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








Review: Cul de Sac Golden Treasury of Keepsake Garland Classics
Posted 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) 
ISBN 978-0-7407-9152-9 
(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)


By Charles Solomon
Special to the Los Angeles Times
September 26, 2010

Cul de Sac Golden Treasury
A Keepsake Garland of Classics
Richard Thompson
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.'"

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times

Info dads

JULY 03, 2014

(++++) HAUT DU SAC

The Complete Cul de Sac. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $75.

     Just when you think everything that can be said and done in a suburban-family comic strip has already been said and done, just when you think any form of comic-strip art that can be created has already been produced, along comes a strip like Cul de Sac to show that you have no idea what you are thinking. Although saying “a strip like Cul de Sac” is misleading, since there really is no other strip like Richard Thompson’s. Or rather was no strip like his – Cul de Sac ended its far, far too short run in September 2012, having debuted in syndicated form a mere five years earlier, in September 2007 (although Thompson produced individual sequences for The Washington Post as far back as 2004).

     Cul de Sac literally means “bottom of the bag,” although in French it should really be cul du sac, which in either case is a synonym in English (and, hey, maybe in French, too) for “faceless suburban dead-end street.” So haut du sac would place something in the opposite position in the bag, on top, which is emphatically where Thompson’s strip belongs. There is nothing even close to faceless about these cartoons; in fact, the characters’ faces are among the strip’s many remarkable qualities, being so brilliantly individualized as to be instantly recognizable even for readers who see them without the attached bodies. And with the bodies, the characters are even more distinguished, not only precocious four-year-old Alice Otterloop (a longstanding comic-strip type given multiple new twists here) and her eight-year-old brother, Petey (with his lightbulb-shaped head and cynical/pessimistic worldview), but also the Otterloop parents and grandmother, the highly individualized kids at Blisshaven Preschool (and Miss Bliss herself), and such subsidiary but endlessly fascinating characters as Mr. Danders, the erudite guinea pig; possibly imaginary proto-adult Ernesto Lacuna; oversize marimba player Viola d’Amore; and even more oversize (as in gigantic but correctly proportioned) explosions-oriented budding cartoonist Andre Chang.

     One of the many remarkable things about Cul de Sac is how quickly it transcended its origins as a local feature for the Washington, D.C., area: the name Otterloop, for example, is from “Outer Loop,” the term used for the counterclockwise portion of the Beltway that rings Washington, and the very earliest strips even showed some D.C. features. It is obvious in retrospect that Thompson’s wonderful writing and drawing deserved national (and maybe even interplanetary) distribution, but this was by no means clear at the start, when his strips ran on Sundays and were done as watercolors. The entire history of Cul de Sac is spread out for everyone to see in Andrews McMeel’s marvelous two-volume set of oversize paperbacks, slipcased to provide all the gravitas that a reader could possibly desire.

     It would have been better, though, if Andrews McMeel had been unable to produce this set – at least for many years. For the unfortunate reality is that Thompson, who was diagnosed in 2009 with Parkinson’s disease, had to stop doing the strip in 2012 to focus on his medical treatment, and it is only because Cul de Sac no longer exists that this full retrospective is possible. The valiant late attempts to keep the strip going, with guest cartoonists drawing certain weeks and Thompson collaborating to produce others, are all here, providing a sad conclusion to the books even though some of the fill-in artists’ work happens to be quite marvelous (and sometimes shows Thompson’s characters in a new and fascinating light). Thompson is only 57, far too young to be memorialized through a release like this one – but for all the bittersweet elements of The Complete Cul de Sac, it has to be said that few cartoonists of this or any time have created a body of work so sensitive and special as Thompson’s. The multitudinous concepts, from Petey’s dioramas and out-of-body experiences, to Alice’s manhole-cover dances, to the trebuchets built by the never-seen brothers of Alice’s friend Dill, to Alice’s grandmother’s habit of throwing deviled eggs at passing cars, to the ever-growing and possibly multidimensional tube slide, show a mind as fertile and inventive as any that cartooning has been fortunate enough to possess. And the pithy and frequently pointed comments that Thompson offers beneath many of his collected strips only deepen their impact, whether he is talking about a particular skateboard ramp being “a joy to draw” or explaining how one Sunday sequence “started out as a parody of shampooese: the weird hybrid language used on hair-care products.”  It is a tremendous shame that readers did not have a chance to enjoy 20 years or more of Thompson’s brilliant blend of amusement and outstanding comic-strip art. It is a tremendous joy to have The Complete Cul de Sac as a celebration of the years of wonder and wonderfulness that he did produce