Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In Memoriam: Cul de Sac


Every now and then I like to take a break from composing turgid, burned-on-the-outside-but-frozen-on-the-inside screeds about the human situation and write about cartoons and comic books and other fun things. I think that hour has come again.

So, old news: the newspaper comics page is on its deathbed. Its passing looks to be a peaceful one: no doubt the autopsy will show the cause of its death was the shriveling of the daily newspaper. But there are secondary factors that can't be excluded from consideration, namely the general hoariness of the syndicated comic strip. They've largely come to exist as a symbol of sanity and stasis in a rapidly changing world: everything might be going crazy, but at least the boomers and seniors can open the comics page and expect Beetle Bailey to make a joke about golf, an exclamation mark to appear over Blondie's head when she sees the enormous size of Dagwood's sandwich, and Mary Worth to still good god they're still doing mary worth it's 2016 for god's

Although some decent new strips have appeared in the last couple of decades—Get Fuzzy ain't bad, Lio can elicit a chuckle from time to time, and Pearls Before Swine is pretty good—the conventional wisdom says that virtuosity quit the comics page along with Calvin and Hobbes in 1996.

But the conventional wisdom overlooks Cul de Sac, a comic about a boring little suburb and the weird little kids who call it home.

Cul de Sac is the brainchild of veteran illustrator Richard Thompson, who made a living drawing cartoons and caricatures for The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly, among other esteemed publications. In 2004, he took a stab at narrative and created Cul de Sac as a weekly strip for Washington Post Magazine. Three years later, Cul de Sac was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate and began appearing seven days a week in newspapers across the United States.

Cul de Sac never had a shot at becoming a sensation on the scale of Garfield or Dilbert: no matter how good it was, newspaper readership in 2007 wasn't nearly what it had been in the 1980s and 1990s. But it won a loyal following, and earned Thompson the admiration of his contemporaries. The first Cul de Sac collection begins with a foreword from Bill Watterson—and his personal endorsement isn't something the reclusive genius bestows liberally.

Watterson also blessed Cul de Sac with a portrait of Petey Otterloop, one of its main characters. It was the first piece of art Watterson had shown to the public since retiring from Calvin and Hobbes. Would that the occasion were a happy one: Watterson's purpose was to paint something to be auctioned off to raise money for research into Parkinson's Disease, with which Richard Thompson was diagnosed in 2009—just two years after Cul de Sac was syndicated. In 2012, Thompson reluctantly retired in order to focus on his health. On July 27—a little more than three months ago—complications from his illness sent Mr. Thompson to his rest. He was 58 years old.

I more or less shrugged off the obituaries of Alan Rickman and David Bowie, but I'm still bummed about Richard Thompson. He was a genius, and from the looks of it he was a lovely person. Receiving The Complete Cul de Sac as a birthday gift in September made me even sadder about his death. His comics say he wasn't nearly ready to quit.

Today we're going to look at some of my favorite strips from Cul de Sac's unfairly short run, and maybe try to figure out what makes it so inimitably charming. If this is your first glance at the comic and you wish to see more, you can find its entire syndicated run on GoComics (starting here). But I heartily recommend getting a copy of The Complete Cul de Sac: it's got a selection of strips from its Washington Post Magazine run, author commentary, and the original uncolored versions of the Mon–Sat strips (the syndicate has colored in most of the dailies for web publication, and it often detracts from or distorts Thompson's line work).

The images are displayed in a low resolution so they'll fit inside the margins. Do please click them to make them bigger and better. (Some right-clicking might be required to see the larger ones in their natural sizes.)



SCREAMIN' ALICE OTTERLOOP AND THE CURSE OF THE GREEN SQUARES


When treating a comic that averages four panels on weekdays and six on Sundays, it's difficult to isolate a single strip that encapsulates the series. This one comes pretty close, though. Four-year-old extrovert Alice Otterloop carries on like the world is just a platform for her one-woman Fringe Fest show. Eight-year-old introvert and neurotic mess Peter Otterloop, Jr. (Petey) freaks himself out. The adult in the room (Mom, aka Madeline Urquhart Otterloop) can't control both of them at the same time, and the putative voice of authority is effectively just the third of three simultaneous soliloquies. And the joke that caps it off is a non-sequitur that somehow follows perfectly naturally according to the logic of the Thompsonverse, and sometimes there are talking animals.

And that's Cul de Sac!


APOCALYPSE BLOSSOM: VERDURE WITH A VENGEANCE


Cul de Sac's plot arcs are very slice-of-life, and let's face it: most of life isn't very momentous, or even dramatic.

These a part of a story in which Alice picks a "flower" from the backyard and gives to her mother as a down payment on forgiveness for something really awful she'll probably do in the future. The funniest part of the scenario is how everyone's first response to the wretched, ornery plant is "is that a flower?" (Thompson's commentary: "My yard is full of those things. I don't think they're flowers.")

I'm not sure whether "WILT" occurs as a sound effect or dialogue. The context implies the former, but the word balloon denotes the latter. I'd really like to believe the organism is speaking to Petey in a horrible Nazg├╗l voice, commanding him to wilt (which he then does).


THE SANTA'S LAP AFFAIR


Cul de Sac frequently reminds me of Bob's Burgers, which you know I adore. For one thing, both take some time to get into, since their humor is dependent on the the reader/viewer's appreciation of the characters' personalities and the dynamics of their interactions. A deeper field of overlap is between Thompson and Bouchard's philosophies of dialogue composition: Bouchard honed his ear for jazzy conversation working with comedians in the recording booth, while Thompson (probably) acquired his from raising two daughters. (Related: this strip. Thompson writes that if he was being realistic, most of Cul de Sac's dialogue would be presented as it is in the second panel.) The individual members of the Belcher and Otterloop families basically exist in their own worlds, and even when they appear to be having a conversation, nobody is completely on the same page. Just like in real life!

Finally, as this strip demonstrates, the Otterloops are as comfortable with (or as resigned to) their own weirdness as the Belcher family. A Christmas photo where more than 10% of Petey is visible and Alice isn't just a blur with teeth must have exceeded Mom's expectations.


SNOW PANTS: THE CRUELEST GARMENT


Comic strip moms are often nags, worrywarts, and sticks in the mud. But Cul de Sac's Mom is actually one of its funniest characters, and it usually comes out of nowhere. Not only does Mom take her kids' weirdness in stride (except when Alice is being an especial pain in the ass), but she genuinely gets a kick out of it. Alice and Petey kind of crack her up. Raising two kids is a strenuous job, even when it isn't the case that one is an unstoppable force and the other an immovable object. But Mom manages to make a good time of it, which she usually accomplishes by messing with the little weirdos when the opportunity arises. Alice and Petey both usually have it coming.


THE QUEEN OF THE LORD OF THE FLIES WITH A STICK


Even the kids in Lord of the Flies were able to mind their manners for a few weeks before deciding an orgy of violence would be more fun. The kids at Blisshaven Preschool don't even last one minute. Of course, Ralph and Piggy opted for a conch shell as their emblem of civilization instead of something that so easily lent itself to poking and whacking, which probably helped keep Piggy alive long enough to make a harrowing allegory out of the whole affair. So anyway, the putative adult in the room is to blame for this one. As usual.

Poor Miss Bliss. She tries so hard and she has such good intentions, but she's very clearly out of her depth. At least she isn't easily discouraged.


SORROW, THY VOICE IS "MOO"


But every now and then, Miss Bliss knows exactly what to do.

Dill was with Cul de Sac almost from its inception in Washington Post Magazine, and gradually developed from a funny face and indistinct voice among the Blisshaven rabble to become the strip's best tertiary character. He's perceptive, tenderhearted, sticky, and somewhat dim—think Linus Van Pelt missing a chromosome.

"Dill is moved by the poignancy of the inanimate," Thompson comments in The Complete Cul de Sac. It's not limited to this strip, either: Dill is horrified by the mistreatment of grocery store shopping carts, and views the jungle gym as equal parts living ecosystem and feral beast. An instinctive animism typically informs the worldview of the preschooler, and it's to Thompson's credit that he recognizes this without reducing it to a hackneyed depiction of a young boy believing his stuffed animal is alive. (No, this doesn't apply to Mr. Watterson. Nothing in Calvin and Hobbes is hackneyed.)

The conversation at the end is typical of the Blisshaven student body: unrealistically sophisticated, and totally realistically off the rails as soon as it begins. The effeteness and urbanity of Marco's posture cracks me up.


PETEY'S BANE, THE MALIGNANT HIVE-MIND


Maybe Dill's animism isn't unfounded: most objects in the Thompsonverse, particularly during the first couple of years, are pretty darned articulate, if not intelligent. Alice is threatened by power-drunk butterflies. The drawings and newspaper cutouts stuck to the refrigerator door argue with each other. And here we see Petey mobbed by gametophytes with an axe to grind. It's even funnier (and scarier) when we remember that this isn't Calvin and Hobbes, and the pollen clouds's overt hostility might not just be Petey's imagination.

I said earlier that Cul de Sac has a lot in common with Bob's Burgers. Dill's line here proves, as far as I'm concerned, that he's the Thompsonverse version of Gene Belcher.


THE MAIDEN AND MR. DANDERS


Blisshaven's pet guinea pig Mr. Danders became a prominent figure in Cul de Sac's early days in Washington Post Magazine, but he gradually disappeared as the human cast expanded and came into focus. An editor once told Thompson that talking animals were not his friend, and the cartoonist saw some merit in this advice.

A yappy rodent who tells tall tales about his amazing life and embarks on kooky adventures across the Washington metropolitan area is conceptually dissonant with a comic about the idiosyncratic human charm that flowers in a drab, overdeveloped suburb; Mr. Danders' very existence threatens to undermine the background against which the strip's joie de vivre stands in contrast. So he was phased out, but did occasionally made guest appearances.

Anyway, these two strips are from a story where Alice gets to take care of Mr. Danders for a few days during summer vacation. Mr. Danders spends most of his time at the Otterloop household locked up in the utility room and talking to a camel cricket.

In Mr. Danders' early appearances, he is able to hold conversations with human beings, who clearly understand what he is saying. In later strips (like these), it's unclear whether Alice hears his dialogue as "GWEEP GWEEP GWEEP" or is just ignoring him. I'm not sure which reading makes these strips funnier, but both definitely work.


THE PROMETHEAN AUDACITY OF PETER OTTERLOOP, SR.


Cul de Sac is set on a cul de sac in a suburban community called Cul de Sac. This is suburban sprawl at the apogee of blandness. The beige houses are identical in every way, constrictingly tiny, and crammed densely together. Place like this are engineered to sell real estate, not to be homes. These are places where the soul goes to languish and die.

But brave Peter Otterloop's (Dad) passion for living will not be extinguished! Like Harrison Bergeron, he sunders the weighted shackles of mediocrity and installs himself on his throne in a defiant seizure of his birthright as the emperor of the world he knows he is! His tragic pratfall is our tragic pratfall, perfervid and poignant as Satan's plunge from heaven!

Equally comic and tragic (so, yes, way more comic than tragic) is the kids' exercise in inductive reasoning. The only porches they know are the ones in their blah little neighborhood. The porches in their blah little neighborhood are tiny. Therefore, the object "porch" is categorically tiny. Luxurious piazzas large enough to accommodate furniture only exist in the movies.

Why is Dill completely unfazed? We'll never know.


ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE (AND BENEATH THAT STAGE A SEWER)


 Ah, yes. The manhole cover. Peanuts had the low brick wall where Charlie Brown went to sulk, and Calvin and Hobbes had the all-terrain little red wagon. Analogous in Cul de Sac is a manhole cover in a vacant lot that Alice dances on.

I'm not sure I'm qualified to claim that Cul de Sac is the least sentimental "parents and preteens" strip to grace the comics page, but compared to the maudlin Rose is Rose and the abominable Family Circus, Cul de Sac's detachment from the purported joy and wonder and magic of children and raising children is downright Chekhovian. Again, the Otterloop's neighborhood isn't a miserable or bleak place—it's just blah. And it's not sappy to point out that young children are fascinated by the quotidian fixtures of their environment, because "everyday objects" means something very different to someone who hasn't seen very many days in their lifetime.

Thompson usually turns a wry eye towards Alice's childish manias and predilections, but here he decides to validate her perspective, filtering the image of the manhole cover through the prism of her sentiments. If Cul de Sac did this sort of thing all the time, it would be unreadable. But Thompson definitely earned this one.


HOW ALICE GOT HER GROOVE BACK


Right. And here's how Thompson more often deals with the spectre of childlike wonder.

This is what I was talking about when I said the post-production colorizing of the Monday–Saturday strips is distracting. That sketchy, frantic linework in panel three works much better when the eye is seeing only positive and negative space. You can also tell that Thompson's motor skills are deteriorating by the strange shape of Beni's head, especially his ear in the last panel. Two months after this one ran in late 2011, Thompson went on hiatus to undergo physical therapy. (A few other artists ran guest strips for him in the meantime; you can check those out starting here.) When Thompson returned, he resumed the strip with assistance from illustrator Stacy Curtis. Four months later, he had to retire altogether.

Oh, and now I'm too sad to write anything about this strip.

GGRRRGGHHH GET BACK HERE YOU STUPID MOTIVATION TO WRITE ABOUT COMIC STRIP RRAAGGHHHH

YAY! I'VE BEEN INSPIRED TO WRITE FANFICTION ABOUT THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF RICHARD THOMPSON AND HUNTER S. THOMPSON!

I'll get right on that after I wrap this up.


SHOWDOWN AT BABY'S HILL FOR SLEDDING HILL


This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object: negation.

Lately I've sensed that maturity is one's progress from being Alice to becoming Petey. Worryingly, I'm not sure the process results in a net gain.


GILA MONSTER? I HARDLY KNOW HER!


Petey has a bit of a thing for the giant Viola D'Amore, who plays the marimba in the third-grade band. ("She wears real thick glasses that make her eyes look small and far away. So even when she's right in my face it's like she's not too close. I like that sense of distance.") One December he buys her a stuffed gila monster as a Christmas gift, then chickens out on giving it to her. Months later, when Petey is laid up with a cold, Viola brings him his homework and Alice takes the liberty of giving her the gila monster along with Petey's best wishes. Petey is less than appreciative.

If Petey weren't so uncharacteristically demonstrative in the second panel of that first strip, I might call it a perfect one-panel epitome of the anxious neurotic. Only a one-of-a-kind mutant like Thompson could have come up with a character like Petey. Cartoons and the comics page are full of little hellions (Calvin, Bart Simpson), aspiring cool kids trying to fit in (Luann DeGroot, Doug Funnie) and hapless but charming smartasses (Nate Wright, Brendon Small). But there really aren't a lot of toon child stars who refine comedy and charm from a perverse dedication to inactivity, solitude, and a monastic disdain for pleasure.

Petey's relief at Viola's unwillingness to be anything but his classmate and sort-of-friend is beautiful and a little sad. Puberty will not be a good time for Peter Otterloop, Jr., but I suspect he will go on to have an illustrious career as an op-ed writer for the National Review.


PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG GIRL WHO JUST TURNS A CRANK


Speaking as someone who wrote a comic strip for a number umber of years, I can aver that Thompson's onomatopoeia are things of wonder and beauty. Especially the noises that Petey's oboe chokes into the world.

Alice's intruding on him with her toy ukelele is born less from a desire to imitate her older brother than to upstage him: she's too much of a little megalomaniac not to demand to be the center of attention, and at her age that usually means simply being the loudest person in the room.

Petey's words on the life of the artist are cliched, but probably true. And his last line here might be the snappiest retort ever leveled in the annals of Cul de Sac. Thompson was wise enough to just let readers imagine how unquietly Alice takes it.


THE TEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE


Personally, I feel that metatextual discussions about the artist's medium of choice are usually best reserved as a rare indulgence. They can easily come off as self-congratulatory, and it's hard to know exactly how much self-awareness spices a work without burying the content beneath the flavor of the medium. Thompson doesn't do this often, but when he does he's quite good at it.

Petey is right about the passivity of the viewing experience as opposed to the activity of the reading experience. Between having the movements and pacing taken out of your hands and the experiential difference in supplying the voices yourself and letting casting agents, directors, and voice actor dictate what you hear and how you hear it, it's not hard to understand why animated translations of comic strips so often fall so short of the originals. (Ahem.)

I sort of read comics the way Petey does, although I'm more inclined to spend three weeks reading the entire book from start to finish 700 times instead of scrutinizing an individual page for hours on end. When I keep comic books by my bed or near the sofa, I have a very hard time preventing myself from picking them up and reading them for at least twenty minutes at a go. The Complete Cul de Sac has brought any semblance of productivity in my life to a screaming halt, but I'm learning so much about Cul de Sac and noticing so many things! Like how Alice looks sort of like a Muppet when she gets excited.

In the commentary, Thompson wonders if comic books are still vehicles for whoopee cushion sales. Personally, I'd would gladly buy the trade paperbacks of every 1980s comic series I've ever torrented if they'd just reprint those wonderfully gauche ads.


MENACE OF THE ONE-HEADED CERBERUS

 
The laws of cartoon physics dictate that no protagonist, no matter how daring and confident, can be completely fearless. There must be someone or something that arrests them with terror. Calvin is afraid of his babysitter Rosalyn, Bart Simpson is terrified of Sideshow Bob, Louise Belcher fears the dentist, etc. And Alice Otterloop, aspiring ruler of the universe, is petrified of Big Shirley, her grandmother's colossal (but benign) pooch.

Big Shirley has a place in my heart because she reminds me of Jenny, the black lab who lived with my grandparents when I was a toddler. I'm not sure if Jenny was actually the size of a pachyderm, but that's how I remember her. I gave her a very wide berth and feared being on the same floor of the house as her if I was holding food. Jenny wasn't mean or pushy, but she tended to mistake an ice cream sandwich in the hand of a short person as an invitation.

Before he retired, Thompson planned to have his next storyline involve Alice spending most of her summer at her grandmother's house. I'd like to believe her relationship with Big Shirley would have improved.

Notice how quickly Alice sells out Polyfill to save herself. Big Shirley might be a beast, but Alice is the real monster here, amirite?


SPREADING HOLIDAY FEAR


From Cul de Sac's run as a weekly in Washington Post Magazine. This is fantastic. Christmas comic strips are usually such insipid, forced affairs. Not enough of them are about yuletide nightmares with imagery that looks eerily similar to a horrifying scene from Akira.

I wish this was available in a higher resolution.


CAESURA: THE DARK OMEN


 Note that these two strips ran six days apart.

I will donate my life's savings to the university whose humor studies program can get to work on figuring out why I find these strips so damned funny. If it seems like an exorbitant sum to squander on a rather trifling cause, I assure you my life's savings do not amount to much.

Hmm. Have you noticed how the humor in a lot of comic strips and sitcoms has become completely unmoored from the conventional logic of the one-liner? To see what I mean, watch 1940s Loony Tunes, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and I Love Lucy, and then contrast with Bob's Burgers, Broad City, and Community. My theory is that early sitcoms and toons were still acting under the extant influence of the vaudeville tradition. (Think of the famous "Who's on First?" routine as a representative sample.) For decades, cartoon and sitcom characters behaved like comedic stock characters enacting double-act routines because that was what the writers and the audience both recognized as comedy. Ralph Cramden and his clone Fred Flintstone hardly lacked definition, but they were stock characters to the extent that many of their jokes could still work out of context: the audience's understanding of the characters and their relationships was a much less significant factor than it is in the humor of modern comedy. Rocky and Bullwinkle tell jokes; their dialogue consists of transparent setups for zingers. (Not that they aren't funny, mind you.) But the Belcher family has conversations; Bob's Burgers' writers and players deliberately obscure the artifice underlying the dialogue. They're not funny because they're snappy or witty, but because we've learned to delight in verisimilitude and idiosyncrasy.

Could that have anything to do with Cul de Sac and the harrowing chronicle of Petey Otterloop? You tell me.


THE THEMATICALLY UNIFIED THREE: THE SAGA BEGINS


Did Thompson pretty much equate the ethos of Cul de Sac to Exquisite Corpse? I think he did.

There are as many reasons to be upset about Thompson's illness as there are real numbers between 1 and 2. Near the top of that list of reasons are Andre Chang (Sendakian wild thing) and Loris Slothrop (human electron), whom Petey meets one summer at Cartoon Camp. They're late arrivals to Cul de Sac, created to balance the discrepancy between Alice and Petey in terms of the number of characters in their orbits. Alice always had her classmates at Blisshaven, but during the first few years, the only people in Petey's grade-school milieu were Viola (whom he has a hard time talking to) and Ernesto (whom Petey does his best to avoid and may well be imaginary). There's nothing wrong with either of them as characters, but they don't really complement Petey the way Dill and Beni do Alice. Andre and Loris may not exactly be on Petey's wavelength, but at least they're in the same band of the spectrum. Thompson wisely transferred them from Cartoon Camp to Petey's classroom when September came around. The last time a development in a newspaper comic strip made me so inordinately happy before this was when the Danny Donkey doll came to life in Pearls Before Swine.

If there's a community of Petey/Loris shippers out there, please allow me to lurk on your message board.


THE TRANSIENCE OF FUN


A rained-out family vacation is salvaged by a fifteen-minute dip in the ocean. I really wish GoComics made the black-and-white version available.

This is undoubtedly the sweetest Cul de Sac strip. It's nice to be reminded, without putting too fine a point on it, that the Otterloops are a fine and loving family, and Mom and Dad are doing a pretty darned good job at being parents.

"The middle panel makes me insanely happy," Thompson writes in The Complete Cul de Sac.

The middle panel makes me insanely sad when I remember that Thompson is survived by his wife and two daughters.


Godspeed and goodnight, Mr. Thompson.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this. I was raised on comics both book and newspaper, and I'll fully admit that I don't read them in their natural habitat anymore. I mostly buy the treasury collections.

    It's funny that you compare Cul de Sac to Bob's Burgers, because it's always reminded me of Home Movies...a little more anarchic than the Belcher family, a little more insane, but in a loving way.

    I'm also a big Pearls fan too, it's always seemed like the strip that is most indebted to its past. I think you could draw a pretty convincing line from Kazy Kat to Peanuts to Calvin and Hobbes to Pearls Before Swine. Maybe with a little detour through Bloom County on the way.

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    1. I've never read Bloom County, but I know several people who adore it.

      Sell it to me. Tell me why I should buy the books.

      I've also never read Krazy Kat, and I know I probably should.

      Oh! You saw the guest strips Bill Watterson drew for Pearls, yeah?

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    2. Bill Watterson also wrote the forward to at least one Cul De Sac collection, and he also made an oil painting or two of characters from Cul de Sac.

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