Graphic Lit: An interview with Richard Thompson
Ok, that was a nice break, but now it's time to knuckle down again. We'll kick things off with an extensive interview I did several months ago with cartoonist extraordinaire Richard Thompson, whose daily strip Cul de Sac is one of the best things going today. While Doonesbury was on vacation, The Patriot-News sampled a few new comic strips and I managed to convince the powers that be that Cul should make the cut, hence the interview.
OK, that's enough introduction now. Here's the Q&A:
Q: I’m a little ashamed to say I don’t know that much about your career before you started doing Cul de Sac. Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
A: As with most cartoonists it was something I always did. I always drew, even when I should have been doing other things like homework, back in grade school.
My parents always encouraged it, they liked it. It was always what I was going to be at some point. I just didn’t know what form it would take. I got into illustration 25 years ago, mostly newspaper stuff. I’m near Washington, DC, so I did and still do a lot of stuff for the Washington Post. When I was starting out I did several things a week.
Q: What kinds of things?
A: Oh spot drawings and illustrating articles. Little digbats. This and that. I started doing caricature and goofy stuff. I did some realistic stuff for them too which I didn’t much enjoy but I found I could do it.
I was doing a series for the Post, there’s a column called “Why Things Are.” It was written by Joel Achenbach and they syndicated it too. I guess it appeared in the Post for about five, six years.
It was a dream job. They just gave me an early version of the text and it was a loose-set up. He would take any question from readers and try to find an answer for it. Something as mundane as “Why are there no green cars?” to “What do you see when you close your eyes?” or “What does the inside of your nose smell like?” and on to more cosmic questions like “Why are there things?”
They didn’t much care what I did as long as I had some vague idea, something vaguely to do with the column. And I just went nuts with it. It got to be a little strip in itself in that each illustration had a balloon with some text in it, so it looked like a comic.
The editor there, Gene Winegarten, who started Dave Barry off in Florida, he pushed me — "Things" ended in about '93 maybe — he said "Why don’t you do a weekly comic for us." A year or so later I started dong a weekly cartoon. It was a free-for-all. They didn’t care what I did too much as long as it was spelled right and free of obscenities and nothing legally actionable with it. That turned into Richard’s Poor Almanac, which I’m still doing every Saturday.
Q: How would you describe that strip? Was it a social satire or a political strip?
A: It’s more social. It’s political sometimes, just because D.C. is a political town, but I wouldn’t call it an editorial cartoon. Politicians appear in it sometimes, but as an almanac I can make fun of the weather too.
Again, they don’t much care what I do as long as it’s funny and makes some sense. I just turn it in on Friday night and they don’t even look at it until it shows up. Another dream job. For years I didn’t think anyone was really reading it so who cares? The pressure was off.
Q: So how did doing a weekly strip lead to Cul de Sac?
A: The editorship changed a couple of times. I guess I’ve been through five editors with it. I think the second or third was Tom Schroeder, who came up to the post through the Miami Herald. He’s now the editor of the Washington Post magazine. Somewhere along the line he said, "Have you ever thought of doing a strip with continuing characters in it?" "Well yeah kind of." "Why don’t you put something together for the Sunday magazine and just have it be about Washington without being about official Washington, the people who live around here." I grew up around DC and the suburbs around DC. It sort of grew out of that. It’s a backwater side of Washington. Calling it Cul De Sac made it obvious it was not the center of town somehow. That started in 2004.
Q: This was done as part of the almanac or —
A: No, it grew out of it. It was a complete and separate entity when it started in the magazine. I did it as a full color watercolor drawing and everything.
Q: Now how did it compare to the strip today? Was it pretty much fully formed out of the blue?
A: I fooled around with it for a year before I showed him anything. I knew that it was about this family and took place in a very small neighborhood and that the husband commuted into Washington. It was somewhat specific. They went to Nationals games and the Zoo and the Smithsonian and stuff like that. It took a while though to settle who was what. I knew who the characters were but I didn’t know what they did. Like most strips they take a while to shake out.
Q: What was the idea behind this particular family? Behind just portraying the social life of the DC area did you have any other goals or ideas beyond that? It does feel like a very universal strip.
A: I had the characters lined up. I sort of to know them better. Like most comic strip cartoonists will tell you I started to hear their voices. They start narrating their lives and demanding their time on stage. They do the talking for you somehow. It’s up to you to capture the slice of life that three or four panels can take.
I knew that Alice, the little girl, she’s four years old and kind of — I think of she and her brother, she’s the unstoppable force and he’s the immovable object. And they can collide and sparks can fly. She’s self-absorbed and pretty unstoppable. Just stay out of her way. He’s curled up in his room in a fetal position in his own little world.
Q: How did it move out of the weekly slot into becoming a daily strip?
A: It was sort of a strain of happenstance chain of events. Lee Salem, who is the editor at Universal Press Syndicate, — back when Bush was first elected, to make a long story somewhat shorter, Bush did not have an inaugral poem read at his first inaugral —
Q: Is this about Make the Pie Higher?
A: Yeah. I did a Poor Almanac where I just took a string of Bush quotes that were mushmouthed and didn’t make much sense and strung them together into a free-form poem. When I did it I thought Jesus, this makes no sense but I’ve got a deadline. It showed up the Sunday before his inaugral and it leaked out on the Web somehow.
I didn’t notice, but my editor pointed out some months later that this thing was out there and called Make the Pie Higher. Lee Salem saw it and didn’t know it was a cartoon and he emailed me and said have you got anything else? I said "Where would I start?" He was coming for a conference here and so we met. We chatted over drinks and I gave him a pile of Cul de Sacs. And we kept in touch and some months later he said "We’d like to do something with this, how about a daily?" I said OK. A daily strip was something I’d avoided for years. I wasn’t sure if I had such a thing in me. He said, "We think you can do something with this." I thought, now’s the chance. I can’t back away from this. This was in 2006. And here I am, two weeks behind already.
Q: So what was the official debut of the strip?
A: It was September 2007.
Q: How many papers did it start out in?
A: I think it was 70.
Q: And how’s it doing now?
A: Pretty good. I think it’s in 120 or 110. It’s nice to hear there are 120 newspapers out there still.
Q: What kind of feedback have you been getting on the strip?
A: Pretty good. I started a blog just as an accident. I was kind of embaressed to do it but somebody said I should give it a shot. I get a lot of stuff back. I’ve gotten some responses from Italy recently where they’re starting to run it translated in a comics magazine. I get a couple a day from people saying “Gee you had Petey playing the oboe the other day and I’m a professional oboist and it’s nice to see that.” It seems like the really specific stuff goes over with a bang more than anything more general. I did one recently with Alice just collecting sticks, like kids do. My daughters have done that.
Q: My son’s four so he’s constantly bringing rocks into the house.
A: My daughter was doing that for awhile. She was bringing little pebbles in and drawing faces on them. Then putting them out in the yard thinking people will find these someday and be happy. How can you describe that logic?
Q: You write about these things, but you don’t do something a lot of comic strip artists do which is write about specific references to current events. You don’t refer to the Wii or whatever the hot new movie is.
A: I try to keep away from that. I can deal with that in the Almanac; make fun of that and get it out of my system. Also, I figure the ages of the kids — 4 and 8 — they’re not totally into the more advance pop culture stuff probably. Petey’s into comic books but I think he’s more into Chris Ware-type comic books, which are more likely to be depressing and bring you down more than make you want to go out and beat up bad guys. I can make my own little world and still make it somewhat specific to the real world.
Q: You talked about how you wanted to avoid making a daily strip for a long time. How has the adjustment been?
A: I’m not real far ahead. I’m so used to deadlines that it’s not as bad as I thought. There’s still miles of Bristol board to cover. I still pull all-nighters sometimes. I was talking to Mark Tatulli and we talk in the middle of the night. “What are you doing?” “Same thing as you.” I haven’t gotten it down to a science yet, which is probably a good thing. I don’t want to settle in too much. I’m tolerating it OK I guess.
Q: I was going to ask you what your schedule is like.
A: (laughs) I work at home which is —
A: Good and bad. It’s ideal in that I can just sit in a comfy chair and work on it, but it’s always right there in your face. All the distractions are here. My daughters come home from school and it’s “Oh, what did you do today? What did you have for lunch? Take me out of this!”
Q: How did your previous work doing illustration, caricature and the Almanac prepare you for the demands of a daily strip?
A: I think it helped a lot in that I tried a lot of different things. I can fall back on them or go back to an old idea and rework it. Not so much old stale stuff but see how things fit together that I hadn’t thought of before. I try a lot of different styles over the years. Making things fit into this little world with these little kids and such. When I started it, Lee Salem said “Keep your day job.” My day job is doing illustration work and also the almanac, so it’s more of the same. I still try to do a lot of magazine illustration cause I need the money.
Q: How did you develop your art style?
A: Some of it was intentional. Over the years I’ve admired hundreds and thousands of cartoonists and tried to mimic or steal from them. Style is kind of a Frankenstein monster that you put together these pieces of bodies over the years and the stitches heel and suddenly boom, you’ve got a style. Nobody sees where the parts join somehow. There’s so many I’ve enjoyed over the years from Pogo to Peanuts to Ronald Searle and Chris Ware and everybody today. I hope to try new things and you either fall on your face or you don’t. Hopefully nobody notices that either.
Q: You talk about trying new things, can you give me an example?
A: Using a lot of black or using a thicker line. Stuff that nobody would notice. But when you do it it’s this sudden breakthrough and you go “Geez, look what I’ve done.” You point it out and nobody can see it. I do a strip and think “This is just godawful” and nobody notices that either.
Q: What are you influences? You’ve mentioned a pretty wide net so far.
A: There are cartoonists that you discover and this window opens and this whole new world is presented to you. I think Searle was one of those. I was 19 or 20 and I got this book of his for my birthday. The watercolor and the line and sense of things you can do with ink that I hadn’t even thought of. Then I can go back to Pogo and I remember the first time I read him in fifth grade. When I’m sure I didn't understand hald the jokes, but it was just so funny, this endless stream of vaudeville and characters just tripping over themselves, the language and everything like that.
Q: One of the things that strikes me about Cul is how you present the child as self-absorbed but in their own world completely and oblivious as to what other things might be gong on around them. The things that fascinate a child of four would not at all fascinate a grown-up and the tension you get from that.
A: It’s something my dad pointed out to me a couple of years ago. He said you’ve got all these people here and they’re in these little circles and don’t notice each other too much. All these worlds don’t collide so much. Just enough to create some friction and keep the wheels spinning somehow. Each one is an unreliable narrator. You’ve got this overall plot where the characters fit into it but they don’t see the whole.
Q: Especially with Alice. I was reading the strips where Alice’s Dad comes into read to her preschool and how the kids are more delighted by the fact he can’t get out of the chair than the story itself. How much of that is autobiographical?
A: Maybe that’s just the way my mind works, which is nothing I want to brag about. I don’t know if I could find another job doing such a thing, but I can think up tangents and non sequitars fairly easily. Doing the Almanac for years, when you’re trying to be funny people brace themselves and say “OK here comes the funny part. I have to laugh.” You have to surprise them. There has to be some kind of tangent or association they didn’t expect. Some kick in the pants they didn’t see coming. I try to do that almost continuously in Cul de Sac. One thing does not lead to another. It’s just a string of laundry down the line, flapping in the breeze somehow.
Q: I guess along those lines another obvious comparison would be Calvin and Hobbes, in the sense that Calvin is someone who’s completely in his own world.
A: Yeah, and everything is seen through him. You see the adult level above it, from a distance. But you also see it through his eyes.
Q: How does the strip come together for you? How do you plan it out?
A: It’s usually the words first. I keep a couple of ideas spinning in my head and try to see how they either fit together or don’t. If there are two or three elements that are disparate enough that they’re colliding and making something funny, some friction, then I figure there’s a strip in there somewhere. The rest is just filling in the blanks. Each one is this brief four panel thing. You have only so much time to make your point and get off stage somehow. Just finding that little slice of life is the hard part for me I think.
There are some I’ve drawn first. There’s one with Dil going down this tube slide and it took him 20 panels to get through it. The whole time he’s going “Oh boy, whee!” I had to figure out what happened at the beginning and end. The rest is just getting the timing right.
You leap from one thing to the next. I’ll have an idea for an Almanac or an illustration and think “maybe this would work better as a strip.” It’s not real logical. I talked to Stephan Pastis who does Pearls Before Swine. He’s fascinated with the process of writing. He’s very logical about it. I’ve seen his notebooks where he takes great care in how he writes out things. He can do it beautifully. He does it much more logically than I would. My method is bits of pieces of paper that I keep rearranging until I’ve got something funny.
Q: You cite a pretty wide net of influences. I get the impression you keep up with what’s going on in comics rather well.
A: Well there’s so much interesting stuff going on out there. I gave a Sunday strip to somebody at Drawn and Quarterly for a box of books. They sent me a bunch of stuff I hadn’t seen. That’s a good way to keep up on stuff.
Chris Ware, I first saw his stuff 10-15 years ago in Raw. It jumped out at me immediately. He’s a pretty dense read these days.
Q: With you, Tatulli and Pastis, there seems to be a renaissance in comic strips right now with a lot of new, talented people coming out.
A: Like we were saying, it’s not just with comic strips, the indie field is exploding.
Q: Do you think they’re feeding off of each other? Sometimes it seems like such tiny circles and no one’s paying attention to what the others are doing.
A: That’s more likely it but it might be breaking through. I hope so.
Q: Tatulli and Pastis are very opinionated on the state of the comic strip today. What’s your opinion? Do you find it hard for a new strip to break?
A: I think it is. I’ve had good luck with mine so far, but as Tatulli said, the day of the 1,000 paper strip is almost over. You don’t get that kind of coverage that you used to. There’s a lengthy process to get a strip into a paper and there’s such a long line ahead of you somehow.
Q: Are you frustrated at all? Do you feel like you’re fighting for space?
A: Sometimes yeah, but it’s doing OK, so in these days and times, newspapers are such a dicey concern anyway, that’s just one small part of it. Nobody knows what’s going on. I worked with the post for 25 years and seeing people taking buyouts and they’ve got a new editor and publisher there now so god knows what will happen.