I first saw Richard Thompson’s cartoons as the occasional illustrations in Joel Achenbach’s Why Things Are books. They were these complicated, scribbly, not-exactly-attractive but still compelling sketches to go along with Achenbach’s Cecil-Adams-esque essays. But Achenbach went on to other things, and I didn’t pay attention to the artist, who went on to other things himself. Mostly that was illustrating for Washington Post features which, since I didn’t live in or near Washington, I’d never see.
Last decade he started the comic strip Cul de Sac, which just everybody I knew who cared about comic strips got to praising. My natural contrariness and memories of past times I was burned left me skeptical. But as sometimes happens everyone was right. It was a fantastic comic strip. The art was no less … weird, honestly. It took time to warm up to it. But it’s … well, here. Let me put up a link that always goes to today’s rerun of the comic strip. I’ll say this confidently: the art is funny to look at. It’s expressive. Every face is showing an emotion, a clear and strongly-drawn one. The stuff that isn’t the focus of the panel’s action is drawn funny too. The more you study the lines the more you realize it’s tricky to draw like that.
Cul de Sac was, by 2010, ready to be the savior of the comics page. The strip just had everything. Expressive artwork. Characters who, by being so outrageously implausible, become intimate familiars. Dialogue that’s logical yet surreal. The small-kid perspective by which everything in the world is a bit magical. And hyperbole. It isn’t enough that one kid’s mother is scrapbooking everything he does. It’s that she has twenty-eight (or something) scrapbooks just for the current month. Tall tales are part of the foundation of the American humorous voice, and Thompson captured that perfectly.
And then just as Cul de Sac was escaping from the notice of comic strip fans into the wider world, where it might be spoken of with the delighted reverence we use for Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts, it was struck down. Thompson suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and had reached the point he couldn’t do the strip anymore. The comics page has been the poorer since then. There are many fine comics out there, but I haven’t seen anything that shows the apparently-easy genius that Cul de Sac did, or the promise of it.
Thompson died late last month, complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Gocomics.com reruns his Cul de Sac comics as well as the Richard’s Poor Almanac feature, which if I understand right was mostly quarter- or full-page features for Washington Post Sundays. Those haven’t got the recurring characters of Cul de Sac, but they have got the same vibrant imagination and sharp attention to detail. I recommend both comics. There’s things you’ll be sorry you missed. They will likely include jokes about restaurants.