Richard Thompson passed away earlier this week at the age of 58, eight years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Thompson was best known for Cul de Sac, perhaps the greatest comics strip to appear in newspapers (or any other publishing model) since Calvin and Hobbes.
Cul de Sac explored suburban life from the eyes of young Alice Otterloop, revealing its absurdities in a gentle yet genuine way. Through Otterloop, Thompson found a way to touch on everything from weird lawn decorations to neutral van colors. However, Cul de Sac‘s greatest character was Alice’s older brother Petey, a neurotic nerd and world-ranked picky eater. Petey frequently misrepresented the world to Alice in hilarious fashion, pushing a bizarre worldview formed by his own neuroses. I think everyone has a little Petey Otterloop lurking inside of them, held at bay only by common sense.
Thompson’s art style was pure, seemingly effortless, and instantly recognizable. It was amazing how he could infuse the panels of Cul de Sac with so much joy and humor while maintaining an art style in which no line felt unnecessary. His facial expressions in particular were superb, capable of capturing a child’s endless range of emotion in a concise, fun, and poignantly accurate manner. Like his style of humor, Thompson’s art was strongest when focusing on the absurd, as shown by the below cartoon featuring Alice Otterloop.
Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson
What stood out most about Thompson’s work is how funny and true his work was without ever descending into cruelty. Even his biting political cartoons lacked a meanness so often found in political discourse. He seemed to approach his topics with bemusement, which gave his cartoons (even the political ones) a universal appeal. One of his best known political cartoons was a poem comprised of various “Bushisms” and published during George W. Bush’s first inauguration. Even when mocking one of the most derided political figures of the modern political age, Thompson found a way to make absurdity a bit more elegant, which made it stand out even more. Thompson didn’t pull his punches when approaching the ridiculous nature of everyday life, but it seemed his work was about making people laugh at themselves, as much as laughing at others.
When speaking to cartoonists and other industry figures about the modern era of cartoonists, nearly every single person would bring up Thompson as one of the greats. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s amazing how highly Thompson and his work was thought of by his peers. In 2011, Bill Watterson came out of his famed reclusive retirement to paint Petey Otterloop for “Team Cul de Sac”, a group that raised money for Parkinson’s research on Thompson’s behalf. Watterson later guest drew three strips for Pearls in Swine to raise additional money on Thompson and Team Cul De Sac’s behalf. When Thompson passed away on Wednesday, I saw him described as a “cartoonist’s cartoonist”, a testament to how beloved and appreciated he was by his peers.
Thompson was a master cartoonist, an artist who brilliantly captured absurdity with unparalleled style. Future cartoonists, academics, and fans of comics will speak of Cul de Sac in the same breath as other timeless comics strips like Calvin and Hobbes, Pogo, and Krazy Kat.