CUL DE SAC BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE ONLINE AT THESE FINE, FINE STORES
SHAPES & COLORS
GOLDEN TREASURY- A KEEPSAKE GARLAND OF CLASSICS
CHILDREN AT PLAY
WHAT THE REVIEWERS SAID
THE COMICS JOURNAL
Review: Cul de Sac Golden Treasury of Keepsake Garland ClassicsPosted by Shaenon Garrity on October 27th, 2010
I was a high-school senior in 1995, when Bill Watterson retired Calvin & Hobbes, and I thought I was sitting vigil for the last great newspaper comic strip. It felt like the end of the line, with the size of strips shrinking and the audience greying and newspaper circulation poised to tip into freefall. But then came Mutts and Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy and The Boondocks and a lot of other strips big and small (but mostly small), and somehow there was always another last great strip, somehow the final demise of the newspaper comic kept getting pushed back. Just a little bit. Again and again for fifteen years.
In a funny way, I hope the curtain is finally falling now, and Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac really is the last great newspaper comic strip, because it would be such a beautiful strip to end on. Bill Watterson even came out of retirement to write a glowing introduction to the first collection, as if to acknowledge that the funny pages had one good reason to have kept going on without him.
This is a gloomy way to begin, isn’t it? That’s wrong, because Cul de Sac isn’t gloomy. It’s weird and colorful and deceptively robust, making the most of the increasingly hostile newspaper environment, like a lichen twisting into spindly, surprising shapes to hook into every crack in the rock. Like the giant tubeworms that flourish around the hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, the cold, sunless place where life began. They grow there in glorious colors, pink and yellow and shocking red, even though there’s no light to see them by. Not until someone brings a light down.
The Cul de Sac Golden Treasury of Keepsake Garland Classics (a satisfyingly sarcastic title) isn’t the one with the Watterson intro. It belongs to another phylum of comic-strip reprint, the oversize omnibus with commentary from the artist. I love all such collections and have ever since I was a teenager and pored over that old fat paperback retrospective of Bloom County, another strip that was going to be one of the last ones. Thompson chooses a solid selection of key Cul de Sac strips and comments winningly on his characters, his artwork, his references to Alexander Pope and Huckleberry Finn, his firm belief that pancakes are funnier than waffles (a thesis I find dubious), and things he’s seen children do with ice cream. ”Petey is likely also a fan of the more somber and intense modern graphic novelists,” he notes, providing a grim reminder of what you could be reading instead of Cul de Sac. And, “A wise man once said you can break hearts with a joke.”
Cul de Sac, for those still looking forward to the pleasure of reading it, is a daily strip about a nuclear family, the most tired and easily-abused of comic-strip genres, but also the sturdiest. The action focuses on the two children of the family: grade-schooler Petey, a budding neurotic with a lovingly-assembled collection of eccentricities, phobias, weird tics, and totemic security objects; and preschooler Alice, hurtling like a locomotive through a happy world that exists only for her. Petey is the one who spends soccer practice lost in existential fantasies where he has multiple out-of-body experiences and argues with crowds of himself. Alice is the one who collects sticks. There are a couple of parents, a scary grandma, a bunch of other kids (most notably Alice’s friend Dill, one of those hard-luck kids who attaches himself to someone else’s family because his own is too chaotic–in this case Dill has a huge number of older brothers constructing medieval siege engines in their front yard), and a guinea pig, and that’s just about enough to make a strip.
Making oddball characters work in a daily strip is hard; that’s why most comic-strip characters are flat and predictable stereotypes. A strip about Petey has to be funny if you know Petey, but also on its own. Fortunately, everyone knows some weird kids, and Thompson knows how to make his characters’ personal quirks universal. This is a difficult balancing act to pull off, and I’m still not entirely sure how he does it.
The art is both beautiful and funny–another balancing act–and, like the writing, is deceptively complex. It wasn’t until Thompson pointed it out in his commentary that I realized he does all his shading by hand with crosshatching; I didn’t miss the lack of screentone, the lazy black-and-white illustrator’s friend, at all. The art is sketchy and organic, and the characters have funny faces. Too many cartoonists overlook the value of funny faces.
The Cul de Sac Golden Treasury of Keepsake Garland Classics feels like an artifact from another universe, a universe where, for the past fifteen years, comic strips kept getting better. It doesn’t belong in this world, it’s too cheerfully and effortlessly good, but here it is. Strange and funny and lonely and beautiful, like a tubeworm, like a Joshua tree.
Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics
Richard Thompson, Andrews McMeel, $16.99 paper (200p)
(Starred Review) It isn't hard to see why Bill Watterson would appreciate Thompson's work (Watterson wrote the intro for a 2008 collection of Cul de Sac strips): they share a sensibility both immature and wise, ironic and humane, appreciating the oddities of children's thought processes without falling prey to sentimentality. This wonderful omnibus collecting Thompson's earlier two books is a standout of whimsy and humor. While the strip, set in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, mostly concerns the daily frustrations and manias of preschooler Alice Otterloop, Thompson, like any good newspaper cartoonist, also throws in great supporting characters, like her agoraphobic older brother, Petey; Mr. Danders (a rather stuffy talking guinea pig, whom one suspects has a British accent); and Petey's possibly imaginary nemesis, Ernesto DeLeon. Thompson manages the neat feat of giving these children words and wisdom beyond their years while still keeping them wholly childlike (in one excellent series, Alice feels a tantrum coming on and announces it to her class: "Beware! Today I am the bringer of misery and the child of chaos! Crayons melt at my gaze and juice boxes burst into steam!"). A sublime piece of work. (July)
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
By Charles Solomon
Special to the Los Angeles Times
September 26, 2010
Cul de Sac Golden Treasury
A Keepsake Garland of Classics
Andrews McMeel: 200 pp., $16.99 paper
Pundits have long predicted the imminent death of the comic strip, even before the Internet threatened to put the daily newspaper on the endangered species list. But Richard Thompson's delightfully quirky "Cul de Sac" proves the comic strip remains a viable art form while bucking current trends. It's not an exercise in merchandising, niche marketing or political ax-grinding. It features no boob fathers or saccharine life lessons. In an era of threadbare strips cranked out by second- and third-generation artists, its characters are as original as its artwork.
"Cul de Sac" may well be the most interesting character strip to come along since " Zits" debuted in 1997. Thompson is not a 22-year-old wunderkind but an established cartoonists-illustrator in his mid-50s who's managed to preserve a little kid's sense of wonder and fear and mischief.
"Cul de Sac Golden Treasury" presents the misadventures of the Otterloop family, a name Thompson chose "because it sounds comical, it's a word that didn't previously exist, and it's a play on 'Outer Loop,' the outer ring of D.C.'s infamous, ever-snarled Beltway." The family dwells in an uninspired development of identical houses and yards. Mr. and Mrs. Otterloop are busy, well-intentioned and largely ineffectual. Eight-year-old Petey sulks in his room, reads comics and checks his ranking among the world's pickiest eaters. When he gets upset, he tries to chew his arm off. Grandma lobs deviled eggs at passing cars.
The star of the strip is Petey's sister, 4-year-old Alice, a girl of many moods and many tantrums. For Halloween, she wants her mother to make her a costume that's "a hideous, revolting scary bat…who's also cute and fuzzy and, ideally, pink." As Petey ponders why Santa would bring him a soccer ball he doesn't want, Alice declares, "The way he makes toys that're impossible to open, you know Santa has a dark side." Most of Alice's time is spent at Blisshaven Academy Preschool, where she and her friends greet Miss Bliss' relentlessly upbeat lessons with a mixture of skepticism and impatience. They'd rather focus on a drinking fountain choked with sand and chewing gum, weird children's books about "Fontanelle the Imperiled Infant" (Thompson's send-up of Lemony Snicket) and other curiosities.
Beni, a wide-eyed Latino boy with a long crew cut, likes to use tools and is the brightest of Alice's friends. If Dill, another friend, seems perpetually frightened and befuddled, it's because he has older brothers who build trebuchets, siege towers and other arcane war devices. When Dill infuriates Alice by mistaking her Halloween costume's bat ears for bedroom slippers, he muses, "People would feel so awkward about a child with bedroom slippers on her head, they'd throw candy at her just so she'd leave." Beni answers scornfully, "That would be pity candy. Nobody wants pity candy."
After Alice declares that one of the cubbies at Blisshaven is haunted, Beni replies, "Really? The school brochure doesn't mention a haunted cubby. You'd think they'd play up an interesting feature like that."
In contrast to the calligraphic brush strokes in "Frazz" or Jim Borgman's wonderfully expressive lines in "Zits," Thompson's drawings have an intriguing, scratchy quality: The reader can feel his pen nib catching on the surface of the paper. But the simplicity of his style shouldn't be confused with the graphic ineptitude of "Drabble" or "Prickly City." The drawings of Alice dancing on her special manhole cover reveal her delight in a favorite game. Conversely, the reader recognizes the self-created terror Alice and Beni experience at the appearance of the infant they call "The Uh-Oh Baby." When Thompson draws Alice and her friends playing on a hot day, they look as sticky as real 4-year-olds.
"Cul de Sac" is widely admired by other cartoonists. In his introduction to the first collection of the strip, Bill Watterson, the notoriously reclusive and critical creator of "Calvin and Hobbes," lavished praise on Thompson's work: "He reminds us that comics can be more than illustrated gag writing, and that good drawings can bring a comic strip's world to life in countless ways that words cannot."
For an example of a supposedly dying art form, "Cul de Sac" feels very alive.
Solomon is the author, most recently, of "The Art of 'Toy Story 3'" and "Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of 'Beauty & the Beast.'"
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