RICHARD THOMPSON, the “Cul de Sac” cartoonist who is widely considered one of the greatest comic-strip creators and illustrators of his generation, died Wednesday in Northern Virginia, family friends confirm. He was 58.
Thompson, who lived in Arlington, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease, the effects of which he had endured for eight years.
Thompson was perhaps best known for his Reuben Award-winning comic strip “Cul de Sac,” which was born in 2004 as a weekly feature in the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, before being syndicated several years later by Universal Press Syndicate/Universal Uclick, which distributed the feature to hundreds of newspapers at its peak.
“For many artists, the goal is to draw well,” Pete Docter, the Oscar-winning Pixar director, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Richard Thompson’s drawings are indeed drool-worthy, but what sticks with you is something deeper: his ideas. Richard somehow noticed things the rest of us missed, but that we recognize immediately as true. Richard’s work lovingly bites at the ankles of society. And it’s all delivered in a deliciously hearty meal of an amazing — and funny — drawing.”
Within “Cul de Sac,” Thompson created a wry and whimsical suburban world partly inspired by his own upbringing in Maryland’s Montgomery County, just outside Washington. His pen-and-ink neighborhood featured outgoing 4-year-old Alice Otterloop (her surname a bit of wordplay on the Beltway’s “Outer Loop”), introverted 8-year-old brother Petey, her friends Beni and Dill and classmates at Blisshaven Academy preschool, and the Otterloop parents, who always seemed one step behind their children’s wild imaginations and antics.
The creative spark for the strip was lit in 2003, when Thompson observed the goings-on at his younger daughter’s preschool. “I was struck by adults trying to deal with this childhood reality,” Thompson said in interview five years ago. “They were completely out of their depth, with these four-year-olds running around.”
“The strip depicts all sorts of moments that ring true,” Bill Watterson, creator of the legendary comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” told The Post in 2011.
“Cul de Sac” debuted in The Post on Feb. 12, 2004, as a valentine to the “other” Washington, where people live their unofficial lives. “I lived in the suburbs of Montgomery County for practically 20 years. I love the place,” Thompson told The Post, noting: “I enjoy satirizing things I love. You’ve got to have a love for something to see its flaws, too.”
Then-Post Magazine editor Tom Shroder had approached Thompson years earlier about creating a comic strip. “I just thought his talent for integrating a gag in a situation, and doing it with real nuance and voice, would be perfect for developing and sustaining characters,” Shroder told The Post in 2011. “He said he’d be willing to talk about it, and we scheduled a lunch. It took two years to get that lunch to happen. Then it took another two years before he handed me the first dozen strips.”
“I was kind of chicken[expletive] about it … ,” Thompson recalled to The Post. “I have a habit of putting stuff off. Till next year.”
“The thing is,” Shroder said of Thompson’s first samples, “they were fully formed — exactly the ‘Cul de Sac’ you see now.”
“Richard looked meek. He talked meek,” said Gene Weingarten, whose Post column Thompson illustrated for several years. “He presented himself almost with an air of apology. But inside was this bold, fearless, creative outlaw whose mind went places you and I could never get to on our own. I admired, and shamefully envied, everything he did.”
Thompson also drew the weekly feature “Richard’s Poor Almanac” for The Post’s Style section. In 2006, then-Universal Uclick executive and famed talent-spotter Lee Salem saw “Make the Pie Higher,” a “Poor Almanac” comic that spoofed George W. Bush’s first presidential inauguration, and approached Thompson about syndicating “Cul de Sac.”
Upon launching wide, the strip won many fans, including some of the top talent in the industry.
“Of all the new comics I’ve read, only two registered as winners immediately — literally within a strip or two,” Garry Trudeau, creator of the Pulitzer-winning comic strip “Doonesbury,” told The Post. “The first was ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’ Nineteen years later, it was ‘Cul de Sac.’ A distinctive, fully evolved style married to consistently funny, character-driven wit — we don’t see this often.”
“He actually sounds like the kids he draws in that amazing strip,” Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Patrick Oliphant told The Post that same year. “What a gift that 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.”
Thompson won the National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award, one of the top honors in comics, in 2011. The following year, a charity named for his comic published the art book “Team Cul de Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson’s,” which, working in tandem with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, has helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for its cause.
Also in 2012, however, Thompson chose to retire “Cul de Sac,” citing the effects of the disease he had been diagnosed with several years earlier.
“I’ve known for a year or more that I was working on borrowed time,” Thompson told The Post in 2012. “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, I figured I was losing control of the drawing, too. When I needed help with the inking — the hardest but most satisfying part of drawing the strip — well, that was probably a tipping point.
“Parkinson’s disease is horribly selfish and demanding,” Thompson continued. “A daily comic strip is, too, and I can only deal with one at a time. So it was a long, gradual, sudden decision.”
In 2014, Thompson’s accomplishments were appreciated on numerous fronts. That year, he shared a dual career exhibition with Watterson at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum; the career retrospective book “The Art of Richard Thompson” was published; and a documentary short by the same title began screening.
Last month, “Cul de Sac,” the kids’ musical, debuted in Arlington in an Encore Stage & Studio community-theater production, as adapted by Thompson’s wife.
“As a person, Richard was a reclusive, angular chap, folded up in the corner,” Docter, who sought Thompson’s creative contributions for his 2015 film “Inside Out,” tells The Post. “He was never one for promotion or self-aggrandizement, which may be why he’s not as well-known as he should be. His strip was one of the brightest lights in the funny pages. The world is a little less funny — and less well-drawn — without Richard Thompson.”
Richard Church Thompson was born Oct. 8, 1957, in Baltimore, spent much of his childhood in Gaithersburg, Md., and studied art at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md.
He is survived by his wife, Amy Thompson of Arlington, Va.; his daughters Emma and Charlotte, who both attend Virginia Commonwealth University; his father, Richard Thompson of Rockville; and brother Tim Thompson of Rockville. His mother, Anne Whitt Thompson, died in 1996.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, a donation be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, either directly or through Team Cul de Sac.
Read more about Richard Thompson’s life and artistic achievements: