Post Magazine: The World of Cartooning

Hosted by Richard Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 6, 2005; 1:00 PM

Richard Thompson has been drawing cartoons and illustrations for the past two decades. Cul de Sac, his comic strip about the quintessentially suburban life of the Otterloop family, appears each week in The Washington Post Magazine, and his Richard's Poor Almanac cartoon appears in the Style section each Saturday.

Thompson was online Tuesday, June 6, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about his work and the world of cartooning.

Richard Thompson lives in Arlington with his wife and two daughters.

A transcript follows.

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Richard Thompson: I want to thank the Wash Post Magazine and the Post online for having me. Fire away.

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Arlington, Va.: Did you grow up around D.C.? I keep seeing people I think I recognize in your strip.

Richard Thompson: Yes I did, in DC and up in Gaithersburg. I'm hoping that eventually everyone you know will appear in the strip, over the next 20 years.

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Arlington, Va.: What's it been like to go from a series of stand-alone comics ("Almanac") to adding a series with story lines ("Cul de Sac")? Is it hard to keep a storyline going from week to week?

Richard Thompson: It's a lot of fun, and sometimes much easier, to do a series that builds from week to week. I try to make each Almanac completely different, which doesn't leave much room for characters to develop. The hard part is keeping a story going in the readers' minds over a week, so I have to do a little exposition, like, "why are we here again?"

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Did you know as a child you wanted to be a cartoonist? When did you decide this, and how did you enter the cartooning profession?

Richard Thompson: Drawing was what I always did instead of what I was supposed to be doing. That seems the way most cartoonists start off. I entered the profession by finally taking a portfolio of drawings around. Everything else metastasized from that.

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Cleveland Park, D.C.: Richard, I love your work and would be thrilled to see some of your original drawings. Do you ever display them at area galleries? Many thanks for years of amusement!

Richard Thompson: I used to show mostly caricature work at Susan Conway's lovely gallery in Georgetown. She retired a few years ago and I haven't done any shows since. And, thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: I . . . um, have . . . um, a friend (yeah, that's it) who wants to be a cartoonist. She's been drawing pretty much constantly since she was 5 and is in college now and does a weekly strip for the paper there and is, well, FUNNY. What would you do if you were her? Besides buy a dress, I mean.

Richard Thompson: Tell your little friend to keep drawing, and put a portfolio together, take it apart, put it together again, look at it critically, then get a real job. NO! Tell her to get her stuff out there. There's no one way, so try several. This isn't very helpful, is it?

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Gushing Fan Mail . . . : Mr. Thompson sir, you are a genius. Honestly, I think Cul de Sac is the funniest strip in Stripland, bar none. And the Almanac a close 2nd. Please tell me that your strips are being collected in book form! And don't ever change!!

Richard Thompson: Can I just send this out there without an answer? Of course not. I do have a book of "Richard's Poor Almanac" that's currently languishing at about #350,000 at Amazon. I understand that when it hits 500,000, Jeff Bezos will send a sympathy fruit basket. If it gets over a million, he will personally come to my house to console me.

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Washington, D.C. 20008: Hello, Mr. Thompson!

I think you are brilliant. I love your drawing and your keen sense of humor.

Are Richard's Almanac, Cul de Sac or any of your other works available online?

Thanks!

Richard Thompson: No, only because I don't know how to work the scanner, or anything else more complex than a doorknob. Sometime I'll figure it out.

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Whetstone, Md.: Will we ever learn what Mr. Otterloop does for a living, or will it always remain somewhat nebulous, like other comic parents? Of course, if he is a generic federal worker, I guess it has more appeal to your readers . . .

Richard Thompson: It's been mentioned, mostly tangentially. He works at the Department of Consumption, in the office of Consumer Complaints. He's the Director of Pamphlets. He still doesn't have a first name, poor man, which stymies his career somewhat.

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Maryland: Please plug your lovely book.

Richard Thompson: People, please! Rush over to Amazon and order it! Jeff Bezos is even now wrapping up my fruit basket!

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Charlottesville, Va.: How can I regularly view your comics without having to deal with, you know, that "rest of the paper" thing wrapped around it?

Brian Broadus

Richard Thompson: Sneak over to you neighbor's yard with a pair of scissors before he retrieves his morning paper, and cut it out. He'll never notice!

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Tenleytown: Richard: Why did Mr. Weingarten fire you from drawing his picture on his column? Did you make his butt look too large or something?

Richard Thompson: I made his moustache too small. Did I misspell moustache?

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D.C.: Hi Richard!

I'm still laughing out loud over your storyline with the guinea pig in the school yard. Priceless!

Will we eventually see him get a companion?

Stacey

Richard Thompson: Thank you, Stacey. I think Mr. Danders is a loner, if only because he's insufferably pompous and probably smells.

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Maryland : Do most cartoonists hold onto their originals? For what purpose?

Richard Thompson: I do, until I get sick of them. I think cartoonists are hopeful that their originals will appreciate in value, and if they have cornered the market on their own work that they'll someday be sitting in gravy.

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Cul de Sac, Md.: Will there be new characters in Cul de Sac? Will current ones evolve or are you happy with what you have now?

Richard Thompson: Yes, the population should grow. I somehow got stuck on these characters, especially the kids, probably because children, being small, fit in the panel easier.

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Bethesda, Md.: Are the days of cartoonists owning hockey teams and building sports arenas a thing of the past? How lucrative is the profession? It seems that the only way to get the big money is to diversify into plush toys and animated TV shows. Would you be happy to see the Otterloop family on sale in a Hallmark store?

Richard Thompson: My wife is hopeful that Mr.Danders will be converted into a plush toy and WE'll be sitting in gravy. This will render the strip superfluous, and I'll retire to a golf community.

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Arlington, Va.: Before you even mentioned your Almanac book, I checked Amazon.com to see if one existed (I love the Almanac). I was happy to see that it did, but there are only 3 copies left (more on the way, we're assured). But the oddest thing was the promo Amazon was offering -- buy the Almanac and also buy the novel "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." I liked that book, but it didn't immediately leap to my mind as the perfect pairing. Any thoughts?

Richard Thompson: I might be selling them out of a van over on Rte 50, along with fresh flowers and spare hubcaps. I haven't read Strange and Norrell yet, though my wife got halfway through it and my dad liked it. Hey, it's a big thick book! I can only be flattered.

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Haflinger, Va.: Richard,

You seem to make wonderful homages to other comic greats fairly frequently. Do you ever foresee a "satellite point-of-view" of the Otterloops "Cul de Sac" showing the kids (of Mr. Danders) leaving a trail of dashed lines to show where they have been?

Richard Thompson: I did do one kinda like that with Alice in a Walmart kinda store. The dotted lines charted the progress of her slow meltdown as she got fed up with shopping.

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Upper D.C.: What inspires you more, legions of faceless D.C. bureaucrats, politicians, Metro, area museums or restaurant health closings?

Richard Thompson: All of them! But restaurants are always the funniest. Has anyone noticed that, in a restaurant, your food is never brought to you by the waiter who originally took the order? This seems recent, and disconcerting to me.

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Washington, D.C.: Brilliant work Richard! I'd like information on both the possibility of an anthology being published - anytime soon? - and how to contact a custom strip . . .

Dave Hansen

Richard Thompson: Howdy Dave, and thanks! Nothing on Cul-de-Sac yet. I've only done it for just over a year. Wait until the pile gets higher.

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Wheaton, Md.: Will that poor guy have legs in the second edition of the book?

Richard Thompson: This refers the the Poor Almanac book. No, it would take a vast amount of man hours and retooling to add legs to that poor guy. Or maybe we'll do it, I dunno.

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Potomac, Md.: I've always thought cartoonists were fairly solitary people, loners, but not quite hermits. But you mention your wife, did you meet her in an art-supply store?

Richard Thompson: We met in a bookstore, which she was then managing. That's about the next best thing to an art supply store. Unless it's in line at the DMV.

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Clarksburg, Md.: Sir, apparently my wife fancies herself the Mother Teresa of wayward animals. I, on the other hand, adore your cartoons. We've just taken in our 17th stray cat, as Ma Teresa's work is never done . . . and with your permission I'd like to name him Mr. Danders. I'll forward any licensing royalties received, when it happens. What say you?

Richard Thompson: Sure, the more Danders the better. Just don't send me any resulting kittens.

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SS, MD: Are you ever approached by loyal fans while sitting in a Wendy's?

Richard Thompson: That's why I only do the drive through now.

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Success: So, given enough success and cash you would pull a Watterson or a Larson?

Richard Thompson: There's only one way to find out!

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Riverdale: What was your working relationship like with Gene Weingarten? Sad or relieved that you're not illustrating for him anymore?

Richard Thompson: I miss drawing Gene. Sometimes, just for old time's sake, I send him drawings of himself. He was a joy to illustrate, except when he used up all the good jokes and mine looked drab by comparison.

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museum visits: Did your kids inspire the museum visit strips? Shiny marble floors -- OOOoo ahhhh.

Richard Thompson: Yes, and, growing up around here, I went to the Smithsonian countless millions of times, and the National Gallery and everywhere else. A woman who'd toured kids through the National Gallery told me the cartoon with the Blisshaven class being transfixed by the ornate heating vents happened to her&her charges frequently. I could only say, hey, I've been there! Those vents are great! And the slippery floors. And the picture with the shark in it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Have you completely milked the humor potential of bollards?

Richard Thompson: I hope not, because they seem to be growing wild in this area at an alarming rate. And the word's just plain fun. Bollards! Sounds like a game elderly gentlemen played in Victorian England.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Richard,

I really enjoy your work -- you draw a mean Richard Nixon.

Which strips running today do you enjoy the most? Past favorites?

Richard Thompson: I thank you. I've read strips all my life, falling in love with Peanuts back in the sixties, at it's height, then with Pogo. We got the Washington Star solely because it carried Pogo (don't tell the Post). Pogo's still my favorite. Did you read the appreciation by Jonathan Yardley a few weeks ago? Wonderful. Nowadays, I like Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy best. They both have what Gene Weingarten calls "texture", which I take to mean that you can imagine the characters having a life outside strip. Also, of course, Calvin&Hobbes and the Far Side. And Popeye. And the list goes on.

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"Fontanelle" is hilarious: I just had to say that. Thanks!

Richard Thompson: Thanks! The one next week follows it up, and is maybe my second favorite of the ones I've drawn so far.

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talk, D.C.: Do you consider yourself a witty conversationalist?

Richard Thompson: No, I mumble and lose track of my sentences. Ask anybody who knows me. Just out of my earshot, please.

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Bethesda Md.: Do you have your own website, or a Yahoo group or something? I found some airplane website once that had some of your work, but wonder if there was any official presence.

Most Richard Thompson queries turn up a musician, or your GREAT "Make the Pie Higher" piece.

Richard Thompson: I've got no web presence at all (see answer below detailing lack of technical facility in Thompson, Richard). Someday I guess. And yeah, I'm enormously thankful the musician Richard Thompson is brilliant. If he was some lounge singer I'd be embarrassed.

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Van Ness, D.C.: Do you come up with your ideas in your studio or do you sometimes find yourself sketching on a Mickey D napkin?

Richard Thompson: A lot of ideas seem to come to me in the kitchen, or the bathroom, or just before I fall asleep, especially if I've just spent hours staring at a blank piece of paper. The ideas aren't hard, it's just putting them into coherently funny form that takes forever. And I'm kinda shy about drawing in public, even on Mickey D napkins, I don't know why.

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Restaurant division of labor: You have to understand that what was once a "waiter" position has been subdivided. The "order taker" is now more geared to be your "bar liaison" (since that's the lucrative end of the business). Therefore, the actual food delivery service has been outsourced to "serving specialists," who can take any flack over the delivered order straight back to the kitchen. It's all a very complex contractual arrangement that limits the individual liabilities of the various elements of the staff over your particular dining experience. Only in a city of 500,000 attorneys . . .

Richard Thompson: This is very interesting! I knew there was some kind of thinking behind it. It seems to me that, when this stranger shows up, he or she looks around blankly at the table occupants and announces the orders he or she is balancing on his or her arms. And immediately, the table occupants forget what they've ordered, or don't recognize it, so everything gets passed around and poked at. As I said, restaurants are great breeding grounds for comedy, and germs.

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Maryland: Have you done or will you do any other strips or are the current two enough of a challenge?

Richard Thompson: The challenge would be to do it every day. I once heard a comic strip artist say that, to him, drawing a strip every day was like brushing his teeth, he just did it. After that I immediately had trouble brushing my teeth.

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boomtown D.C.: What about our exploding manhole cover outbreak, done those?

Richard Thompson: I did one once in passing, something about a woman walking down a Georgetown street and waking up in Hyattsville, and not being able to find her shoes, by Prada.

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Washingtoon, D.C.: Ever had a desire to do those sidewalk $5.00 pastel caricatures and make the portrait really creepy?

Richard Thompson: Always! Do you get that urge too? I thought I was the only one.

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Leisure World, Md.: Is cartooning a full-time job or do you bus tables? How are the benefits?

Richard Thompson: After the foregoing, I'm thinking of being one of those bar liaisons.

The best benefit is, I get to work at home and none of you people do! The drawback is, I work late at night when the house is quiet because who can concentrate at home?

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Washington D.C.: I was looking forward to your Smithsonian panel talk -- what happened?

Richard Thompson: It was undersubscribed. I think the whole series, which was going to be on humor writing, grew very large, with 6 or 7 discussions and 3 panelists for each discussion. Then nobody showed up. There's probably a humorous joke there.

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Fantod Grove, Md.: I have an "Almanac" question, sir. Has P.J. Piehole's Family Place been closed for good, after unnumerable Health Dept. closings?

Richard Thompson: P.J.Piehole's will always spring weedlike from any shopping center parking lot, unless detected by the authorities.

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Maryland: Do you have a degree and if so, has formal education helped you?

Richard Thompson: I don't. I took two and a half years at Montgomery College in Rockville, a two years school, and enjoyed every minute of it, except for the part about actually accruing credits. Strangely they gave me an award last year for being one of the Alumni of the Year, for which I'm extremely grateful. I didn't come with an honorary degree or anything, though. Actually, nobody's asked me for proof of education in this business. So far so good.

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MD 20-20: Richard,

Don't be a stranger, chat us up more often.

Your loyal fans

Richard Thompson: Please! Stay behind the barriers, or my goons may retaliate!

Seriously, this is fun, except for the spelling part.

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Sunny springy, Md.: Did I miss any recent Almanac strips on exotic garden plants and trees? I don't get the Post every Saturday.

Richard Thompson: Nothing on them recently. I had an idea for a beanstalk series in Cul de Sac that I haven't gotten around to, where maybe Chemlawn comes by and kills the beanstalk or something.

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Nulli Secundus, Pa.: Will Petey always have unrequited love, like Charlie Brown? Will he also have his footballs taken away, causing him years of humiliation and a need for therapy?

Richard Thompson: Probably. I drew the girl he swears he doesn't have a crush on, Viola D'amore, from a kid I saw standing at a school bus stop. I think Petey's kind of strange, don't you? He's like all the worst of me.

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Rockville, Md.: So, is the comic strip set in the MD or the VA suburbs?

Richard Thompson: I don't know. I grew up in the MD suburbs, but now live on the VA side. I still think of DC as being to my south. I get lost in VA a lot. This seems universal.

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Laytonsville, Md.: "Cul de Sac" is undeniably the funniest comic being published, which makes you the funniest cartoonist around. When can we expect a collection to be published?

Richard Thompson: I just wanted to put this out there for my puny ego. Once I've got enough to consider, I'll consider it. Maybe next week.

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gravy train art: I'm sitting in gravy now, it's gross yet strangely sensual.

Richard Thompson: Me, too! And it's lumpy.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Have you thought of doing caricatures from a booth in a shopping mall? Because, you would be awesome at it. I mean, you could do it, whereas Bob Staake and the guy who draws "Mallard Fillmore" should be forced to do it.

Richard Thompson: I drew caricatures once for a charity thing and pretty much froze up and drew very realistic caricatures. It isn't easy, especially if the subject has an especially caricaturable face, or is threateningly large. Or if you're trying to shake them down for charity money.

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Mr. Danders: Have that raptor eat him next time. I love gore.

Richard Thompson: What I ended up liking about the Danders series was that, in each one, he was mistaken for somebody else by whoever he met; he was taken for a lemming, Winnie the Pooh, an infant in a costume, a bat, and something else. It's like he was so blank he became a protean entity, and he used that to survive till the next strip. That's my theory of guinea pigs, anyway. I always figured that by the time he created them, God was bored.

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Wash 20036: So when are you going to bow to the inevitable and take over Weingarten's column? Even he had to admit that your guest piece a year or so back was far, far superior to most "humor" writing these days.

Richard Thompson: Can I end on this question? My previously puny ego has swollen until it may require medical attention. And, I don't want Weingarten's spot. I'm still angling for something more lucrative, like the A section or the first section of the comics.

Thank you for your time and kind comments and reasonably easy questions.

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