny panels that take 10 seconds to read? That’s . . . hard to do. Most cartoonists don’t. Their characters are stereotypes—the lazy one, the grumpy one, the sarcastic one, the clumsy one—easy to define and plug into simple situations. Not in Cul de Sac.
"P.J. Piehole's" is funny. Petey's neurotic fear of being crushed by restaurant decor is funny. But the best part is his family's total indifference to his terror. That's a lot of funny (and a little bittersweetness) packed into four panels.
Reminds me of the Calvin & Hobbes gag in which Calvin's Dad explained how the world used to be in black and white until the 1930s. In this case, Dad tries to explain the science while Petey gets it wrong (does he believe what he says? I don't know!), and the best part: Mom buys in.
This is Alice's naive friend Dill in an homage to the classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, particularly a storyline in which Nemo's bed came to life and carried him away. Thompson is very aware of Nemo; Petey's favorite comic book is Little Neuro, the adventures of a boy too afraid to do anything.
Little Nemo and his dream-time walking bed (Winsor McCay, 1905)
In my opinion, Cul de Sac meets the gold standard of relatability—that quality of telling you something you always knew in a way you’d never thought about it—primarily (I surmise) because Richard remembers what it was like to be a kid, turned loose in a neighborhood where every storm drain hides an underground kingdom and a playground slide could be a portal to another dimension. He’s good at taking a surprising left turn that pivots on the perfectly chosen word, or tying up scattered threads of story in a perfectly composed little bow.
In sum, for me, Cul de Sac operates at a level of skill and ambition other cartoonists don’t often shoot for and some may not even comprehend. It’s smart, sweet but not saccharine, dark but not cynical, and artistic but not impenetrable. It was reportedly carried in 250 newspapers, which is respectable but not spectacular. It should have been in 10 times that number, and the fact that it wasn’t is an indictment of something—I don’t know what. Clueless readers, tasteless editors, modern micro-attention spans, or the slow decline of newsprint.
Cul de Sac was the best comic strip of this century. All my best to Richard and his family, with thanks.
I posted the preceding two-part rerun because Cul de Sac merits it, I thought it was relevant, I figured it would be new to most Comic Strip of the Day readers...but mostly because I’ve been out of town the past few days and I could schedule it to auto-post while I was gone. Don't bother trying to burglarize my house now, I'll be back by the time you read this.
Tomorrow: All-new content, and maybe a little surprise you won't want to miss.