2016 was an awful year for creative people passing away, but one death that I didn’t see a whole lot of comment about was that of cartoonist Richard Thompson of complications from Parkinson’s Disease. Thompson was the brilliant mind behind the wonderful comic strip Cul De Sac, which can still be read online in its entirety, and for which Thompson maintained a blog occasionally delving into his creative thoughts behind each individual strip.
Cul De Sac may be the truest heir on the comics page to the spirit of Calvin and Hobbes, in that Thompson has an effortless understanding of the way children appear to see the world and interact with it. The strip’s star is kindergartener Alice Otterloop, who looks on the world with that wonderfully skewed (and hard to argue against) logic that every four-year-old brings to the table. Alice is pushy and loves being the center of attention, which makes for a lot of hilarity when she doesn’t get her way.
Alice isn’t a female Calvin, though. She is not primarily a loner. She has friends with whom she interacts (or fights), and she has an older brother in addition to her parents. Alice doesn’t get along well with everybody, and there’s one kid that she doesn’t like at all, and Thompson has the genius to show this poor kid as being pretty nice and, well, just a normal kid. This isn’t Calvin getting bullied by Moe. We never get a real reason as to just why Alice so dislikes poor Kevin (whom she always refers to as “bucket-headed Kevin”), and she bosses poor Dill around. Alice isn’t perfect at all. But then, neither was Calvin.
Older brother Petey isn’t a supporting character, though. At times he becomes the star in his own right, in his preference for inaction and his neurotic dislike of everything, including just about all foods. (Petey actually maintains his own “Picky Eater” rating online.) Thompson is adept at showing the differences between the way Alice views the world and the way Petey sees it, and some of his best work has the two worldiews clashing together.
The adults in Cul De Sac are also done quite well. Mrs. Otterloop is apparently the one with the best grip on reality, although she has a wicked sense of humor that she lets fly once in a while, even if nobody gets it. Mr. Otterloop seems slightly clueless – well, maybe clueless isn’t quite the word. He doesn’t seem quite equipped to interact with his children on their terms, though, and he always seems mildly nonplussed by what happens when he gets a glimpse of what they’re up to.
Best of all is Thompson’s art. His style is surprisingly elaborate for the demands and space restrictions of the comics page, and he often does wonderful things to suggest the flow of time and manages to elude the bonds of the panel. Thompson’s best drawing often comes when Alice finds herself interacting in some way with either the world of adults or with larger children, whether it’s the enormous jungle gym and slide that has mythologically entrapped some children for years, or her oddly scary grandmother with the gentle-and-confused-but-still-terrifying giant dog, or her father’s tiny car into which Dad must fold himself in contorted ways.
I discovered Cul De Sac some years ago when Stephan Pastis actually plugged it in an installment of his Pearls Before Swine (an episode I blogged about when it happened, and it was with sadness that I noted Thompson’s reluctant decision to retire from the strip when his Parkinson’s Disease became too much of a hindrance to continued work.
Richard Thompson was a wonderful, wonderful humorist and poet of the comics page, and I’ll treasure Cul De Sac forever.
(She’s right — where the heck is the Pie Fight Button, anyway?!)