The creator of the popular "Cul de Sac" comic strip, who is stepping aside for health reasons, looks back on his work.
Richard Thompson's popular comic strip "Cul de Sac" has come to an end. Three years ago, he revealed that he has Parkinson's disease, and last month alerted newspapers that carry the strip, including the Star Tribune, that he is suspending it because his work no longer meets his standards. The last strip will appear in Sunday's paper.
This is a transcript of a conversation between Thompson and John Glynn, vice president and editorial director of Universal Uclick, the syndicate that distributes the strip.
Q It's been an amazing run for the last five years. "Cul de Sac" ranks as one of the great newspaper comic strips of all time.
A 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."
Q Can you tell us a little about why you've decided to suspend it?
A 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.
Q Did you consider using a full-time artist and continuing?
A 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 out of the job.
Q What's your prognosis?
A 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.
Q Your characters are wonderfully eccentric and have such unique outlooks. Did you set out to create characters that were different from most others on the comics' page?
A 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.
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 phenomenon 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 came from the collision of outlooks, or worldviews. Or personal alternate realities. To put the humor across, the characters had to be strongly differentiated. 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.
Q Is the character Alice based on your daughters, Emma and Charlotte?
A No, though my daughters like to think there's a family resemblance. Alice is 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.
Q The funniest line isn't always in the last panel. Was that a conscious choice to break the rhythm of a typical newspaper comic?
A I can't tell a joke to save my life. 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 kind of 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 the rhythms a little offbeat.
Q You've gotten so many flattering reviews from fellow cartoonists (Art Spiegelman, Bill Watterson, Pat Oliphant, Tom Toles, Lynn Johnston, Jim Borgman, Stephan Pastis, Mark Tatulli) as well as some tough-to-please media outlets (Publishers Weekly, the Onion, the Comics Reporter). How do you stay so humble?
A 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 dialogue and instantly it'd all head south and I'd think, "Oh, what do they know?"
Q What's next for the Otterloops?
A 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.
Q What's next for Richard Thompson?
A I'd like to stand up now and go for a little walk.