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BOOK REVIEW: “The Art of Richard Thompson”

BOOK REVIEW: "The Art of Richard Thompson"

The already beleaguered art of the newspaper comic strip
suffered a grievous loss when the effects of Parkinson’s disease forced Richard
Thompson to abandon his delightfully quirky “Cul de Sac” in
September, 2012, just five years after it began.

 

“Cul de Sac” was the most interesting comic to
come along since “Zits” debuted a decade earlier. Although pundits
had frequently announced the imminent demise of the newspaper strip, “Cul de
Sac” proved it remained a viable art form. Thompson’s fellow-cartoonists
agreed, and presented him with the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of
the Year in 2010. Richard Thompson wasn’t some newly-minted wunderkind, but an
established artist/illustrator who could translate a child’s imagination onto
the printed page.

 

The Art of Richard Thompson, a new collection of art, interviews and commentaries, offers a more complete portrait of a multi-talented artist whose career ended far
too early. Before “Cul de Sac,” Thompson worked as an illustrator for the
Washington Post, the New Yorker and other major publications. Each section of
the book is devoted to a different area of his output and begins with an
interview by a prominent artist: Peter De Sève (illustration), John Kascht
(caricature), Gene Weingarten (“Richard’s Poor Almanac”) and Bill Watterson
(“Cul de Sac”). The interviews read like casual conversations between friends.

In Thompson’s affectionate caricature, Mahler seems to
dissolve into the colors surrounding him, echoing the fading notes of the
closing “Farewell” movement of Das Lied
von der Erde
. Berlioz is reduced to
great beak of a nose and an outsized mane of red hair. Thompson’s political
portraits are equally well-observed, but far more biting. He captures George W.
Bush’s smug ineptitude in a few rough pen lines. He turns Hilary Clinton into a
frighteningly cheery clown (“needs a makeover”) and Ross Perot into a
wide-eared gopher emerging from a burrow in the White House lawn.

 

“Richard’s Poor Almanac,” a weekly feature Thompson drew for
the Post, includes the first appearance of his Winsor McCay spoof, “Little Neuro
in Slumberland” (it would become Petey’s favorite comic in “Cul de Sac”) and a
hilarious send-up of artists’ mothers “Beyond Whistler.” Damien Hirst’s
unfortunate parent has been bisected and preserved in twin tanks of
formaldehyde.

 

The explorations of life in Washington, D.C., in “Almanac”
clearly prefigure “Cul de Sac.” Thompson’s caricature of one of his daughters rolling
her eyes as she endures her father’s explanations about nature anticipates
Alice’s impatience with own ineffectual dad. “Cul de Sac” presented
the misadventures of the Otterloop family in a mundane suburb. The star of the
strip was four-year-old Alice, a girl of many moods, many opinions and many
tantrums. She and her friends spent their days at Blisshaven Academy Preschool,
impatiently enduring Miss Bliss’ unending good cheer. Thompson’s drawings have
a delightful scratchy quality that captures both Alice’s delight in her own
dancing atop a favorite manhole cover and the unpleasant stickiness of a group
of four-year-olds on a muggy day.

Thompson comes across as modest, even diffident man, who
doesn’t realize just how talented he is—or how much his peers like and respect
him. This obviously sincere modesty makes the premature end of his career
doubly bitter. Bill Watterson and Gary Larson chose to retire at the height of
their powers; Thompson was forced to quit by a medical condition while he still
willing to share his exceptional talent with his readers.

RingTales animated some bits of “Cul de Sac” on line, but Thompson’s
writing and drawing warrant a longer, more polished adaptation. Properly done,
an Otterloop holiday special could be this generation’s Charlie Brown Christmas.

The Art of Richard Thompson

By David Apatoff, Nick Galifianakis, Mike Rhode, Chris Sparks and Bill Watterson

Andrews McMeel: $35

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