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Dancing on the Manhole Cover: The Genius of Richard Thompson

“Heenkhahooghooghenk… Sniff… Sob.”

Like all comics connoisseurs, I’m mourning the loss of Richard Thompson, creator of Cul de Sac. But the first three words of this article are not mine. They belong to Thompson’s characters: Petey Otterloop, his younger sister Alice, and her friend Dill Wedekind. This particular strip — from February 2011 — displays Thompson’s emotional range, keen sense of the absurd, love of words, sudden shifts in tone, and the sheer vitality of his characters and his art. As each Cul de Sac strip does, this one gives you a glimpse of his genius.

1_CuldeSacFeb2011

To borrow Dill’s words, “It’s so unfair” that Parkinson’s disease cut short Thompson’s career — that we should get only five years of his syndicated strip, which ran from 2007 to 2012. Just as Petey’s brief but crazily onomatopoetic oboe solo elicits such a strong emotional response from Alice and Dill, so Cul de Sac maximized the possibilities of comic art. This particular strip begins by announcing its musical theme (“Sad Little Monkey”), then fully elaborates its aural ridiculousness, after which — surprisingly — sadness engulfs the younger characters. But Thompson somehow makes their pain funny via the fanciful narrative of the sockless monkey, a social outcast shunned by the popular lemur. A sixth, borderless panel finds Petey alone and silent — it presses the pause button, changing the tempo again, as reader and Petey reflect on the previous five panels. At last, in surprised recognition at the power of his art, he can offer only, “Wow.” Or, as Alice says in the fifth panel, “That was powerful stuff.”

Cul de Sac is powerful stuff. In the panels of each strip, Thompson manages to capture the narrative chaos of daily life. As he told R.C. Harvey in a 2011 article, “I’ve always had a feeling that life is a series of non-sequiturs, and that we’re all untrustworthy narrators.” Nowhere is that feeling more palpable than in the scenes at Blisshaven Academy, the preschool attended by Alice, Dil, Beni, Nara, Marcus, Kevin (“Buckethead”), and, later, Sophie. In the fourth nationally syndicated Cul de Sac strip (13 September 2007), one of the students (Dill is my guess) asks “Miss Bliss, what kind of egg was Humpty Dumpty?” Storytime now derailed, the students start tossing out guesses. Nara: “A duck egg!” Marcus: “A GOOSE EGG!” Next, Alice ventures into preschool literary criticism, placing the nursery rhyme in a larger context: “I’ll bet he was the egg of that chicken who crossed the road,” she says. “’Cause they’re both thrill-seekers with dangerous hobbies.” Marcus responds, “Good point.” Changing the subject completely, Dill concludes the strip by saying, “Whew! I think I’ve learned enough for today. Miss Bliss, can I go home?” In the first week of strips, his characters already have distinct lives of their own.

2_CuldeSacSept2007

Like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Thompson’s Cul de Sac gives us fully realized characters. Their behavior is less a set-up for a punch-line, and more a chronicle of the humor that arises from actual children’s interactions. Like the child characters in the aforementioned strips, Cul de Sac’s children have a vocabulary that can exceed their age, but use those words to convey the very real joys, pains, and exuberant misunderstandings of youth. One result is that there are frequently jokes in every panel.

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For instance, the four-panel Sunday strip of 22 June 2008 has about four different plot lines, as the children talk both to and past each other. While they clean out their cubbies on the last day of preschool, Alice and Kevin — at the far left of each panel — laugh at then argue over what they’ve found. Meanwhile, over on the right, Dill worries that they have “all been ‘let go.’”: “You clean out your cubby, then security escorts you from the building.” In the middle of the strip, Marcus is deep in his locker, unidentifiable as Marcus until he pokes his head out in the final panel: “LOOK AT ME!” Directly to his right and watching each of these stories, Nara stands in their midst, the sole character following the directive for cubby-cleaning. It’s like a play with ongoing action in different parts of the stage. On your first viewing, you miss some of the details, as characters talk over each other. So, you need to return to see it several times.

That’s the best way to appreciate Thompson’s genius — read the work, and then read it again. Its ability to generate joy in each rereading is one reason that Cul de Sac will endure, even though its creator has left us. Richard Thompson lives on in his work precisely because his work is so alive. His line is loose but solid, scribbly yet calligraphic, energetic but focused. Each panel of Cul de Sac — heck, each corner of each panel — is full of art, humor, and character. It’s full of invention and discovery, which is exactly how Thomson wrote and drew the strip. After Parkinson’s required him to hire Stacy Curtis as an assistant, he continued writing Cul de Sac for a few months, but stopped — in part — because his creative process required him to discover the strip as he drew it. As he said at the time,

I was having trouble separating the writing and the drawing. I found that one fed off the other more than I’d realized, that it was an organic process, to use pretentious art talk. Most of the time I’d start a strip with no clear idea where it was going, or there’d be an end without a beginning. And I’d figure it all out as I was inking it, which isn’t the best way to work and would’ve driven a conscientious editor crazy.

That’s one reason his work feels so alive and spontaneous on the page. He’s discovering the story and humor as he draws, and so we’re discovering it along with him.

Thompson could continue inventing during the inking process because he understood the comic strip so well — something hinted at when Cul de Sac becomes an occasion for reflecting on (or laughing about) the medium itself. Comics nerd Petey — and, later, his friends Andre and Loris — offer many occasions for Thompson to joke about, and even theorize comics. There’s the running joke about Petey’s favorite strip, Little Neuro, a parody of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland: unlike the protagonist of McCay’s gloriously imaginative world, Little Neuro never leaves his bed and so nothing happens. But introverted, obsessive Petey isn’t at all bored. He finds comfort in Little Neuro’s static world. There’s a strip I’ve had up on my fridge since I cut it out of the Sunday paper in October 2010, in which Petey’s explanation of the differences between boxes of children’s cereal versus those containing cereal for adults becomes a riff on the why (as Alice says) “Children’s literature is more compelling than the adult stuff,” and how comic strips differ from graphic novels. The final Sunday strip — actually a re-run of one from November 2007 — is a brilliant joke on the comics medium, which (as Petey says) is a “mighty yet dying art form.” A comic strip about misunderstanding the “sequential” in sequential art, Petey tries and fails to read a comic strip to Alice, who insists on believing that all the panels are happening at the same time, and that panel borders physically trap characters instead of marking temporal divisions. But the strip is far more eloquent than I am. To say nothing of much funnier. So, turn your attention away from these words and towards the comic below.

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See? Thompson’s strips speak with greater clarity than I could. As Art Spiegelman says in his introduction to The Complete Cul de Sac, the strip “was read and beloved by an uncountable number of readers, none of whom needed an instruction manual to ‘get it’ or get addicted to it.” Or as Bill Watterson wrote in the foreword to the very first Cul de Sac collection (Cul de Sac: This Exit), “Cul de Sac’s whimsical take on the world and playful sense of language somehow gets funnier the more times you read it.”

Like Alice dancing on a manhole cover (a recurring motif), the strip is charming but not cute, funny without being gag-driven, and a portrait of the artist as a virtuosic if slightly loopy improviser. And, yeah, that’s how I’m imagining Thompson now, his body restored to health, his hand again free of shakiness, his agile mind dreaming up new adventures, as he dances on that great manhole cover in the sky.

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4 Responses to Dancing on the Manhole Cover: The Genius of Richard Thompson

  1. Bob Levin says:

    An aptly appreciative, understanding, eye-opening tribute to Mr. Thompson’s work. Thank you for it.

  2. Charles Hatfield says:

    “…a portrait of the artist as a virtuosic if slightly loopy improviser.”

    I say that about nails it. Thanks, Phil. And I love the cubby-cleaning strip, above: a perfect example of the characters talking at cross-purposes to each other, and thus loading the strip with humor from first panel to last. Marcus’s sudden appearance there is the kicker, but the thing is full-out funny from setup to finish.

  3. Robert Cook says:

    It was the best comic strip of the last 50 years. (Yes, better than Calvin and Hobbes, the second best comic strip of the last 50 years).

  4. Philip Nel says:

    Thanks, Bob, Charles, and Robert!

    Also, if anyone has missed Charles’ astute and heartfelt tribute to Richard Thompson, click on this link & scroll on down:
    http://www.tcj.com/tributes-to-richard-thompson/

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