While Thompson’s colleagues hailed “Cul de Sac” as a last flicker of greatness in a dying medium, Thompson himself will be remembered for the grace and humor with which he faced his disease — and the way it drew the cartooning community around him.
Thompson who began drawing “Cul de Sac” in 2004, recalled in a 2011 Washington Post interview the exact moment the inspiration for the strip came to him: He was at his 4-year-old daughter’s preschool, watching a well-dressed mom dropping off her child.
“I was just watching and thinking: This is a strange little place they’ve got going here,” Thompson recalls. “This single mom had a pretty good government job, dressing up every day, to go work on slightly more momentous things. Just then, the mom picked up one of those [plastic] hamster balls, and suddenly a real hamster popped out.”
The mother reared back and shrieked: “My God, it’s alive!”
In that moment, “Cul de Sac” was born.
“I was struck by adults trying to deal with this childhood reality,” Thompson says. “They were completely out of their depth, with these 4-year-olds running around.”
That was the genesis of the irrepressible 4-year-old Alice Otterloop, who, together with her introverted brother Petey, was the lead character in “Cul de Sac.” “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoonist Bill Watterson summed them up aptly in a single sentence: “Alice has no filters and Petey is all filter.” The cartoon debuted in 2004 in the Washington Post Magazine. Two years later, Universal UClick executive Lee Salem asked Thompson to consider producing a daily strip for syndication. “Cul de Sac” made its way onto the daily comics pages in 2007 and was syndicated to several hundred newspapers.
Less than a year later, Thompson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He shared the news on his blog shortly before Comic-Con International in 2009:
For the last year or so I’ve noticed a few odd symptoms; shakiness, hoarseness, silly walks, random clumsiness and the like. So the other day I went to see a neurologist and, after having me me jump through hoops, stand on my head and juggle chain saws, he said I’ve got Parkinson’s. It’s a pain in the fundament and it slows me down, but it hasn’t really affected my drawing hand at all and it’s treatable . And it could be a useful ploy in my ever-losing battle against deadlines.
On hearing the news, his fellow creators rallied around him. Graphic designer Chris Sparks launched Team Cul de Sac, a fund-raiser for Parkinson’s research. Hundreds of cartoonists contributed to an art book, and a portion of the sales of the book, as well as proceeds from auctioning off the original art, were donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. One of the artists who participated was Watterson, who contributed a painting, thought to be his first new artwork in 16 years, to the auction and later donated the proceeds from the sale of three original strips done for “Pearls Before Swine” to Team Cul de Sac as well.
Despite Thompson’s initial optimism, the disease eventually affected his work. He hired an inker to help with the strip, but in 2012, he brought it to an end.
“Of all the new comics I’ve read, only two registered as winners immediately — literally within a strip or two,” “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau said in the Post’s 2011 profile of Thompson. “The first was ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’ Nineteen years later, it was ‘Cul de Sac.’ A distinctive, fully evolved style married to consistently funny, character-driven wit — we don’t see this often.”
“‘Cul de Sac” may be the end of the road for syndicated newspaper strips,” “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman said in the same article, “But what a classy place to get turned around.”
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