Thompson Visits the "Cul de Sac"

Richard Thompson had been working as an artist for many years before his comic strip "Cul de Sac" first appeared in the Washington Post in 2004, and then as a daily syndicated strip in 2007. In just a few short years, the comic has become a modern classic. "Calvin and Hobbes" creator Bill Watterson, in his introduction to the strip's first collection, "Cul de Sac: This Exit," praised Thompson's language, subtlety and whimsy and wrote that the strip "has it all -- intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings."

The most recent collection of the strip is "Shapes and Colors," released late last year and which earned Thompson a nomination from the National Cartoonist Society for the organization's highest award, the Reuben of the Year.

One aspect of this story is not funny, unfortunately. Thompson revealed in 2009 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, something that he did with characteristic humor, grace and bravery. This year one of Thompson's friends has organized "Team Cul de Sac," a fundraising project for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and is assembling an art book tribute to Thompson and the strip featuring some of the biggest names in comics, and which is also open to everyone. More information about the project can be found here.

CBR News spoke with Thompson about "Cul de Sac," the strip's beginnings, and his influences in a wide-ranging interview.

CBR News: "Cul de Sac" originally started as a weekly feature in the Washington Post before it was syndicated. What was the transition like from local weekly feature to syndicated daily comic?

Richard Thompson: It expanded and contracted. When I was doing it as a Sunday feature I tried to cram as much stuff into each strip as I could, so that each was almost the equal of a full week of dailies. One example is a Post strip I redrew as a syndicated Sunday strip where the family stops at a produce stand. It's got three parallel plots going on; going to the produce stand, the legend of Pulpy Joe and the screenplay writing career of the produce seller. It was fun to write this stuff and fun to draw. When it was syndicated and I had to fill seven days I felt less compelled to squeeze so much stuff in. While the deadline pressure increased I also felt freer to stretch things over a wider span of time, and to focus on something tiny, to do silly little stuff like a full week of Dill following a bug across the lawn. The catch of course is to make the silly little stuff comically compelling.

Had you attempted any cartooning prior to "Richard's Poor Almanac" and "Cul de Sac" for the Washington Post? Was your earlier work mostly illustration?

Yeah, pretty much. I'd done a lot of illustrations that were in cartoon form, some of them becoming almost stand-alone cartoons. The reason I got the Almanac gig was the work I did on a column the Post ran called "Why Things Are." The drawings I did for that were often pretty tangential to the subject of the column, so drawing a real cartoon was the next logical step and I thank the Washington Post for pushing me into that next logical step.

With many strips about suburban children done so many different ways, what was the impetus behind focusing your strip around kids?

"Cul de Sac" grew indirectly out of the Almanac. A few times in the Almanac I'd drawn a toddler's rountdtable with a bunch of mouthy little kids venting on issues of the day (which sounds like it could go grimly cute real easily). It was so much fun to write those roundtables and it came so naturally that when I was trying to populate a comic strip I turned to little kids again. When I thought about it I worried that little kids in the suburbs were pretty banal comic strip fodder, so I tried not to think about it. Putting adult words into kids' mouths is a pretty common cheap trick too, and I don't fool myself that the kids in "Cul de Sac" are particularly realistic. But I think their concerns are those that a child would have, and their fears and the small things things they notice are true to a child's way of thinking. A friend said the strip describes how, to a child, life is often a pile of unfamiliar things that they need to sort and understand. I like that.

Alice and Petey. She's this hyperactive, over-imaginative kid who's often loud and bossy and he's very internal and quiet and neurotic. Was this contrasting pair of siblings at the heart of the comic when you began thinking about it?

Yeah, very much so. Once I'd narrowed the strip down to kids, Alice and Petey came into focus pretty quickly. I knew they should be opposites; I thought of them as an irresistible force and an immovable object. Alice was a type that'd been done before in comic strips, the wild little hellion. I like the kid's books written by Beverly Cleary, the "Ramona the Pest" series especially because you come to understand Ramona's brattiness. I wanted to do something like that with Alice. As a comic strip character Petey seemed like unexplored territory. He's an anhedonic contrarian, fussy, picky and inert, with a fear of change. The combination of Alice and Petey is what makes the strip interesting for me. They compliment each other well and though they're opposites they appreciate each other. And although they've got these pretty well defined characters there's room in them for variation, as I think most people also embody a bit of their opposite. Most daily strip cartoonists I've talked to say they can hear the voices of their characters in their heads so that often writing the strip is like taking dictation, and I know the feeling. I can hear Alice and Petey in my mind most clearly.

Every few weeks, I'll read a strip and it is perfectly in sync with how I perceived the world when I was little. What do you think allows you to do that so well? Is it having kids? Is it being young at heart?

I don't really know. I'm no expert in childhood. Having kids probably has something to do with it. I remember when my daughters were younger visiting them in preschool and thinking what a hugely comic place it was. All these little surreal things going on and all the random swirling energy that the teachers would try to direct and occasionally succeed if only briefly. I'm leery of cute kid stuff and I try not to be overtly sentimental, so maybe I'm just able to fake an insight in the great mystery of childhood now and then.

One of the things that's funny after reading the strip for years is that you can really see Alice and Petey in the parents. Is this something you were conscious of?

Yes! They are family and I'm aware that they better be related to each other. Mom, Madeline, is ebullient, bouncy, warm and often terribly embarrassing to her children. Alice is clearly her daughter and Petey clearly takes after his dad. Peter Senior is rather clumsy and serious-minded (and maybe also somewhat embarrassed by Madeline). I try to avoid the usual "idiot dad" routines but sometimes it's hard to so I try to do an idiot mom gag now and then. Grandma is just Alice in an older form, where she's become a somewhat feral old lady.

Petey is a great comic book fan but has very unique taste. Can you explain what "Little Neuro" is, and if it's a play on "Little Nemo?"

Petey's taste in comics is like his taste in most things. When I was putting his character together in my head, I knew he wouldn't like superheroes or violent action comics. I had been reading a biography of the brilliant pianist Glenn Gould, whose eccentricities were legendary and very much a part of his musicianship. As a child he'd hated Disney's "Fantasia," which was too bright and flashy and gave him a headache; he preferred black and white movies with submarines plowing silently through the depths. I thought Petey's sensitivities would be more attuned to the grimmer modern comics, many of which I like; Chris Ware or Seth for instance. I'd done sketches of "Little Neuro" about 25 years ago but I didn't know what to do with him. He's a parody of "Little Nemo," a little boy practically bedridden by neuroses who prefers to avoid adventures. He's inert and therefore perfect for Petey.

Will Petey ever finish drawing his "Toad Zombies" graphic novel?

Probably not. I figure Petey's obsessive and self-critical enough that he'd fuss with a project indefinitely (something I have in common with him, unfortunately). He's evidentally done vast amounts of introductory material and exposition without anything actually happening yet. Artistic struggle and creative angst are great to make fun of, especially as I'm prone to them myself.

Much of the strip's humor comes from the fact that many of the characters have their own unique worldview. Sometimes it's Alice and Dill and Beni misunderstanding and reinterpreting reality. Sometimes it's the adults and kids talking over each other. Other times it's Alice and Petey not understanding each other and when they do, the rest of us have no idea why. It's done in a way that's odd and sometimes funny, and sometimes strange but always in a playful fashion. Is this perhaps your view of the world and how people interact?

Yes! I've always had a feeling that life is a series of non sequiturs and that we're all untrustworthy narrators. The friction among the clashing points of view is an important part of the strip. It makes it richer and livelier and lets me have several things going on at once. It also lets me build strips on what might otherwise be pretty thing material, like following bugs, buying sneakers, going over a bump in the sidewalk with a kiddie car. And it puts the burden of the strip on the strength of the characters; if they don't have an interesting point of view the material falls apart. Not long after I started the strip my dad pointed out that each of the characters is off in his or her own little world and the strip is about the small places where they overlap. I've tried to stick with that idea.

Another feature of the strip's humor is that it's very conversational, for lack of a better word. It's less about punchlines and setup and more about the dialogue and the visual humor. Is this your own sense of humor shining through?

Conversational is a perfect word. My all-time favorite comic strip is probably "Pogo," which is in some ways an endless conversation. It's sometimes like watching a door-slamming farce where a constant parade of characters stream through, each one yanking the plot in a new direction. I love that stuff and writing that way is pretty natural to me. Also I have a terrible time when I try to write jokes as such; it's like doing a logic puzzle for me, and I'm poor at those. When I write a week of strips I put down everything I can think of on the page, every tangent to an idea or stray direction that might be funny. Then I keep editing it 'til it makes some kind of sense, or at least until it's funny. I can usually tell when something I've written isn't funny but I can't always tell when it's incoherent. Ideally, every panel in a strip is funny in some way and sometimes the first panel is funnier than the last panel. Or a throwaway line is funnier than the so-called punchline. When I was doing the Almanac I got into the habit of the shotgun as opposed to the sniper approach to gags in the hope that at least one out of five was funny, so maybe I've just carried that over to the strip.

How did your years of caricature work influence you on the strip? It's a very different skill and form, but has it affected your approach to character?

It has been an influence. Doing caricatures makes you aware of how faces are put together and how they work. The best caricatures are drawn by studying the subject and building a 3-D image in your head so you can turn it this way and that in your mind's eye. The most important part of a caricature is the expression, what kind of faces your subject would pull. When you can do that you know you've got the subject down cold. And when I can make Alice or Dill pull just the right face to add something great to a gag, that's where knowing how to draw a caricature helps me the most.

RingTales has been animating the comic and offering it online or as a podcast. How did that come about and are you involved with them at all?

Ringtales does a string of strips: "Lio," "Pooch Cafe," "Pearls Before Swine," "Over the Hedge," "Dilbert" and also New Yorker cartoons. They take an existing strip or cartoon and translate it into a little theater piece with direction and sound effects and voice actors. I'm tickled with what they've done and I especially loved the voices they cast. They got me involved in helping choose the voices and always asked for my opinion of the animation. Michael Fry, who writes "Over the Hedge," runs Ringtales and he knows what he's after and the differences between a static strip and an animated strip. It's been interesting and enjoyable and something whose applications I don't pretend to understand, though I'm hopeful.

You recently blogged about Team Cul de Sac. For our readers who don't know, what is it, how did it start and what can people do to help?

Team Cul de Sac is a group formed to raise funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. It was started by my friend, the indomitable Chris Sparks, and we're asking professional cartoonists, illustrators and animators to donate an original piece of art in their own style that somehow includes characters from "Cul de Sac," either tangentially, as a parody or however they want to do it. The art will be published in a book and auctioned off, with proceeds going to the Team.

Chris, did you want to say a few words about how this started and what Team Cul de Sac is doing?

Chris Sparks: Team Cul de Sac came about from the friendship that had formed between Richard and myself. I was heartbroken when I heard the news of Richard having Parkinson's Disease. I am asking everyone in the business to contribute. I have been reading comics since I was five years-old and there are no group of people in the world as kind and giving as cartoonist and the fanboys like myself.

If anyone would like more information its here at Team Cul de Sac. Everything from size of the art, to where to ship it and all the contact information you should need. If, like me, you are not an artist, you can still contribute by clicking here. The other way to contribute is to share this information with anyone you think can help. Please, blog about it, tweet, yell, call your friends, send the story to your local paper, call every publisher, syndicate, artist or anyone who might be able to help us raise money. Keep spreading the Team Cul de Sac news!

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