Richard Thompson, creator of the award-winning and celebrated comic strip Cul de Sac, is one of this century’s strongest examples of success within the comic genre. The Otterloops, the family featured in the strip, featured some of the best storytelling that can be found online or in newspapers.
Thompson’s work was recently acknowledged by his peers in the June book release of “Team Cul De Sac: Cartoonists Draw The Line at Parkinson’s”. Over 100 cartoonists & artists came together to draw their interpretations of some of Thompson’s characters, at times intermingled with their own. Upon its release, the book was listed among the New York Times best sellers for its category.
Universal Uclick Vice President & Editorial Director John Glynn recently visited Thompson in his Virginia home to discuss the strip and a major announcement regarding his work.
John Glynn: I want to start off by saying thank you for such an amazing run for the last 5 years. I say without hesitation that Cul De Sac ranks as one of the great newspaper comic strips of all time and a personal favorite of my family and myself.
Richard Thompson: Thank you! I'm blushing so hard my blood pressure's dropped slightly. I think I'd better sit down. And I’m thankful for all the newspapers that took a chance on Cul De Sac.
JG: Can you tell us a little about why you've decided to suspend Cul De Sac?
RT: I was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease in the summer of 2009. At first it didn't affect my drawing, but that's gradually changed. Last winter I got an excellent cartoonist, Stacy Curtis, to ink my roughs, which was a great help. But now I've gotten too unreliable to produce a daily strip.
JG: Did you consider using a full-time artist and continuing?
RT: Yeah, I considered everything: hiring an artist, going Sunday-only, trying to do the whole thing with Photoshop, leaving blank pages on my drawing board overnight and hoping elves would show up and draw some strips. But none of the solutions I came up with satisfied me. They all seemed to suck the fun of the job. And really, if you're going to have a job as intensive as drawing a comic strip, it'd better be fun.
JG: What's your prognosis?
RT: Parkinson's is incurable, but it is treatable to a certain extent. The treatment combines medication and movement exercises designed to slow the progress of the disease. You pretty much have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place. And I'm in line for a procedure called Deep Brain Stimulation where a neurosurgeon attaches jumper cables to your brain. Or something like that.
JG: When I told my 8-year-old that Cul De Sac was going to take a break, she became really emotional. She simply adores Alice. Is she based on your two daughters, Emma and Charlotte?
RT: No, though my daughters like to think there's a family resemblance. Alice isn't based on anyone in particular. She's an amalgamation of a lot of people, plus a good bit of me, which is true of all my characters. I first thought up Alice and Petey back in 2003 before the strip started in the Washington Post. Alice is the irresistible force and Petey is the immovable object. The friction generated by opposites is a good source of comedy, so I hoped having them at the center of the strip would keep it spinning.
JG: You had some great ancillary characters: the Uh-Oh baby, Ernesto Lacuna, Mr. Danders, Dill's brothers, Viola D'Amore? Did you have a favorite to write for? A favorite to draw?
RT: Ernesto has always been a lot of fun to write for, especially as his character and purpose became clear (he's a psychological bully). The same with Mr. Danders, whom I originally used as a gimmick to escape the confines of the strip. Most of these characters rarely appeared or, in the case of Dill's brothers, never appeared (if they had, they'd have lost their comic power). I think these characters are all a little too exotic and intense for constant exposure. The Uh-Oh Baby is a kind of One Joke Character so I used him (or her) only when I figured readers had forgotten him (or her).
JG: You characters are wonderfully eccentric and all have such unique outlooks. Did you decide to create characters that were different from most others on the comics page?
RT: Creating believable, solid characters is the most difficult and important part of a comic strip. Or a novel, movie, play, etc. Since I'd never tried it before, I looked at the work of Walt Kelly, whose Pogo contained the liveliest individuals to populate a newspaper strip. And I stole from him. And as the weeks went by and I got to know my cast the greatest thing happened - they wrested control of the strip away from me, often leaving me scrambling to keep up. Hearing your characters' voices is a common phenomena among cartoonists, but it was new to me and I loved it, especially when I learned to stop dictating gags and trust my cast. If I gave them room to maneuver, they'd always surprise me. Most of the humor in the strip came from the collision of outlooks, or world-views, or personal alternate realities. To put the humor across, the characters had to be strongly differentiated, and it helped that most everybody was an unreliable narrator (little kids often are). I always wanted Cul de Sac to be a character-driven strip because it'd be more fun to do and because the possibilities for humor then became almost limitless. And that's a pretty vital concern for a job that demands a funny idea every day of the year.
JG: One of the things that I loved about Cul De Sac is that the funniest line wasn't always in the last panel. Was that a conscious choice to break the rhythm of a typical newspaper comic?
RT: I can't tell a joke to save my life. The whole setup-punch line equation is like a foreign language to me; it's like math - I can't do it! This presents a serious handicap for someone who proposes to do a comic strip. So, again, I fell back on Walt Kelly's example and used a more conversational approach to the humor. This worked well for several reasons, one being that I like doing little "arcs" that don't have much of a story; Dill spends a week crawling after a bug, Alice climbs under a restaurant table to find a lost straw, Petey sits on his bed. Insignificant stuff like this is a lot of fun for me to do and fits the comic strip form well. But I worried some about the material being kinda thin, so I relied on the constant chatter from the cast to add another layer of humor. I hoped. All these diversions to disguise the absence of jokes probably made Cul de Sac's rhythms a little offbeat.
JG: One of things we discussed in marketing Cul De Sac is that it wasn't about a snappy tagline or appealing to some demographic trend, its magic was in the comics themselves. And the truth was that once an editor would spend a few minutes and read more than a couple of weeks they were likely hooked. I'm not sure what my question is here; I guess I wanted you to know that.
RT: Or thoroughly repelled. But yeah, the effect of most strips is cumulative. Each day the reader gets another bit to add to the strip's little world, and one hopes it's a funny, recognizable bit. CdS had this, sometimes to its detriment. Because, you know, these days who has the time to put little bits together? Especially when the little bits are about these talky kids and there aren't even any jokes. I didn't make life any easier for your salespeople, did I?
JG: In my 12 years in the business, I've never seen so many flattering reviews from fellow cartoonists (Art Spiegelman, Bill Watterson, Pat Oliphant, Tom Toles, Lynn Johnston, Jim Borgman, Stephan Pastis, Mark Tatulli) and some tough-to-please media outlets (Publishers Weekly, The Onion, The Comics Reporter, The L.A. Times). How do you stay so humble?
RT: When cartoonists I've admired from afar said they liked Cul de Sac it was tremendously satisfying and I'd be insufferable about the attention for 15 seconds. Then I'd blow a drawing or screw up some dialog and instantly it'd all head south and I'd think, "Oh, what do they know?"
JG: What's next for the Otterloops?
RT: I've never known what they'd be up to next. It's always been a surprise. But I don't think I'm through with them just yet.
JG: What's next for Richard Thompson?
RT: I'd like to stand up now and go for a little walk.
To read Cul de Sac, visit the Otterloops at http://www.gocomics.com/culdesac. Links to his book collections are also available on the page.