COME MONDAY, the characters of “Cul de Sac” may look a little odd to the eye. Then again, that’s the hazard of letting your comic children be babysat by six sketchy cartoonists.
Richard Thompson, who is on hiatus from his Universal Uclick strip as he receives treatment for Parkinson’s disease, is turning his Reuben Award-winning comic over to a half-dozen potentially demented foster parents for about five weeks of dailies and Sundays.
It’s not uncommon for syndicated cartoonists to let a colleague sub for them for a week — but letting so many creative uncles move in for at least a month could be considered an act of bravery. So, how’s the father of “Cul de Sac” feel about it?
“I’m tickled, honored and grateful,” Thompson tells Comic Riffs, “that cartoonists as talented as Mo Willems, Stephan Pastis, Lincoln Peirce and Michael Jantze, Corey Pandolph and Ken Fisher would babysit my collection of poorly socialized children ... and adults.”
(Those first four cartoonists, by the way, have previously “channeled” Thompson’s creations at least once — for the upcoming Team Cul de Sac artbook to raise money for Parkinson’s research. Update: And it was announced Friday that Pastis is a finalist for the NCS Reuben Award, which Thompson won last year.)
So is the “Cul de Sac” creator concerned that these interlopers will run amok through the wry, suburban life of his Otterloop brood?
“I let them have free rein to re-create ‘Cul de Sac’ as they saw fit,” Thompson tells ‘Riffs, “hoping only that no one introduced anything too bizarre, like an angry talking Rat, or a Pigeon with some kind of bus-mania.”
First up to test Thompson’s tolerance on Monday is Jantze, the Harvey Award-nominated creator of the syndicated strip “The Norm.”
“I just wanted to be Richard for a couple of days and doodle,” Jantze tells ‘Riffs. “On the final day, I didn’t even pencil it — I just started inking and ... had some fun accidents with it.”
Jantze notes that the idea for his final-day contribution came from his 9-year-old daughter, Colette — who also happens to voice young Alice Otterloop in the “Cul de Sac” animations by RingTales.
Jantze — who also is a professor of sequential art and animation at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) — says he told Thompson that playing in the “Cul de Sac” sandbox was a welcome change: “It was absolutely freeing — doing something so different from what I’m drawn the last 15 years.”
Willems, the best-selling author behind the “Pigeon” and “Elephant and Piggie” children’s series, took on the guest gig with a similar glee.
“Though I'd rather hijack Richard's strip under other circumstances, the experience was a thrill,” Willems tells Comic Riffs. “I'm pals with Richard, but firstly I am a rabid fan.”
Willems approaches Thompson’s cartoon family with the utmost respect. “ ‘Cul de Sac’ is an embarrassment of riches in terms of characters and tropes to play with,” he tells us, “made all the more tricky because, as my daughter pointed out years ago, unlike other strips, every panel of Cul de Sac is funny and unexpected.”
And Willems, like Jantze, aimed to cook up a creative alchemy that was one part “Cul de Sac” and at least one part his own engaging style.
“I tried to remain true to Richard's weirdness while projecting some of my own,” Willems says to ‘Riffs. “If nothing else, his work will be appreciated all the more in contrast to my efforts."
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For Peirce’s part, he leapt at the chance to dance on “Cul de Sac’s” creative manhole.
“I absolutely did not have to think twice ... ,” the “Big Nate” creator tells Comic Riffs of trying to “channel” Thompson. “He's a genius — so to be included in this effort is a real honor, and a very moving one, too.”
And artistically, Peirce experimented as he sought a middle (play)ground between his style and Thompson’s. “Part of the charm of ‘Cul de Sac’ is the loose, kind of wobbly quality of the line — it's a far more variable and expressive line than I generally employ in my own strip — and I just wasn't capturing any of that. So I fussed around a little bit ... and ended up with something that's closer to Richard's style than my own, but certainly not a 100 percent attempt at imitation…because who can draw like that but Richard?”
While watching Thompson draw in person last year, Jantze noticed a lot of the “Cul de Sac” lines have “two or three extra” movements — something he tried to employ. And then there was Jantze’s “a-ha” moment after a couple of days of trying to write like Thompson.
“His characters don’t listen to each other! ... ” Jantze tells us. “When I write, it’s always about Norm paying attention. ... But his characters don’t — and the theme [becomes] the thing.”
Meantime, Thompson is confident that while he’s away, he’s left “Cul de Sac” in the trusty hands of careful guardians.
“I hope they enjoyed the experience and that everyone pulled through okay,” he says. “And that none of my characters had a piano dropped on him or her — unless it was funny.”
NOTE: The six guest artists — including Corey Pandolph (”Elderberries”), Ken Fisher (”Tom the Dancing Bug”) and Stephan Pastis (”Pearls Before Swine”) — are scheduled to draw dailies from Monday through the week of March 19; and Sundays from March 18 through April 15.
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