Post Magazine: Meet Cartoonist Richard Thompson
Monday, September 11, 2006; 12:00 PM
Every Sunday, Richard Thompson's local comic strip "Cul de Sac," starring Alice, Petey and the rest of the Otterloop family, appears in The Washington Post Magazine . Every Saturday, his "Richard's Poor Almanac" cartoon is a fixture in the newspaper's Style section.
He was online Monday, Sept. 11, fielding questions and comments about "Cul de Sac, Richard's Poor Almanac and the art and craft of cartooning.
A transcript follows.
Richard Thompson: Hi, this is Richard Thompson. I'm delighted to be a guest of Washpost online, even while not leaving the comfort of my own home. I look forward to your questions, and I hope they're reasonably simple and don't involve math or grammar.
Arlington, Va: Hi Richard, this is a comment: Your work is some of the funniest, wittiest cartoon comedy I've ever seen. Please, stay with the Post, keep doing "Cul de Sac." I raised two kids in northern Virginia in the '70s and '80s and what you do rings true even as kids and customs have changed. After an hour of grim world and national news you make my coming day spin in a positive direction with a really full laugh. John P
Richard Thompson: I thought I'd start with this question because it's not a question and because it's deeply flattering. Thank you, John P. I'm raising two kids in Northern Virginia and all that's likely to have changed is the price of housing. And I'll keep doing "Cul de Sac," because as I mentioned I'm raising two kids in Northern Virginia and I need all the freelance work I can get.
Philadelphia: Are there any family members or friends who may find themselves, or think they find themselves, represented in your comic, and do you deny any resemblance as purely coincidental?
Richard Thompson: They're all there in various mutated and combined forms, with a thin layer of me on top, I guess. I told a neighbor that it was all based on his family, kiddingly, and he looked at me with horror. His house is now for sale, not kidding.
Arlington, Va.: Your Sunday Post Magazine comic strip, "Cul de Sac," runs weekly. Do you think you could handle the demands of a daily comic strip? Would you want to be locked into that sort of job?
Richard Thompson: Ask me again in about a year and a month. Actually, the question could be moot by then. I hope I used that word correctly.
Gaithersburg, Md.: I just love "Cul de Sac," especially the preschool story line. Any chance that you'll eventually publish a collection of all the cartoons?
Richard Thompson: This may happen. After I've sold every single copy of my first book. No, someday in some form I certainly hope to. Though I'd likely sit down and redraw every single strip because I'm a perfectionist idiot.
Washington, D.C.: Did you know you've got a page on Wikipedia? I think it's what they call a stub.
Richard Thompson: Yes I do know this. I tried to add something to it a while back, about how since breaking my toe in a dance-related accident I've been forced to draw with my hands, but it didn't stay up on the page.
Arlington, Va.: What tools does a beginning cartoonist need? I mean mental and psychological tools as well as physical, technological ones.
Richard Thompson: A willingness to steal from others as long as you can cover your tracks sufficiently. And a sense of humor and some keenness of perception, and a little bit of fearlessness about trying something that might not work. This isn't helpfull, is it? The list is long, but mostly you need to figure out which hand to draw with.
Whetstone, Md.: When are you going to do another baby or comics roundtable? Those almost make me spray my morning cereal laughing. (Although the the adventures of Mr. Danders comes close..)
And "Moot" sounds like a great word to dissect in the Almanac...
Richard Thompson: The baby roundtable cartoons were the basis of "Cul de Sac"; something about writing for small children appeals to me. Probably the non sequiturs you can get away with. Tangential thinking seems to be my kinda thinking. And, yeah, I've got a soft spot for Mr. Danders, too. He's so teeny weeny and pompous.
Maryland: Any chance you'll take over for Jim Davis after he makes his third million?
Richard Thompson: He's well past his third; probably coming into his 12th or so. I'll wait till his 13th before I take over. Though I'll have to learn to draw flattened spiders.
Rockville, Md.: Is your "Almanac" book still in print and available? Do you ever do signings or gallery shows? Or should I look on eBay for RT originals?
Richard Thompson: Yes! Plenty of copies in pristine form are right now available! Try that Amazon place, or they also have them at Politics and Prose. I never got around to doing any signings, but I used to do gallery shows of mostly caricature work that I'd done for US News and the New Yorker. (That kind of sounds like one magazine.) But the gallery closed some years ago and I haven't pursued it. It's a lotta work to hang a show and I'm bad with hammers and nails.
Washington, D.C.: Where did the guinea pig storyline come from? It evoked memories of a disastrous month spent babysitting my class's rabbit during the summer.
Richard Thompson: We had a guinea pig for about a year. It was ejected from a kindergarten class because of allergy issues (on the kindergartners' part, not the pig). My daughters eventually got fed up with it and we found a new home. H was so inert yet cute yet (as I said) pompous that I couldn't help but put him in somewhere. He's one of my favorites.
Rockville, Md.: I have always wondered how the main "actors" of a cartoon look the same? I mean if I were to draw the same face/body over and over again, after a while the nth copy does not look like the first. Do you just copy/paste?
Richard Thompson: I don't copy and paste, but I do use a light box. I have a terrible time making characters look the same, but they tend to slowly change over time anyway. Alice's hair is shorter and Petey's head is larger, though they're both rather ratty-looking still.
Baltimore: Hello, typing while picking apart leftover crabs for lunch. Anyway, let me add to the "dittoes" of "more Richard Thompson!" but ask, as I do so, do you have it in you to crank out a daily strip, and if you did, how would the appearance, subject, etc. differ when condensed to a tiny three-panel or four-panel strip instead of your relatively larger Sunday space?
Richard Thompson: Mmm, crabs in Baltimore. All I got's a bagel in Arlington.
And thanks for the ditto. The answer to your question is "Yes I think I do." And, as I said, ask me again in about a year. Keep watching the comic page, somewhere between the bridge column and the soduko. Sudoku.
I imagine it would change quite a bit; I'd strengthen the drawing, more blacks, darker lines, and spread the jokes around differently. Not thinner, I hope. The Sunday ones in the Post let me get pretty dense with the humor, a lot of cross-jokes and tangents. My editor likes a laff-a-panel, if possible. I try.
Falls Church, Va.: How often do people confuse you with the alternative guitarist, Richard Thompson? And have you ever been able to capitalize on that confusion to get dates or free drinks for yourself?
Richard Thompson: All the time, until I pick up a guitar and sing. Then they take the free drinks away and the dates all leave.
Bethesda, Md.: Why does the Post always have to run that little box that says "Richard Thompson is away..." Can't you fax one in from wherever you are? Or don't you have a backlog? You're not one of those last-minute cartoon guys are you? Not that I'm complaining (much) I just hate opening the Post on the weekends and seeing text where I expect to see a splendid offering from your hands.
Richard Thompson: Yes, I'm a last-minute cartoon guy; I keep drawing until the courier shows up. Then the courier shows up and we have to wrestle with the drawing in my front yard. He's bigger than me so he always wins. The neighbors have gotten used to it, or moved away.
Baltimore: So to steal some impact from Gene Weingarten during his absence from chat world, what in your opinion are the best comic strips we're not seeing in the Post? I'm partial towards "9 Chickweed Lane" and "Heart of the City" and also Tatulli's other strip "Lio", which Gene plugged a few weeks ago.
Richard Thompson: I like Lio a lot, and I really enjoyed Agnes. The Post has a good selection, but there are too many I don't see often enough. Tom the Dancing Bug's my favorite, and the Post kindly provides that in the Weekend section. You ever read Maakies? That won't make it into the Post, most likely.
Mt. Pleasant, Washington, D.C.: Mr. Thompson,
You are a genius and my hero. We are not worthy. The "Cul de Sac" episode where the family goes to the theater to see the movie version of their favorite children's book and get blown away by the sound track and violence was out of this world fantastic!
You rule dude. Keep up the great work!
Richard Thompson: Bless your heart. That one was fun to draw, because of the special effects, and because of Mrs. Otterloop's hair. And Petey's suddenly reduced facial features. Poor Petey.
Washington, D.C.: What are you doing besides "Cul de Sac"? Are other papers and media venues beating a path to your door?
Richard Thompson: I freelance a lotta stuff, mostly for magazines. I'm lucky for a freelancer because I have three drawings a week due for the Post and a lot of return customers, some of them nice big shiny glossy magazines, like the New Yorker. For about nine years I did a caricature every week for US News until I burned out. It was a weekly all-nighter.
They're not exactly all beating a path to my door, but they do find it often enough to knock. Partly it's because the shrubbery in front is obscuring the house number, I believe.
McLean, Va: The "Cul de Sac" is brilliant, but I really want to give you kudos for are your "sky-watch" cartoons where you give us all those wonderful new constellations. My brother is an astronomer, and he has a standing request for me to send him copies all of those strips when they run -- he and his colleagues love them!
Richard Thompson: Thanks, those sky watch ones are fun. It's mostly black ink with a little bit of white paint, and how hard can that be? I'm always afraid of overdoing those, so I tend to spread them out, but I'll keep your brother in mind.
I also love doing the Restaurant Closing cartoons, but again, I don't want to do it to surfeit. I hope I used that word correctly, too. Moot.
Arlington, Va.: I'm 39, female, unmarried with no kids, but I now hear my married w/kids friends going through the "Cul de Sac" stories with frightening similarities. These are friends who were very different before the kids came along and with their concerns about the kids going on field trips, and the school lunches, etc., it sounds as though they have been taken over by aliens. I recall not having seatbelts in the car when I was a child, playing on rusty monkey bars, etc. What have been your primary observations from your childhood to the current state of affairs, which, in my opinion, borders on paranoia? Great cartooning---please stay for a long time!
Richard Thompson: Enough things haven't changed since my childhood. A few years ago I was walking down the street with my daughter and I realized how much differently she viewed the neighborhood from me; there was a good stick, there was a neighbor's faucet where you could sneak a drink, there was the house with that dog, there was an excellent place to hide and jump out. The world spins differently for kids, even in these antsy times. I did one a few years ago about a field trip to the National Gallery and seeing the painting with the shark in it there (have you seen it? you'd remember it if you'd seen it as a kid) I got a string of comments from people who did remember it. A small thing, but I like small things.
Washington Grove, Md.: Will Petey and Alice age? Or will they stay in stasis like some morbid Peanuts cartoon? Some cartoons seem to mirror the development of the artists children -- others have the same preschool Christmas party every December for 35 years... creepy...
Richard Thompson: They're frozen in time, doomed to repeat preschool and the third grade over and over. I hope it doesn't get too morbid. Though Petey relearning the History of Egypt every year may get a little creepy.
Arlington, Va.: I suspect that Gene Weingarten is somewhat influencing the answers in your chat. You DO know that he only reads your comic strip because someday you might draw Mrs. Otterloop naked, don't you?
Richard Thompson: Have you been looking through my sketchbook?
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Okay, okay, I don't have a question, but if you feel the need for more flattery: I love your work! I want more! The Post should devote an entire section to you! Perhaps a third section of the comics!
--Not a relative.
Richard Thompson: Please, I need my sleep. But thank you, Mr. or Ms. Not A Relative.
Washington DC: Your "Eight Planets" was BRILLIANT.
But the venerated experts remind me of "Manny, Moe and Jack" You didn't draw them did you?
Richard Thompson: Shucks, I should've, shouldn't I? I'll wait a year and do it over again. Nobody ever notices.
Maryland: What I wouldn't give for a genuine Thompson cartoon.
Richard Thompson: No! They're all mine! I'm going to hoard them, along with old newspapers, gum wrappers, soup cans, etc, etc, until the authorities come and clear out my house because of the stench.
bridge too far: Have you memorialized the old Wilson Bridge? What are your fondest memories of it?
Richard Thompson: I was so sorry to miss the official demolition. We were out of town.
freelance pants: Rumor has it that you will draw the new Bazooka Joe strips. Is that true?
Richard Thompson: Yes, and I'm going to yank that little creep's turtleneck down, too.
Gaithersburg, Md.: I'm not sure how to phrase this, but are you Petey?
Richard Thompson: Alas, mostly, yes.
I think of Alice as the irresistible force and Petey as the immovable object. And I'm pretty inert. See guinea pigs, below.
Richard Thompson: Thank you all for your mostly easy questions and unfailingly kind comments. If you'll excuse me, I've got another deadline, and you people should probably all get back to work, too,
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