The blog of Richard Thompson, caricaturist, creator of "Cul de Sac," and winner of the 2011 Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Booboo Revealed

This is either a booboo, a technical glitch or an editorial oversight, I drew a misdirected pointer, or "tang", on the final balloon, making it appear that it was being spoken by Mom, then drew a corrected one pointing to Alice. But I forgot to expunge the one to Mom. I'm sorry, ok?

More Late Night Nib Talk: My New Favorite Nib

Warning; this is mostly for appreciators of pen nibs, also known as nibophiles, pendemaniacs and nirds.

In an earlier post, I'd driveled on at length about my favorite pen nib, the Hunt ##101 Imperial, shown above. I use a dip pen nib every day of my life and am therefor a leetle obsessive about them; a bad one can send me into a funk that poisons the whole household and probably scars my children permanently, but give me a good nib and I sing & dance like Donald O'Connor (which also scars my chi- but, never mind). Nibs can vary in quality within their species. Get 30 nibs of the exact same kind and hold them in your hand; half of 'em are OK-ish, 10 of 'em are decent and 5 are sweet, and, if you're real lucky, one is immortal, a Nib for the Ages (that adds up to 31, I know, I know). It all depends what you're after, of course. I'm after one that draws fine lines effortlessly, on edge or square on, upside down even, and does fat lines without spreading out too far and compromising the ink flow. It's usually immediately apparent how well the nib is going to perform, just by the feel of it dragging on the paper, or the tiny variations in shape of the tines. It's this finely calibrated nib-sense that makes my wife's eyes roll audibly in her head if I so much as say the word "nib".

Now, the Hunt Imperial nib is good for drawing, but it was designed for ornamental calligraphy, specifically copperplate or Spencerian calligraphy. This style, popular in the 19th century, used a fine pointed nib with flexible tines allowing for great variations in line width by hand pressure instead of nib width and angle, and it demands great skill and a good bit of flair to pull off. The 19th century was an explosive period for steel nibs, as I'm sure you'll remember from your high school history book, chapter 21, "The 19th Century; An Explosive Period for Steel Nibs". Though steel nibs (actually often bronze) had been around for a while, maybe as long ago as ancient Egypt, they were inferior in line-quality to reed pens or, later, quills. Quill pens were cheap and fairly easy to produce as long as enough geese were handy, but didn't last long and needed sharpening often. By the early 19th century, steel nibs were much improved in quality, but were horrendously expensive, costing about two day's pay for a laboring man. And they were produced laboriously by hand, being carved one at time out of a block of steel with a putty knife (this part's not true). But, as with the manufacture of most things during the Industrial Revolution, improvements were made.

Birmingham, England was a center for the production of small metal objects, toys, jewelry, buckles and such, in fact it was one of the first manufacturing towns in the world, and the Jewellery Quarter is now an historic neighborhood. It was there in the early 1820s that John Mitchell began to apply button making technology to nib making, using a series of hand presses to shape, pierce and slit the nibs. Within ten or so years dozens of nib manufacturers had sprung up in the area, among them the firms of the Mitchell Brothers, Josiah Mason and Joseph Gillott, and at their peak they employed over 5,000 workers and produced an astonishing 1,500 million pen nibs a year, which wasn't too short of the world population at the time. Needless to say, the price of a steel nib dropped, from 12.5p each to 1.25p for a gross (144). At least one historian has said that this sudden affordability democratized writing and certainly it boosted literacy.

Though John Mitchell may have been the first (there's some conflict in the sources I've found; most such advances are simultaneous impulses), Joseph Gillott (pronounced GILLott, his bust pictured above) seems to have been the man who most perfected the art & science of nib manufacture. From the book "Forty Years of Ink";
It was Joseph Gillott, however, originally a Sheffield cutler, and afterwards a workman in light steel articles, as buckles, chains, and other articles of that class, who in 1822 gave impulse to the steel-pen manufacture. Previous to his entering the business the pens were cut out with shears and finished with the file. Gillott adapted the stamping press to the requirements of the manufacture, as cutting out the blanks, forming the slits, bending the metal, and impressing the maker's name on the pens. He also devised improved modes of preparing the metal for the action of the press, tempering, cleansing, and polishing, and, in short, many little details of manufacture necessary to give them the required flexibility to enable them to compete with the quill pen. One great difficulty to be overcome was their extreme hardness and stiffness; this was effected by making slits at the side in addition to the central one, which had previously been solely used. A further improvement, that of cross grinding the points, was subsequently adopted. The first gross of pens with three slits was sold for seven pounds. In 1830 the price was $2.00; in 1832, $1.50; in 1861, 12 cents, and a common variety for 4 cents a gross. About 9,300 tons of steel are annually consumed, the number of pens produced in England alone being about 8,000,000,000.

Gillott's firm produced many varieties of pen nibs, especially nibs designed for copperplate lettering. Their #303 was (and is) one of their most popular. But their greatest creation, their gold standard, was the fabulous Gillott Principality.

Jeez, just look at that sweetheart, isn't it a pisser? As far as I can tell, it was only in production for a little over 20 years, but it was unmatched for flexibility and ease of ink flow. If you compare it to the Hunt Imperial, you can see the similarities, but also some differences, like the grinding marks and size of the vent hole. And how it just looks better made overall. One mark of a well-made nib is a slight concavity of the tine's outer profile; it means they fit together evenly and therefor will work better.

OK, my eyes are starting to roll audibly in my head. Suffice it to say, the Principality is one of the peaks of a now-diminished craft, and it's one that people who collect such things pay good money for. God knows how many hundreds of thousands, or millions, of these fine bits of steel were produced in the late 1800s, but the day when you could buy a gross for a few bucks are long gone. About six years ago a collector sold a gross of the Principalities as fund raiser for the Leukemia Society on eBay for $1,525, and individual ones go for about $20, or two days wages for a laboring man, if he has a crummy job.

It's too late to make a long story short, but I just bought one of these things, unused, on eBay for less than $20, and I'm scared to touch it. And not just because the oil on my hand might effect the surface (many nibs have a coating that should be removed somehow so ink won't bead up on the metal; some old-time penman supposedly used to pop the nib into their mouth and let saliva do the trick, and no, I'm not going to try it). What I'm going to do is, seal it in lucite and put it in a tank filled with helium then bury it in the backyard. And when the economy heads south and nobody's buying cartoons, I'll trade it for fuel, liquor, breadfruit and copra.

But in the meantime, guess what? The nib manufacturing firm Hiro Leonardt has started producing a nib closely based on the old Principality. It's called the Leonardt EF Principal, and I bought a handful of them, and dang, it's a nice nib to draw with. I'm sure I'm not using it correctly, as it's meant for ornamental lettering on smooth paper with iron gall ink instead of drawing goofy cartoons on vellum bristol with India ink, and I can feel it pulling ahead of me, like a racehorse forced to pull a garbage wagon. Maybe it's embarrassed. But it's also more responsive and better made than most of today's nibs, which for the most part are stamped out of aluminum foil by poorly-trained lemurs. So there ya go, a ray of hope in a dark world.

Mozart's Birthday

A cheap & lazy repost.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Deadline Zombie, and a Question

The above is a current self portrait, except my hair is actually longer and I'm wearing socks.

And I have a question that anyone who uses drawing ink might be able to help me out with. I have a bottle of ink that's about to go bad; it has a slight sour smell that'll likely just get worse. It's the good kind of ink, Dr. Ph. Martin's High Carb, and I hate to dump it out. Is there any way to prevent it from spoiling? It's in a 30 ml bottle that I'd cleaned out, poured from a larger bottle, and I'm not short on ink. But these days I don't want to waste ink, especially the expensive stuff. Anybody got a suggestion?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Last Chance

One last shot across the brow. This was for the New Yorker a few years back.

Saturday's Almanack

I did one like this for Bush, too, and I'll post it if I can find it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Morning Sing-Along

Good morning! It's 12ยบ in Arlington. Let's warm up with an Ann Telnaes sing-along! 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

First Cul de Sacs

This is the first Cul de Sac, which appeared in the Post Magazine on February 8, 2004.
This is the second.
This is the rough for the third, which I'd planned to be the first (note paste-overs).
And here's the third.
More TK, as us print journalists say.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Saturday's Almanack

If you live in the DC area, you know what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Elderberries

Today's Elderberries by the mad comic genius Corey Pandolph has a shocking development. If Dusty and Boone think I can fix a radio, they're in for an awful let-down. And my thanks to Corey for drawing my nose not too big.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Battle of the Bands

Hey Kids! Let's go to a rock 'n' roll concert! Featuring Titanic Tom Toles of Suspicious Package on drums! YAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

Go here.

Saturday's Almanack

The "Corrections" in a newspaper can make entertaining reading, like the animal report column, or the restaurant closings. I've done one of these almost every year since 19-ought-97, and I'll keep doing 'em until somebody laffs.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

When I was a kid, we'd watch Guy Lombardo and at midnight, under the watchful eyes of my parents, we'd go outside, bang pot lids together and yell Happy New Year. And we still do, only without Guy.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Rest

Here are the other 2,500 drawings I did for the Dave Barry piece. As you can see, I didn't exaggerate the work involved. My many thanks to the mighty J Porter, Art Director nonpareil, who somehow managed to shoehorn all these into a 30 page magazine and still leave room for the words.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Year In Review

The Wash Post Mag with Dave Barry's Year In Review comes out today. Here are some of the 5,000 drawings I did for it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Francis Pharcellus Church

I did this in 1997, on the 100th anniversary of the editorial. It's all true, though I might've exaggerated the moustache.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Stay Tooned

This was for Mr. John Read, who edits & publishes Stay Tooned, with the combined energy, charm & talent of ten men. Plus two!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Today's Cul de Sac

This is the original version of today's Sunday strip. It ran in the Post Magazine two years ago. What I like is the tree vender, who's pretty much a funeral director, if not an outright mortician. Weirdly enough, yesterday's Lio plays around with a Frankenstein tree too, only differently I'd sure like to arrange a playdate with Mark Tatulli's kids.

Christmas Fun

The fun in doing this was turning off my mind and doing 90 billion little scratchy lines in a zen state. I wish all drawings could be done like that. Or better yet, while fast asleep.

Friday, December 19, 2008

-Another Crummy Commercial-

If you clicked on the link to the Cartoon Bank below, then threw up your hands in dismay at the very-reasonable-yet-maybe-a-little-steep prices, try the Click Here to Buy link below the Obamables button to your right>. That opens a Cafe Press page full of every kind of tchotchke with the Obama print on it that you could need. And stop throwing up your hands in dismay; people only do that in comic strips.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Prints now available at the Cartoon Bank! Right here

Did you know that the Cartoon Bank is the safest place for your money in these rough economic times? You don't see them lining up for a government bailout, no sirree bob! Not yet.

Christmas Rerun

I think I posted this last year, but not formatted correctly. It's drawn from life, at least as far as the subject matter, and it's kinda pretty.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Santa Advisory, Again

Here's yesterday's Almanack, which is a sorta retread of one from last year, which is below. Only of course, the new one is much, much better, as I've improved immeasurably since last year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Where I Wish I'd Been

You may recall the Totoro Forest Project mentioned here previously. I got an email from the live-wire fire-balls who ran the auction, saying they'd presented $185,221 toward the purchase of two sections of land to the Totoro Forest Foundation in Japan. And they sent photos. Here are a few of them. Please allow your mind to take a little walk in them.

Ah, that felt good.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where I've Been

I spent the last week doing 5,000 drawings for a Post Magazine Year in Review special issue. I subsequently came down with some kind of deadline poisoning. So that's where I've been. Some lucky people got to go see an R. Crumb show in Philly, and eat cheesesteaks. , see? But not me, I've still got deadline poisoning.

Shown: a sketch and final for the Post Mag, one image of 5,000.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

December Linus

Yikes! Nobody ever tells me anything. How'd this happen?

The Universal Press Blog

Kathie Kerr, the hard-working director of communications at my syndicate, Universal Press, sent me an actual press release this morning. Since I've got my hands full and nothing worth saying, I'll post it for your entertainment.

Inside the doors of Universal Press Syndicate are a lot of smart people, but they’re busy, so the rest of us have started a blog on the inside workings of a syndicate. While that might sound as exciting as a digestive disorder, the blog may be of some actual value to cartoonists looking for tips on how to become syndicated and for die-hard comic fans who want behind-the-scene glimpses of today’s comics. Go to and the next sound you hear will be that of an UPS editor giving you the uncensored truth about comics and the syndicate, while giving thanks for his/her job.

There ya go! When you go to the blog, scroll down to the short film "Thanksgiving Disaster" by W.T.Duck creator Aaron Johnson; jeez, it's good.

  Above is a picture of UPS's new headquarters, the Bolley Building in Kansas City. It no longer has the word Bolley's in electric lights on top, but there is a mural on the ground floor with lots of cartoon characters cavorting.