Here's another excerpt of the conversation of Richard Thompson and Bill
The Art of Richard Thompson, which you can buy right now
from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or order and wait for a copy signed by Richard from One More Page. Part 1 of the excerpt is here.
Bill Watterson: We talked about the strips you read growing up, but what about the classic strips that were long gone by then? Did those shape your thinking much? Krazy Kat r
eally set off fireworks for me when I was drawing Calvin and Hobbes
. The better I got, the more it taught me. People today would not believe how difficult it used to be to find and read the early comic strips. How did you discover them, and which ones, if any, had a serious impact on you?
Richard Thompson: I discovered, or started discovering, old classic strips when I was in high school. I remember the occasion. Sometime in the mid-70s, the Kennedy Center mounted a show of historic cartoons. All the greats were in it. As a matter of fact, there was an ancient pencil drawing of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie that had slipped loose of its mat, so I tucked it back in, marveling that I was touching a bit of History. Disney, Krazy Kat, Barney Google,
all the usual suspects. I was no expert.
Of all the comics on display, none appealed to me like a Krazy Kat
Sunday page. It had a depth and charm that kept pulling me back to stare at that inky, scratchy piece of ancient Bristol board. I remember that some of the white lines were scraped into the inky patches, going right back to the white Bristol. Wow.
BW: Right, in places it’s almost like scratchboard, drawing with white. He also scratched away tiny mistakes. The originals aren’t caked with white-out like mine; they’re gorgeous. But what I’m curious to know is, where do you personally connect with what Herriman brought to comics? I mean, there are some comic strips that I’m happy to acknowledge are great, but which don’t open any doors for me. Steve Canyon,
or something. Other works, like Krazy Kat,
lit a fuse in my head and blew down the walls. Where does Krazy Kat
fit for you?
RT: I can’t say that Krazy Kat
is a deep personal touchstone, because I did not discover it until I was in high school or later. But it is the strip that sets off fireworks for me too. I love the way Herriman pushes the medium as far as he can. It’s done with such casual playfulness. One big thing it does: it makes me want to do what Herriman’s doing. Not copy him - every time I try to imitate his style it looks boring. Like imitating Herriman’s dramatic lighting effects where it looks like high noon but the sky is pitch black. Yeah, I want to draw Krazy Kat,
but my own way. It makes me want to do something comparable in depth and gesture. Silly, no?
BW: I think I know what you mean. It’s such a pure vision--that’s what we all aspire to. But you’re right, you can’t copy it, because it’s so quirky and personal that it just screams “phony” in anyone else’s hands. What seems silly and natural with Herriman looks precious and contrived outside its own context. Obviously, I learned a lot from Krazy Kat’
s panel designs in my own Sunday strips, but mostly, I think Krazy Kat
made me more attuned to timing, language, and how you express the idea. Heaven knows, the guy drew thirty years of strips with just one joke, so he got very inventive in how he said it, and that’s the fun of it.
RT: Herriman has things that would work in no other medium, like the constant changes in background detail and you know he only does it to avoid the boredom of drawing something over and over. And the presentation: It’s theatrical and artificial, yet when the wind blows through and the weather changes, the effect is more natural than nature. It’s a heightened reality. I can see how people miss the point of the strip. I have friends who just don’t get it; it’s not for everybody. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t you don’t. But once you decipher Krazy Kat
and learn its odd and hilarious humor, it opens a whole new world like no other. There are strips that are classics that I respond to on many levels without loving them (Little Nemo
is one). I can enjoy such strips without really learning too much from them. But Krazy Kat
is a whole course in comics. A feast.
BW: I feel the same in admiring, but not loving, Nemo.
It’s wonderfully imaginative visually, but I find the strip very thin. The setting is always more interesting than the characters. Your satire of Little Nemo
goes back some years before you used it in Cul de Sac
, right? What brought on “Little Neuro”?
RT: It was an idea for a predecessor to Richard’s Poor Almanac
that I put together for The Washington Post’s
Outlook section in the late 80’s and went nowhere. It was merely clever, like most early ideas.
BW: A predecessor? You mean like a regular feature?
RT: I almost did a weekly comic. Fortunately, I dawdled it to death. I wasn’t ready for such a thing, but it got me thinking in terms of a weekly strip. One page of roughs was a whole series of Little Neuros. It’s like the genesis of Calvin and Hobbes;
you have disparate pieces that need to be fit together.
BW: You did a cartoon essay on bigfoot cartooning that I absolutely love. It’s all true, and describing Beetle Bailey as “Bigfoot Moderne” makes me laugh every time I think of it.
RT: Thanks. I made it up as I went along. I enjoyed using art speak on something as silly as bigfoot cartoons.
BW: Barney Google, Popeye... don’t you miss some of that rollicking energy in comics now? When was the last time a comic character jumped out of his socks when he heard the punchline?
RT: It was about the last time a character’s derby hat jumped off his head in response to some similar stimuli. Yeah, I do miss it in comics now.
BW: I’ve changed my mind about things--I think comics have gotten too sophisticated for their own good! You should always feel a teeny twinge of embarrassment when you read a comic strip. If there’s not something a bit stupid or sleazy in it, you’re doing it wrong.
RT: “Teeny twinge” of embarrassment is entirely too small; I prefer a full-on debilitating attack of shame with my comics.
BW: Says the guy who drew cartoons about Mozart and James Joyce!