Hail Richard Thompson and Cul de Sac!

August 17, 2012 at 8:40 pm By:

Today, cartoonist Richard Thompson announced that because of his ongoing struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, he’ll be ending his newspaper comic strip Cul de Sac on September 23rd.

It’s no exaggeration to call Cul de Sac the finest comic strip of this generation. Thompson began the strip in the Washington Post in 2004, but its distribution remained regional until 2007, when Universal executive Lee Salem fell in love with the strip (and with Thompson’s work on another Post feature, Richard’s Poor Almanac) and offered Thompson national syndication.

Cul de Sac focuses on the Otterloop family: father Peter, mother Madeleine, and especially their two kids, world-class neurotic Petey and pre-school troublemaker Alice. Like many other comic strips, Cul de Sac is a domestic comedy, but Thompson’s artistry elevates it into the canon of great comics, cheek-to-jowl with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Thompson’s skills are many: he has an uncanny ability to milk endless gags out of Petey and Alice’s diametrically opposed personalities, and he stuffs the Cul de Sac neighborhood with a joyous cast of supporting players. If you haven’t read the strip, names like Dill, Nara, Big Shirley, Beni, Viola, Miss Bliss, Ernesto, Mr. Danders, Andre and the Uh-Oh Baby mean nothing to you, but if you’re already a fan, I bet every single one of those names made you smile.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Cul de Sac is Thompson’s art, a sublime hybrid of Schulz, Ronald Searle and Thompson’s own whimsy, expressed through jittery pen lines and bold, expressive lettering. In today’s newspapers, where comic strip are printed at the size of a postage stamp, Thompson still delivered his daily laugh and wry observation, and earned the praise of his peers: in 2011, he won the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, the highest honor given by the National Cartoonists Society.

Richard is part of the Heroes family. He’s been to several HeroesCons, participating in panels about Cul de Sac, humor in comics, and other subjects. I became friends with Richard in 2008, when Ben Towle and I asked Richard (and Roger Langridge) to be on a panel where we’d collectively interview EC comics legend and Mad editor Al Feldstein. It turned out that Feldstein didn’t need our questions–without prompting from us, Al told one amazing story after another–but afterwards, Richard thanked me for the opportunity to meet Feldstein, I bought some original Cul de Sac art, and we became pals. It’s impossible to meet Richard and not become pals with him.

Me, Richard, Roger Langridge, Al Feldstein and Ben Towle, Heroes 2008. Photo by Mike Rhode.

Richard told his readers that he had Parkinson’s Disease in 2009, and in the years since has handled his increasing difficulties–with drawing, and with mobility in general–with heroic good humor. The last time I saw him in person, at last year’s Small Press Expo, he was frail and walking with a cane, but the first thing he said to me was a blue joke. His blog posts about his struggles with Parkinson’s are a study in grace under adversity. Read, for example, his farewell to Cul de Sac.

There are a couple of ways you can honor Richard and his strip. With Richard’s blessing, the tirelessly generous Chris Sparks has established Team Cul de Sac, a fundraising initiative (and division of the Michael J. Fox Foundation) that encourages the comics community to donate money to support Parkinson’s research. You can donate directly to Team Cul de Sac here. If you buy Chris’ lavish Team Cul de Sac art book (featuring contributions from Sergio Aragones, Evan Dorkin, Cathy Guisewite, Bill Watterson and literally dozens of other cartoonists), and/or Favorites, a home-grown zine of comics criticism I assembled last year, money will again funnel into Team Cul de Sac. Order these goodies here.

Most importantly: if you haven’t already, please read one of the Cul de Sac strip collections. A good place to start is The Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics (2010), a fat sample of the first two years of the strip. It’s beautiful, charming–and, I think, a blast of Cartoon Nirvana, one for the Ages.


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