Transcript

Meet the Comics Pages

Scott Hilburn and Richard Thompson
Cartoonists, "Argyle Sweater" and "Cul de Sac"
Friday, May 23, 2008; 1:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin on Friday, May 23 at 1 p.m. ET at the National Cartoonists Society convention in New Orleans for a discussion with Scott Hilburn, creator of " The Argyle Sweater," and Richard Thompson, creator of creator of " Cul de Sac."

The transcript follows.

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Suzanne Tobin: Welcome, comics fans to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today you get a two-fer. Scott Hilburn, of "The Argyle Sweater," the second of three strips we're trying out while "Doonesbury" is on vacation, as well as local boy made good Richard Thompson, creator of "Poor Richard's Almanac" that is seen in the Style section Saturdays, as well as "Cul de Sac," which is carried in The Post Magazine on Sundays. Welcome to you both and thanks for joining us live online.

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Scott Hilburn: Hi everyone.

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Bethesda, Md.: Richard Thompson: How do you have time to be the best cartoonist in The Washington Post and also be a British folk legend? Ms. Tobin: thank you for Keith Knight. Please find a place for him in the comics.

Richard Thompson: No, here it is. I just use time-management techniques and multitask really well. I also find time to grow prize-winning orchids and to run a mink ranch.

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Richard Thompson: I think I accidentally deleted a question about my other career as a British folk-rock legend. Sorry! But yes, my other career as a British folk-rock legend keeps me busy!

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Philadelphia: Scott, are you familiar with Thatcher Longstreth, the noted late Philadelphia business, political, and civic booster who made argyle socks his trademark? If only he had made argyle sweaters his trademark, who knows where he could have gone.

Scott Hilburn: Can't say that I've heard of Mr. Longstreth. Sounds like he had pretty good taste though.

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ComicsDC: Tom Heintjes, editor of Hogan's Alley, handicapped the NCS strip award race this way yesterday:

"NOMINEES FOR THE NEWSPAPER STRIP DIVISION AWARD: Paul Gilligan ("Pooch Cafe"), Jim Meddick ("Monty") and Richard Thompson ("Cul de Sac"). Three great strips by respected veterans --a very tough field that exemplifies some of the best work on the comics page today. SHOULD WIN: Meddick produces a strip that every other cartoonist loves, and it has completely transcended its roots as a spin-off of a toy. While "Cul de Sac" and first-time nominee Thompson will win much hardware in years to come, the strip is probably too new to win, without even a full year under its belt. Still, its inclusion among the nominees demonstrates the respect it has already earned. WILL WIN: Who needs a robot? Meddick wins this award for the first time, an overdue honor."

Richard, as someone who's got less than a year under his belt, do you have some underhanded method of influencing the voting so you can take home the prize?

Richard Thompson: I'm relying on my enormous personal charm, which is how I got this far. Seriously, I'm trying not to think about the award part. And thanks for reminding me.

And when I see Tom H. I'm going to give him such a pinch.

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Washington: You are two wild and crazy cartoonists, you are at a convention, you are in New Orleans (what happens in N'orleans stays there because you won't remember it the next day), and you are spending your time chatting with Washington Post readers. What is wrong with this picture?

Scott Hilburn: Ha. I wish I were in New Orleans. I originally had intended to be there but after a bit of a mix up it was too late to make the proper arrangements. So, I'm stuck here in Dallas. By the way, good luck Richard!

Richard Thompson: I'm in New Orleans, and I don't see anything wrong with this picture. But it's early yet! I just got here last night after a 26-hour train ride. Ask me again in two days.

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Washington: Why doesn't The Post carry the daily version of "Cul de Sac," and what can we do to make them do so?

Richard Thompson: Scream bloody murder, and direct your complaints to the Comics Editor, whose e-mail I forget. comics@washpost.com, I think.

Suzanne Tobin: That is indeed the e-mail. Do write often. Those higher up the food chain listen to you much more than they listen to me.

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Dallas: Hey, Scott, why haven't you posted anything on your blog since the strip debuted?

Scott Hilburn: I'm working on it, I promise. My Web guy (Darren if you're reading, listen up) is supposed to be revamping my site a bit. Hopefully in the next week or so...

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ComicsDC: So Richard, how was the 36-hour train ride. Did you wear your tuxedo the whole time in a valiant attempt to show people what train travel could be again, if they'd just raise their standards?

Richard Thompson: It was only a 26-hour ride, so it was a piece of cake. Actually it was kinda fun, though along about the 14th hour it all became a blur.

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ComicsDC: Ms. Tobin, how did you convince The Post to send you to New Orleans to chat with Mr. Thompson, a cartoonist who lives 10 miles from The Post's main building?

Suzanne Tobin: Ha! I'm here on my own dime, you silly reader. I only can afford to do it every two years, but you would not believe the deals these guys get on the most awesome hotels! We're in the Ritz Carlton this time, and probably paying a third of the rack rate. So what's not to love?

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Darnestown, Md.: Scott, what possessed you to call your cartoon "The Argyle Sweater"?

Scott Hilburn: "For Better or For Worse" already was taken.

Seriously, there's no significance to it. I thought it sounded quirky, and when I was looking to purchase a domain name, it was available. You'd be surprised at how difficult it is to find an unused domain name.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, Scott. Can you tell us a little about your road to syndication? How many different ideas got rejected before you got one accepted? Thanks.

Scott Hilburn: I submitted one other strip years ago - it was awful. (Some might say the same about my current one, ha.) Anyhow, I started with my own site and a submission to each of the syndicates, then used Comics Sherpa. After about a month and a half, I was invited to move over to GoComics, and about a month or so after that I was offered a full-scale syndication contract.

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ComicsDC: Are the gathered cartoonists making any efforts to improve New Orleans (beyond liquor purchases?) I'm thinking you could offer to paint your characters on abandoned buildings to spruce them up ... stuff like that.

Richard Thompson: Yes, they're volunteering for Habitat for Humanity this morning.

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Manassas, Va.: Hi Scott. I think that "Argyle" is great and unique, but I was wondering how are you handling all the comparisons to Larson's "Far Side"? Has it helped or hurt in marketing?

Scott Hilburn: I'd imagine it's helped mostly. Larson's been absent from the funny pages for about 15 years now and it has left an incredible void in the hearts of many readers, including myself. I get a lot of heartfelt e-mails that love seeing that influence in my comic. As my editor told me, people miss "The Far Side" and there's a thirst for that kind of humor.

As for how I'm handling it, I'm flattered by a lot of the comparisons -- but as many people will agree, no one wever ill be able to replace Mr. Larson.

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Baltimore: I just graduated from art school (MICA) with a major in Illustration, and I just want to say that I'm a huge "Cul de Sac" fan and also your other work for The Post. I have a piece clipped from the paper of yours stuck above my drawing board that was about the "creative process" where the cartoonist procrastinates and hallucinates, and finally in the last couple panels his head sort of explodes and he actually produces a strip. ... I find it immensely comforting that a professional whom I admire might go through that stuff too! What is your actual working rhythm like? And do you keep a sketchbook of ideas?

Richard Thompson: Thanks and congratulations! The drawing you're talking about was one I did for The Post's Studio page, and it's called something like 20 Steps to Drawing a Funny Cartoon. Sadly, it's a pretty accurate description of my work process. Usually ideas come when you least expect them, and I usually try to keep them buzzing around in my head, hoping they'll collide and produce some interesting new idea. I do keep notebooks, those little moleskin things, but I forget to write things down in them in a timely manner, so I rely more on memory. This is not a working method I recommend.

But my feeling about ideas is that ideas are easy -- they're everywhere, they're underfoot, and you just gotta recognize them. The hard part is knowing what to do with them once you've got them pinned to your page. Does that make sense?

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Dallas: My question is for Richard. What's your favorite newly syndicated single panel cartoon? Thanks.

Richard Thompson: That would be "The Argyle Sweater" by some guy whose name escapes me.

This question would be for Scott. What's your favorite new comic strip featuring little kids who never shut up?

Scott Hilburn: Hmmm... Favorite strip with little kids that never shut up. "Peanuts"? Or "Cul De Sac" :)

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Dulles, Va.: So, Richard, does this train ride mean that you're afraid to fly?

Richard Thompson: I'm not a happy flier, but I'll do it if I hafta. It also means I didn't plan my trip very well, and the train was cheaper than the plane.

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ComicsDC: For Scott Hilburn: How did you start "Argyle Sweater"? Was it a college panel? How many papers do you have?

Scott Hilburn: Upon my launch, my syndicate said I had about 130 clients total -- that includes online clients also.

As for how I started my comic -- first I created my own Web site to display my work, and then about a week later, after getting some advice from Mike Witmer creator of the comics "Pinkerton" and "44 Union Avenue" -- I started displaying my work on Comics Sherpa, an amateur comics site run by GoComics, a sister company to Universal Press Syndicate.

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Yay! Richard Thompson!: Richard Thompson is a comic genius, and I swear I'm not his relative!

Did you start a daily strip? And if so, where can one find it? Why isn't it in The Washington Post? Sheesh.

"The Argyle Sweater" has been the best of the three trial strips so far -- very reminiscent of "The Far Side," but in a good way.

Richard Thompson: Thank you, not-related-to-me stranger! Yes, "Cul de Sac" started as a daily way back in September. You can find it online at gocomics.com.

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Vienna, Va.: What is the best thing about being a cartoonist? What is the worst?

Richard Thompson: The best thing is that you get to be a cartoonist and draw funny cartoons for the cartoon-loving masses; the worst thing is the hours it takes to get all your freaking cartoons finished.

Scott Hilburn: The best thing? The perks and notoriety obviously. I often am given free meals at certain distinguished restaurants because having cartoonists as patrons is good for business.

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McLean, Va.: Richard, are you planning for any more action finger puppets in the near future? My Obama action finger puppet fell apart.

Richard Thompson: I should publish them on sturdy cardboard or something so they'll take the abuse.

And I hate to admit it, but those often enough are the product of me failing to come up with a better idea, or a better idea falling apart. Or I just wanna draw Hillary.

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Cube Farm: Hi, Scott. Do you know of any other cartoonists who have gone from an online presence to a print syndication contract?

Scott Hilburn: Quite a few, actually. The "Brevity" guys started on online at Sherpa, I think; Brian Anderson of "Dog Eat Doug" started there as well.

I'm not sure, but didn't "Pearls" start off being an online-only offering? I can't remember...

"Diesel Sweeties" started online, too.

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Comicville: Do you two guys know each other?

Scott Hilburn: We live together.

Richard Thompson: We do, but strangely we've never met. I just see that things are missing from the fridge, and I figure "Scott's been here."

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Fanland: Richard, I've noticed your "Almanac" hasn't been in the Saturday Style section every week like it used.to be. Are you phasing it out now that you have the daily gig?

Richard Thompson: No, I just took a couple of weeks off so I could get ahead in the strip (hah!) and go to New Orleans. I'd hate to lose the "Almanac," as it works a part of my brain that's different from the part that does the strip. And really, the "Almanac" is a dream job.

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ComicsDC: Scott's disqualified himself from this one, but what's the best thing at the NCS con so far? Besides the hotel rate.

Richard Thompson: Doing this chat!

Also the food, and something they call a "Hurricane." But it's early yet, and I haven't prowled around too much yet. But having dinner with a bunch of cartoonists I hadn't met except via e-mail was a lotta fun.

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Springfield, Va.: What do you two think about all the doom-and-gloom predictions for print newspapers? Do you feel like there is a time they will only be available electronically? How does that affect your craft?

Richard Thompson: It's not the best of times for newspapers and no one knows what comes next. I know several cartoonists -- editorial cartoonist mostly -- who joke about expanding into buggy whips and celluloid collars, just so they have something to fall back on. I can't say it affects my craft as such; I draw in ink on paper, with a dip pen (no eyeshade or sleeve garters). So craft-wise I'm pretty backward already.

Scott Hilburn: I suppose the way we read news is changing quite a bit, and I'd say that at some point, print may go away completely -- but my guess is that, that's decades and not years away.

Maybe I'm optimistic, though. Or naive.

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Indianapolis: Richard -- you're the most talented cartoonist working today (I understand you're also charming and good-looking). Can you give us a bit of information about your artistic career prior to "Cul De Sac"? Who are some of the cartoonists you most admire, and how do you feel they have influenced your work?

Richard Thompson: Shucks, folks, I'm speechless.

Okay, no I'm not. I worked as a freelance illustrator/cartoonist for twenty-some years and still do. I do work for The Post, for Smithsonian Magazine, the New Yorker, U.S. News & World Report and such like magazines. There's an almost endless list of cartoonists I admire, and it updates daily, hourly even. But my pantheon always includes Walt Kelly, Ronald Searle, Pat Oliphant, and jeez, don't get me started. I just like the works of those who, when I look at it, it makes me want to draw.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Do either of you still have a day job? If not, what did you used to do before you became world-famous syndicated cartoonists?

Richard Thompson: My day job is illustration and doing the "Almanac." And one of the first pieces of advice my editor Lee Salem gave me was, keep your day job.

Scott Hilburn: I still have my day job. I'm a Flash developer for a telecom company. I got the same advice.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Okay, how much money did the newer comics gather to bribe "Doonesbury" to go on vacation?

Suzanne Tobin: This is an excellent question! Scott?

Scott Hilburn: We all got together and the best we could collectively come up with was about $36 dollars.

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TGIF: How far ahead do you have to submit your comics?

Scott Hilburn: I can't remember if it's four weeks for dailies and six for Sundays or if it's 6 weeks for dailies and eight weeks for Sundays...

Dangit. I'm probably behind.

Richard Thompson: I'm about two or three weeks ahead on dailies and five or six on Sundays. I know I'm behind.

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Washington: Softball question for Richard -- you've actually won NCS awards in the past, right? For what? I'm thinking it wasn't animation, although I can see some similarities to Bill Plympton's work.

Richard Thompson: I won two, back in '96, for Magazine Illustration and for Newspaper Illustration. I never yet have tried animation, though that could change, but thanks for the comparison to Plympton. Doesn't he do just greatest stuff? I chatted with him once for about fifteen minutes at a gallery thing up in New York, but I didn't know it was him till later. He's very tall, for an animator.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Scott, do the online cartoonists get together virtually like the print ones? Do you have any online cartoons you'd recommend to a fan?

Scott Hilburn: Yes they do. In fact many of them have communities where they get together. Talltalefeatures.com is a new site that has several cartoonists who get together with readers. The creators of "Pinkerton," "Imagine This," "SuperFogeys," "Legend of Bill," "Stewart" and "Dog Eat Doug" all are part of that community. They also get together behind the scenes with each other over e-mail.

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Baltimore: Yes, that has the ring of truth to it unfortunately! It's sort of like having to sift for something that works, instead of completely coming up with something out of thin air. It seems like it all springs out of influences and life ...  so really coming up with an idea is actually more like editing away to some degree ... though maybe that's just where I'm at still. I know you've done the standalone pieces in the Style section longer than the strip, how is it to go back and forth now doing both? Had you always wanted to do something more narrative with characters, etc.? Do you prefer one over the other?

Richard Thompson: It's kinda figuring that each idea has its own internal logic, and figuring out the logic of a cartoon is the trick. Although, even applying the word "logic" to a cartoon is a little laughable.

I hadn't really wanted to do anything as narrative as "Cul de Sac" until Washington Post Magazine editor Tom Shroder talked me into it. It's all different than doing the "Almanac," as it deals with the logic of the characters. Once you know your cast and can anticipate their actions, you almost can let it run on its own. In short, you start hearing voices, and they dictate the action to you.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Scott, you do a panel without recurring characters and Richard, you do a strip with one family of characters. What was your thinking behind those choices?

Scott Hilburn: I think cartoonists tend to be better at one or the other. I think it was the late Arnold Wagner who compared the two to stand-up versus sitcom.

Panels are gag-centric, while strips are character and plot driven. Some people can do both -- Glenn McCoy is probably the best example, generally speaking, I think most cartoonists excel at one.

Richard Thompson: As I mentioned, Tom Shroder kinda talked me into doing "Cul de Sac," and once I tried it I found I liked dealing with my characters. Casting is the hard part.

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Argyle, Va: Scott, How long on average does it take to come up with a gag and draw the panel? Are you using pen and ink still too?

Scott Hilburn: I use rapidograph pens and a light box.

Sometimes a gag hits me out of nowhere (rarely), but most of the time I sit in silence for a few hours brainstorming my ideas -- so, it varies.

Nice town, by the way.

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Centreville, Va.: Scott, what is this day job of yours? Is it related to art?

Scott Hilburn: Uh oh. Is this my boss?

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Washington: Richard Thompson, I'm a huge fan! You had me with "Poor Richard's Almanac," now I receive the daily "Cul" by e-mail because (ahem) The Post does not carry it. Thanks for all the laughs. There's just not enough zaniness in the world!

Richard Thompson: I thank you, and I'm adding an (ahem), too.

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ComicsDC: Richard, to be a D.C. area cartoonist, shouldn't you have had a more striking name than Thompson like Galifianakis or Telnaes or Wuerker? Have you overcome this lack through the dint of hard work, or did you take your wife's name when you married because yours was Mxylplztk?

Richard Thompson: I'm just happy I have a name I can spell.

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Capital City: Do you ever riff on your families and friends? Do they mind?

Richard Thompson: Oh yeah, some, but I try to disguise it and they never seem to mind. No one character is ever drawn from one person, so it's never too obvious or too legally actionable.

Scott Hilburn: Rarely. Once in a while I get an idea based on a real life experience, but rarely.

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Virginia: According to the NCS Web site, Sandra Boynton is getting the lifetime achievement award. How cool is that?

Richard Thompson: Hippo Birdy Two Ewes!

Dang cool, I'd say.

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Alcova Heights, Va.: Hey, Richard, have you considered a collection of your finger puppets and other cutouts, on good paper like the Dover paper doll books?

Richard Thompson: Sure, maybe with little clothes and accessories and pieces of furniture that you could collect and trade with your friends. I'll suggest it to Andrews & McMeel, my syndicate's publishing arm.

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Suzanne Tobin: We're out of time, folks. Thanks to both my guests for joining me today. Good luck at the Reuben Awards tomorrow night, Richard! And Scott, hope to see you among the nominees for best panel in the years to come!

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Scott Hilburn: Thanks everyone. Feel free to e-mail me with any other questions.

Good luck Richard!

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Richard Thompson: Can I just use this opportunity to say that there'll be a book of "Cul de Sac" cartoons, including all of the first six or seven months of dailies and Sundays and many from the earlier Post Magazine, published this September?

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Suzanne Tobin: Yes you may! Keep up the good work!

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