One in a series.
IT WAS A BALMY afternoon in June, and all around the kitchen table, Richard Thompson, as he so often does, had the power to bring people together. In the dappled brightness of his Arlington home, the man in the wheelchair hunched over his tablet that gave off light, but it was Richard’s presence that radiated warmth.
Assembled around Thompson were friends who, as if knighted in their united mission, were at this intimate table to further the word of Richard’s legacy as cartoonist and craftsman, as illustrator and rare genius wit. Deadlines were imminent, and so conversation burbled like a kitchen pot coming to a sweet-smelling boil.
So many chefs, yet in this case, each brought his own strengths. Six months from the finish line, here were four of the five authors and editors teaming on a retrospective of Thompson’s illustrious career, as well as the designer of the book. So many ingredients, so little time.
Here was Nick Galifianakis, the illustrator and longtime Carolyn Hax column cartoonist, who from a D.C. lunch had just driven his fellow author Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” who in recent years has refracted some of his starpower toward shining wider recognition upon Richard Thompson. (Watterson and Thompson were currently the subjects of a dual show at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University.)
Also present were archivist and comicsDC blogger Mike Rhode, and the book’s designer, Eisner and Harvey Award-nominated cartoonist Steve Conley (“Bloop”), as well as North Carolina design-studio owner Chris Sparks, who with Thompson co-founded the Parkinson’s research charity Team Cul de Sac — named for the Universal Uclick comic strip that Thompson had ended as he battled that very disease.
As these friends ping-ponged lively talk of specifics about their years-in-their-making book, Thompson sat quietly over that tablet, repeating a slow, strained motion — click and refresh, click and refresh, click and refresh. The exact same Web page, flashing the exact same information.
“What are you doing, Richard?” someone at last asked. Thompson gave a sly smile and seemed to say in a hoarse whisper, “Checking.” The friends leaned over the tablet. Like a silent prank, Thompson kept refreshing the sales ranking of his recently released “Cul de Sac” collection, as if that number would change within mere seconds like a stock-market share. His mischievous grin grew, setting off a round of laughter.
Even working wordlessly, from his wheelchair, Thompson was, and is, the supreme comedian.
And that comic timing is among the embarrassment of rich gifts on beautiful display in “The Art of Richard Thompson” (Andrews McMeel), a 224-page work, released this week, that is one of the most anticipated art-retrospective books of the year. (Its other author is illustration critic David Apatoff.) But the title is not just a career salute; the curation and research process made it, as Galifianakis says, “a love letter between friends.”
In the weeks ahead, Comic Riffs will look at aspects of this book. (And full disclosure: In December and January, I will moderate panels in Arlington and at D.C.’s Politics & Prose bookstore with principals involved in this work.) But first, I was curious to know: Just how do five credited authors/editors, plus several other prominent contributors (including art director Bono Mitchell), collaborate on such a sizable undertaking?
Here, in the form of an illuminating verbal history, the book’s authors and editors peel back Vidalia-like layers on their process — to show just how this creative gumbo made it to the table:
NICK GALIFIANAKIS: The first person I recall saying, “Hey, there should be an ‘Art of Richard Thompson’ book, was Bono [Mitchell], an art director and friend that employed Richard so often that she swears he created “Cul De Sac” to get away from her. …
When Bill Watterson, already such a fan of “Cul De Sac” that it famously inspired him to publicly praise it, became exposed to Richard’s “other” work, that tipped [the book] into reality.
BILL WATTERSON: Obviously, it was just a blast to see so much surprising work, and I’m glad to get it in the historical record.
GALIFIANAKIS: A book proposal was sent to Andrews McMeel with the idea of a Richard Thompson overview, separating Richard’s art into genre chapters of Illustration, “Richard’s Poor Almanac,” caricature and “Cul de Sac.” There would also be a biography section, including a conversation about Parkinson’s. I then approached my pals Peter de Seve, Gene Weingarten and John Kascht, all [representing] peaks in their field, to interview Richard on illustration, “Richard’s Poor Almanac” — which Gene essentially created — and caricature, respectively, and they all enthusiastically agreed. …
Shortly thereafter, Richard and I were talking about David Apatoff’s excellent blog, illustrationart.blogspot.com/. We knew David and knew that he “gets it.” … There was a lot of work to consider, all conceptually strong and created with a freakish level of draftsmanship and skill, in pretty much every medium you can imagine, so we asked him to come aboard. He became a valuable and trusted voice graphically, and also authored the biography section.
DAVID APATOFF: We had a multi-disciplinary team, and each member brought their own particular talent to the process. My talent was to sit on the floor of Richard’s studio, laughing my a– off as I inspected one “Almanac” page after another.
GALIFIANAKIS: David and I spent a couple of days in Richard’s studio making a “blunt cut” of his work, separating it into piles (mountains, really) of “possibles.” Had we included all the pieces we selected that day, the book would be 10,000 pages thick. Actually, it should be. …
APATOFF: Most difficult of all, we had to exclude a lot of lovely work that deserved to be in the book, for lack of space. That part was brutal, as not all of my co-authors shared my taste and I think at least one of them was carrying a knife. If someone had warned us in advance about these hazardous working conditions, I’m sure my union would have had something to say about it. Nevertheless, we persevered and even managed to find a few rewarding moments in the process
GALIFIANAKIS: Later in the process, realizing ADHD was having too much of a say, we needed to hit some milestones in an organized fashion, so we asked Mike Rhode, [a former archivist] at the National Museum of Health and Medicine and ComicsDC.com blogger, to be our “timekeeper.” And off we went.
APATOFF: [Rhode] had the talent of “telling time,” and it was his role to get fed up and smack me across the back of the head whenever I had been performing my particular talent for more than six hours.
MIKE RHODE: Like any book of this type, especially with multiple authors, compromises were made over what art to include and how much text to have.
APATOFF: There were many terrible burdens associated with this book. Richard’s originals were stashed behind bookcases and buried under debris on the floor of his basement closet, which meant a lot of manual labor just to collect the stuff. Then Richard’s cat liked to sit on the art when it was out in the open– some kind of territorial thing, I guess– so you took your life in your hands trying to retrieve it.
RHODE: “Cul de Sac” is only a very small part of his output over the years. … Richard was so prolific, we could probably do a 10-volume set without straining and a 20-volume one with only a few dogs. The stack of original art that he hasn’t given away, and he’s been very generous over his career, is still over six feet tall.
GALIFIANAKIS: I moved into Richard’s studio and went deep-sea diving in this box or that, unearthing images, finding a great print, contacting the owner for the original because of course Richard had given it away — and shaking my head when I would hold up a just-found masterpiece to Richard and he would calmly say: “Oh yeah. That.” I don’t know what inspired more disbelief in me — that he didn’t think to mention a piece that was so wonderful it ended up opening the chapter on illustration, or that he couldn’t remember creating a work of art most artists spend a lifetime striving to create.
APATOFF: As the weeks went by, we repeatedly relied upon Richard’s encyclopedic memory of the carry-out menus of local restaurants.
RHODE: I would like to have had gotten better captioning for the work, listing when and where it was published, but we were working from the original art, and Richard’s not the greatest recordkeeper — unless you’re talking about his classical-music collection.
APATOFF: This was truly a labor of love for everyone involved — there wasn’t one member of our team who wouldn’t have walked on hot coals for Richard, and if the book took a few months longer than it should have, I suspect it was because we were enjoying talking about and fondling the art too much.
GALIFIANAKIS: The book was “finished” as of our final, final super-final, drop-dead final deadline and the book designer, the terrific Steve Conley, asked the publisher for their FTP address to upload these massive, hi-resolution files to them. Finally. Done. Over.
But for whatever reason, they delayed in getting the address to Steve for what turned out to be eight days! … In those eight days, knowing that the publisher would chime in at any moment, Steve and I rescanned, cropped, color-corrected, nudged, rearranged, tweaked and modified so many parts of that book.
CONLEY: I’m very pleased with the book’s production. I really wanted to make it feel like readers were looking at the originals whenever possible, and I think we managed to convey that.
APATOFF: Through this type of careful allocation of responsibilities, we pulled together what I think is a beautiful book.
… And I made some good friends on this project.
GALIFIANAKIS: On the most personally rewarding level, it’s a love letter between friends.
CHRIS SPARKS: Everyone involved in this book has the highest respect and love for Richard. What an honor for all of us.
RHODE: I am very, very happy to get this book out now, so Richard’s peculiar genius can be introduced to the larger world. … It feels good to get his illustration and “Richard’s Poor Almanac(k)” out beyond Washington. Before this book, Richard was either known for “Cul de Sac” or his U.S. News & World Report/New Yorker caricatures — which are great — but his wacky sense of humor comes out in pieces he did for local publications such as the Post.
SPARKS: As a fan of his art, [I can say]: We now have a beautiful historical record of his work.
WATTERSON: It’s a long-overdue tribute to Richard’s extraordinary talent.
GALIFIANAKIS: It’s a monument to excellence. … It stands up to anything good.
CONLEY: This book [is] one of those great combinations of tremendous planning, all-nighters and blind luck.
SPARKS: Just knowing how many future generations of other fine artists this book will influence and intimidate warms my heart.
WATTERSON: For me, some of this project’s reward is not in looking back, but in looking ahead. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and in making Richard’s work available and better known, I’d like to think we’re helping to boost some future talent up onto his shoulders, as well. I think Richard’s work is inspiring in all the possibilities he explored. My hope is that we’re paying the art forward somehow.
[‘THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON’: Filmmakers behind new documentary short deftly capture ‘the cartoonist’s cartoonist’ (Q&A)]