As a grown-up type person, I never expected to fall in love with a comic strip as deeply as I did when I was 8. Cul de Sac took me back to that 8 year-old self, but it also propelled me forward to the future, where I wanted desperately to make comics as moving and flat-out funny as Richard Thompson’s.
Cul de Sac made its debut in newspapers in 2007. I was a fan immediately. Mere descriptions will not do this comic justice. Please do yourself a favor and, if you haven’t already, click over and read some of the brilliant work Richard did. At a time when everybody thought of newspaper comics as moribund, Richard created one of the greatest strips of all time. That is not hyperbole, that is fact. Had Parkinson’s not made it impossible for Richard to continue Cul de Sac, he could have easily told stories about the Otterloop family for decades. Cul de Sac ended in 2012. Four years later, Richard has left us as well.
Compounding my feelings of loss, the man himself was as kind and generous as any of us could ever hope to be. When I emailed him soon after Cul de Sac was announced, he shot back a complimentary email in no time. Despite the fact that he had a full-time illustration career, a newly-launched DAILY comic strip, and, you know, family and friends, he took time to encourage a twenty-something cartoonist whom he had never once met. I cannot overestimate what that meant to me, and still means to me now. Cartooning can be a lonely endeavor, but with people like Richard out there it sure feels like a community.
From Richard’s first email to me: “I enjoyed your comic; today’s with the quick view of the statue holding its own head cracked me up, and I’m a sucker for a Beethoven gag. And the owl’s Fossilarium made me laugh up. I’m lousy with advice right now, I haven’t figured it out yet myself. A friend of mine just started teaching a law class and he told me he’s keeping one chapter ahead of the students and I feel pretty much like him, except he probably uses more phrases in Latin.”
And later, he sent some kind words about the Falling Rock books I sent him: “I just read through them while I should’ve been sketching (distractions help) and I just really enjoyed the hell out of them. I think you must enjoy writing for Carver the most. If I didn’t know I was dealing with someone from a law firm I’d steal some ideas from you, like the Passing Fancy. I’d forgotten how much I like that phrase.”
Richard had a fondness for language that suited him perfectly to the constraints of a comic strip, where every word counts.
In 2009 I was fortunate enough to see Richard speak as an honored guest of San Diego ComicCon. His panel was hugely entertaining and enlightening. Afterwards, I snuck backstage and got to talk with him for a few minutes. He was as gracious in person as he was as a pen pal. It felt like I was talking to a guru. Benevolent, modest, and of course incredibly funny.
Of the many compliments I could pay to Richard’s work, I think the most important aspect was his fearless creativity. Very few artists can make the act of creation look so gosh darn fun. It was like he found new toys daily and couldn’t wait to share them with us all. I could try to imitate Richard’s chaotic/controlled linework, I could try to write characters and stories with the same whimsy, but the real legacy Richard left us was his artistic expedition. The goal of comic strips is to make us laugh, but Richard wasn’t content with that (although I’m sure he’d take it). Richard made the suburbs a surreal place, he took the anger and vitriol out of editorial cartooning, and he raised caricature to high art. I’ll miss Richard’s work, I’ll miss our sporadic correspondence, but I will try my best to remember the artistic path he was leading us on.