HAVE YOU SEEN the most compelling cartoon of the past year?
Its creator, Richard Thompson, is acclaimed for his comics of whimsy and wry genius — including his popular “Richard’s Poor Almanac” and his Reuben Award-winning comic strip, “Cul de Sac,” both of which are syndicated. He is no stranger to inked excellence.
But prior to October, he was a stranger to exposing his brain’s inner workings beyond the most figurative of definitions.
This past fall, Thompson tested his mind in a way that few cartoonists ever have. Many artists may be open-minded, but how often do they have their minds literally opened?
For decades, Thompson has submitted to his clients and his publishers and, ultimately, to his millions of readers the illustrations that have been painstakingly filtered through his toughest editor: himself.
But what happens when one’s mental censor and master controller is Tase’d out of the way?
This is the story of how Thompson, who has Parkinson’s disease, ended up charting his creativity not from his home studio’s drafting table, but from the business end of the hospital operating table.
And proved as inspired as ever.
IT WAS A FRIDAY, four days after his 55th birthday, when Richard Thompson electively let someone slice toward his brain.
The Arlington County cartoonist had lived with the knowledge he had Parkinson’s since the summer of 2008. He publicly announced his diagnosis in 2009, not even two full years after he reached his professional pinnacle of launching into daily comic-strip syndication. Ever since, he had seen and watched and felt his body’s abilities deteriorate. At the peak of his creative powers, he was wrestling with the change in his physical ones.
On Sept. 23, just a few weeks before his surgery, he ended “Cul de Sac,” his Universal Uclick strip that ran in about 250 newspapers, that received Harvey and Ignatz awards shortly before the comic’s sudden “end of the road” — and that in 2011 garnered him the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for career achievement.
After taking time off for rehab last winter, “I went back to work and slacked off and began to decline physically,” Thompson told Comic Riffs in August. “This was when it became clear Parkinson’s didn’t mesh too well with a daily deadline. I got wobblier and had a few falls, and I’ve pushed the meds as far as they’ll go. So the next step is something called Deep Brain Stimulation, where they implant wires in your brain, adjust the current and — Boom — you’re good to go.”
And so here was Thompson, two months later, preparing for that Deep Brain Stimulation, awaiting the cranial wires that he hoped would jump-start — perhaps even press the restart button on — his condition in his battle against Parkinson’s. Always thin, now gaunt, he had taken to using a walker, and some days didn’t speak much louder than a hoarse whisper.
Now, sitting at Georgetown University Hospital, he had reason to be optimistic as he waited with family — as well as with longtime friend and fellow cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, who had first been concerned about Thompson’s condition and arranged the medical meeting several years ago that led to the Parkinson’s diagnosis.
The night before the operation, Thompson says, another art friend, Alaskan editorial cartoonist-turned-animator Peter Dunlap-Shohl — who received a Parkinson’s diagnosis about a decade ago, at age 43 — contacted the “Cul de Sac” creator. A year earlier, Dunlap-Shohl told Comic Riffs: “Parkinson’s disease is hellishly complex.” He himself had undergone Deep Brain Stimulation, and now advised Thompson to bring a pad and pen to the operation. The point was not to busy himself, but rather: What better way to assess how a cartoonist’s brain is responding to electrical currents in that moment than to ask the artist to draw?
The next day, Thompson brought the tools of his trade to Georgetown Hospital. And during surgery, as Dr. Christopher Kalhorn ran currents through the cartoonist’s exposed brain, Thompson drew jagged and meandering lines and shapes. Here, as literal black-and-white evidence, was a page of supercharged sketches that reflected Thompson’s abilities during surgery.
But that wasn’t the most compelling cartoon of 2012.
FOR MANY ARTISTS, the hands are everything.
The brain might be the creative engine, but without the dexterity of your digits, you’re not gaining any traction — the rubber just can’t meet the road.
For seven years, when I faced a daily-syndication deadline, I sometimes paused to consider whether my favorite contact sports or other physical activities were overly risking the short-term health of my hands. Given those unforgiving deadlines, would broken fingers signal the end of the strip?
But that’s nothing. What on Earth do you do when an increase in pain, or a decrease in dexterity, is a prolonged — or even incurable — condition?
In 2011, upon the publication of his graphic novel “Habibi,” Oregon cartoonist Craig Thompson told me he had nearly quit the business. Years earlier, while promoting his highly acclaimed graphic novel “Blankets” in Europe, he suffered debilitating pain in his hands. In France, the doctors diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis; back in the United States, Thompson was told it was finger-joint cysts. Before his condition eventually subsided, the Portland creator, then still in his 20s, said he was staring down the end of his career.
But that’s nothing. What in heaven’s name do you do when you have Parkinson’s? (Which, according to the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, afflicts 1-million Americans, and includes such symptoms as tremors, rigidity, difficulty with walking or balance, and a slowing of movement.)
When I met with Thompson in early 2011, I never detected dyskinesia — whether slight tremors or other uncontrollable movements that are symptoms of his disease — specifically in his hands. Thompson was taking the prescribed levodopa — which fights depletion of the neurotransmitter dopamine that marks Parkinson’s — four times a day.
In May of 2011, however, I accompanied Thompson to a taping in Washington for an appearance on National Public Radio. Afterward, as Thompson and I shared a cab to The Post building, I saw tremors in his hands for the first time — as he buckled his seat beat.
That was also the first time I really began to think that the end of “Cul de Sac” might be nigh.
Five days later, in Boston, the tuxedoed Thompson basked in the applause of his peers, as he received the National Cartoonists Society’s top honor. His condition cast the celebratory moment in high relief.
“I’ve known for a year or more that I was working on borrowed time,” Thompson told me this past August, when he announced that he would end his strip the following month.
“My lettering had begun to wander off in 2009, but that could be fixed easily enough. But when Alice’s and Dill’s heads began to look under-inflated last winter,” continues Thompson, referring to two of his great kid characters, “I figured I was losing control of the drawing, too. When I needed help with the inking — the hardest but most satisfying part of the strip — well, that was probably a tipping point.
“Parkinson’s disease is horribly selfish and demanding. A daily comic strip is, too, and I can only deal with one at a time. So it was a long, gradual, sudden decision.”
AMONG HIS PEERS, Richard Thompson is considered one of the greatest living comic-strip creators — an authentic cartoonist who has a special blend of writing talent, including a sublime ear for dialogue, and virtuosic artistry.
“He actually sounds like the kids he draws in that amazing strip,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant told Comic Riffs last year. “What a gift it is, to write the way you talk. No strain, no presumption, just simple wry storytelling with characters you can care about and love. When did you last see that in comic strips?
“Not since Calvin and his tiger rode off into the sunset,” answers Oliphant, referring to the beloved Bill Watterson creation that ended in the mid-’90s.
So what does the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator himself think of Thompson? He “has this huge range of cartooning skills. ... Richard draws all sorts of complex stuff — architecture, traffic jams, playground sets — that I would never touch,” Watterson told Comic Riffs. (Moved by Thompson’s talent, it was only Watterson’s second interview in more than two decades — a measure of his deep collegial respect.)
And Garry Trudeau, the Pulitzer-winning creator of “Doonesbury,” told Comic Riffs: “Richard’s only apparent weakness is his timing — in a fair world, his brilliant reimagining of childhood would rule the comics page.”
In June, the book’s companion auction raised nearly $50,000, including the $13,145 bid for Watterson’s oil-on-board painting of the “Cul de Sac” character Petey Otterloop — Watterson’s first new public art in more than 15 years.
Add in the matching funds from the Fox Foundation, and Team Cul de Sac has raised more than $100,000 this year, according to Sparks.
As much as Thompson’s charity has raised for research, the cartoonist is also helping elevate the need to seek and study new medical advances — even as he endures treatment himself.
LAST JANUARY, as his condition worsened, Thompson began to experiment with his options. His first step: Take a short break from the strip.
“I’m about to start a program of physical therapy sessions designed for people with Parkinson’s,” he wrote on his blog, noting that the hiatus would be for just “three or four weeks.”
In several weeks, as February rolled around, the still-on-hiatus Thompson announced that he would turn over “Cul de Sac” for about five weeks to six potentially demented foster parents: children’s author Mo Willems, Stephan Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”), Lincoln Peirce (“Big Nate”), educator-cartoonist Michael Jantze (“The Norm”), Corey Pandolph (“The Elderberries,” “Toby”) and Ken Fisher (aka Ruben Bolling, “Tom the Dancing Bug”).
Thompson said he was “tickled, honored and grateful” that the six surrogates would “babysit my collection of poorly socialized children...and adults.”
What wouldn’t bend, though, was the progression of Thompson’s physical decline. The cartoonist soldiered on for five months before announcing it was time to call it quits.
Colleagues respected the professional decision about “Cul de Sac.” “The testament to its quality, its uniqueness,” “Non Sequitur” creator Wiley Miller told us, “is that it can’t be carried on by another hand, or team of writers and artists.” And “Lio” creator Mark Tatulli told Comic Riffs: “I’m glad that Richard isn’t completely turning it over to someone else to create a reasonable facsimile.”
Thompson’s peers also sympathized with how his faltering health had forced his hand.
“It’s so tragic about Richard. It’s very Greek, you know,” Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist and “Mother Goose and Grimm” creator Mike Peters told Comic Riffs. “This amazing talent, right at the moment we are recognizing this supernova in our profession.”
“When something like ‘Cul de Sac’ ends, it is devastating,” Pastis, the ”Pearls Before Swine” creator, told us. “There are so few good comic strips to begin with. And there are even fewer ones where you can see actual genius. And so you naturally think: Man, of all the comic strips that have to go, why this one? Why Richard Thompson? It’s like Beethoven going deaf. Of all the people to lose that particular ability, why him?”
“When your body just will not permit you to continue to do something you love to do, the loss is overwhelming,” Lynn Johnston, a Pulitzer finalist for her strip “For Better or for Worse,” told Comic Riffs. “Being able to write and draw and entertain is a gift in triplicate! The drive to use these gifts comes as much from within as it does from the deadlines we agree to adhere to.”
And on a personal level, his fellow cartoonists expressed support for his road ahead.
“ ‘Cul de Sac,’ Schmul de Sac,” Jerry Scott (“Zits” and “Baby Blues”) told Comic Riffs. “Richard is focusing on his health, and that’s the most important thing. I’ll miss the strip, but he has bigger battles to fight than funny-paper deadlines. If courage, grace and humor can beat Parkinson’s, my money is on Richard.”
“I’m saddened that it has come this early,” Miller added about the end of “Cul de Sac,” “not because of the loss of such a wonderful strip, but because of what it’s doing to such a wonderful, gentle soul as Richard. I know what’s ahead for him and it’s not easy.
“I’m hoping that continued treatment and medication will still allow him to continue his marvelous art in some capacity. I know he’ll try, because he’s an artist.”
Watterson shares that hope for his friend.
“I admire not only Richard’s immense talent and artistic integrity, but also the grace and openness with which he’s confronted his struggles,” the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator told us. “What gives me hope is knowing that Richard is nothing if not artistically versatile, so he may find new ways to create yet.”
IT IS LATE DECEMBER, and after a momentous year, Thompson is still hoping for positive change.
For one thing, he jokes: “My hair’s growing back.” (After Thompson had his head shaved for the October surgery, his wife, Amy, said he looked like a monk.)
More seriously, Thompson says that “in early November, a month after my surgery, the doctor turned on my implant for the first programming — an interesting procedure, like a really intensive eye exam. It’s similar to a heart pacemaker in that it sends an adjustable stream of electronic pulses to a specific point in the body. It was set so my shakiness and dyskinesia effectively disappeared. Deep Brain Stimulation works only on the tremors — it has no effect on balance, and mine has gotten pretty bad.
“About 10 days later, as I’d been told they might, the shaking and dyskinesia returned, along with various mood swings and side effects,” Thompson continues. “I had the second tuneup in mid-December and, although I improved a bit, it was less dramatic.
“There are those who get the full effect immediately, and then there are those who respond more subtly and gradually. It’s a process. Brains take awhile to heal and settle — perhaps three months. I’m told it could be February before I get the full effect.
“By then, I’ll need another haircut.”
Thompson is also doing hand exercises in hopes of regaining more control.
And what’s the most encouraging sign since the surgery? Thompson replies with certitude:
“I still think in cartoons.”
HAVE YOU SEEN the most compelling cartoon of the past year?
As Thompson had those electrical currents running through his cranium in October, his creativity gravitated toward expressing his brain’s reaction by, well, literally rendering his brain’s reaction.
The result is a cartoon of his own gray matter with a simple word-balloon above it that reads: “Whee!” Below the image is a second laugh line: The brain is not drawn to scale.
Clearly, even when supercharged and literally open-minded, Thompson still thinks in cartoons.