EVERY FAN seems to have a separate entry point into the varied, decades-long career of Richard Thompson, the cartoon genius who died Wednesday at age 58.
Some readers cite their favorite Alice Otterloop observation or Petey Otterloop flight of imagination from his syndicated strip, “Cul de Sac.” Others describe a highly specific moment of Washington life satirized in his weekly Post feature, “Richard’s Poor Almanac.” Some loved his textured caricatures of composers or politicians; others adored his spot illustrations for Post columns by Joel Achenbach and Gene Weingarten.
In so many ways, Thompson’s visual art — graceful, playful and so deeply observed and personally expressed — was akin to music. And his virtuosic range reflected the depth of his back catalog.
To reflect that range, The Post’s Comic Riffs asked some of Thompson’s biggest fans — many creative professionals themselves — to pick their favorite Thompson works and explain their greatness:
PETE DOCTER (Pixar filmmaker, “Inside Out,” “Monsters Inc.” and “Up”):
This is such a great character piece. I like how worked up they get about a strip they haven’t read yet. Everything — the language used, the poses, the unique and specific expressions — gives you a sense of who these kids are in contrast to each other.
Ernesto and Petey are two of the strangest characters who ever graced the newspaper comics. Luckily, no one asked my opinion at the beginning, because I’d have guessed that neither character would work very long and [that] together they would be a bad combination. Petey lives to avoid life: How do you build a strip around a kid who doesn’t do anything?? And Ernesto is so bizarre — Richard described him as a proto-Bond villain — that the arm-chewing Petey looks normal in comparison. Why undercut a weird central character with an even weirder one?? But somehow, this all fit naturally into Richard’s world, and the characters not only work — they are my absolute favorites in the strip. Neither of their personalities can be neatly summed up, and they don’t need stories because their personalities are the story. Like so much else in the strip, it’s odd, completely unexpected and wonderfully funny.
The quality that I most admired in Richard is exactly this ability to turn my cartooning assumptions upside down, and surprise me in all sorts of ways. Richard really was a cartoonist’s cartoonist: He’s one of the very, very few who came to the drawing board with the full package, extra-deluxe skill set. He could write as well as he could draw, and boy, could he ever draw. In his short life, he seemed to have produced the work of 10 cartoonists, but I would have taken decades more, as his capacity to surprise seemed endless. He still makes me laugh like no one else does, and I surely miss him.
CAITLIN McGURK (curator, Richard Thompson retrospective, the OSU Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum):
Richard had a way of calling attention to the humor and beauty of things hidden in plain-sight. Everyday doings, mundane routines, inanimate objects, turns of phrase – things “normal” people experience, but don’t feel. Richard felt, saw and illustrated. The empty shopping carts strewn in a grocery-store parking lot with scuffed-up, unused coupons in it. Is there magic in there? Yes. The last-standing dirty pile of snow. The manhole cover. The world underneath the restaurant table, where everything is sticky. The tacky Christmas sweater. The furniture-store jungle. A child’s party dress.
It’s not that Richard waxed philosophical – his art was a philosophy of its own. Richard breathed life and energy into everything, even as his own slipped away. Richard lent more life to life than life itself. He revealed things, he made us remember things. He was my Watterson. And he was funny as all hell.
TOM SHRODER (former Post Magazine editor who spurred Thompson to create “Cul de Sac”):
I loved all his characters, but my personal favorite had always been Danders, the pretentious poseur of a guinea pig living large at Blisshaven preschool. Despite the fact that Danders possessed three-fourths of the world supply of pomposity, there was something endearing about the little rat. His preposterously elevated view of himself was oddly uplifting, Richard’s devious valentine to all of us who aren’t a fraction as smart, sophisticated, accomplished as we think we are, and yet take great joy in our ability to dream ourselves better.
When I left the Post Magazine in 2009, with “Cul de Sac” now an international success, Richard presented me with the single greatest gift possible — because of course he would. The original of the very first strip in which Danders appeared:
This evening, when I went to take this artwork off the wall to photograph it for this tribute, I froze, just staring at it — as it hit me that the man who created these wonderful characters and amazing drawings was no longer living. It took me a few minutes to collect myself enough to do what I had come to do. And now looking at the artwork here, I am struck by how alive it is, how Richard it is. It is an immensely consoling thought.
Sadly, it will have to be enough.
LEE SALEM (executive emeritus, Universal Press Syndicate):
This “Richard’s Poor Almanac” set me on the path to find Richard. The text, funny in its own right, was floating around the Web. After a long, circuitous route, I finally connected with him with the help of Tom Toles. Richard then introduced me to the amazing body of his artwork. The result was Universal’s syndication of “Cul de Sac.”
JOHN GLYNN (President and publisher, Andrews McMeel Universal, which publishes Thompson):
I loved Richard’s watercolored “Poor Almanacs.” Then you throw in a funny poem like, “And Now, March.” What the heck? Who else could do this? Who else could make us feel bad for March?
On this one (“Winter Haikus”), we see some familiar Richard sites: the grocery store parking lot, the kid in the funny winter hat. I love the color and the scarf on the dialogue balloon.
I always liked the comics-industry related ones. I love how he moves in and out of style, the characters recognizable but also clearly in Richard’s style … and then he comments gently but sharply across the board. Interesting to note that there was a widely circulated rumor that [“For Better or for Worse" cartoonist] Lynn Johnston would no longer eat calamari after she read this one.
Love the silent interaction between Miss Bliss and Timmy Fretwork in the last panel. “You can’t tie down a banjo man,” is a familiar catchphrase around the office in Kansas City.
MARTHA KENNEDY (Library of Congress curator, Prints and Photographs Division):
Through exaggerated mannerisms, this ingenious caricature graphically captures the hyperactive personality of then-Vice President Bush.
I find this deceptively simple, straightforward self portrayal very poignant.
GENE WEINGARTEN (The Washington Post Magazine humor columnist):
For several years, Richard illustrated my column. One week, as a sort of a stunt, I asked him to write the column, and I would illustrate it. My illustration was godawful, of course. Richard’s column was better than any of mine. I did not propose this stunt again.
This (“Drawing a Funny Cartoon in 20 Easy Steps”) comes closer to the truth about the nature of creativity in humor than anything I have ever read, including 5,000-word scholarly theses.
JOEL ACHENBACH (whose “Why Things Are” Post column was illustrated by Thompson):
Quoting from his own “Why Things Are” book intro: The cartoons sang – and sing to this day — with the perfect pitch of the slightly demented intellectual. There was a nerd brilliance to Richard’s work. I would pose the question, for example, “Why do leftovers always taste so good?” and Richard would come up with a 17th-century image: “Johannes Vermeer. ‘Woman smelling leftovers.’ c. 1659. Oil on canvas. Martha Stewart Museum of Fine Art.” …
When we decided to kill the column, Richard had a series of cartoons counting down the weeks to the end. And then for the final column, Feb. 4, 1996, one of his favorite characters, a banjo-playing minstrel, offered a classic valediction:
Like wine into water,
Like gold into lead,
Where once ‘Why Things Are’ was,
Alas, ‘Why Things Were’ is, instead
[Note: A bound collection of Thompson’s “Why Things Are" illustrations is said to be in the works.]
JOHN CUNEO (Editorial illustrator):
This Richard Thompson drawing continues to confound me. The original hangs on my wall, but no matter how hard or close I stare I cannot figure out how every panel, no matter how twisted and contorted, somehow ineffably resembles Bob Dole. Such brilliance from one of the greatest comic artists of our time. On my last visit , Richard presented me with one of his favorite pen nibs (D. Leonardt & Co., Principal, extra fine), which is like Aretha Franklin giving you a microphone. The drawing here is reproduced as a full page in “The Art of Richard Thompson,” an amazing book and an indispensable antidote for a swelled head.
JOHN KASCHT (Caricaturist):
I’m in awe of Richard’s line and watercolor caricatures — specifically: how he captures a dead-on likeness in a way that appears utterly spontaneous. It wasn’t unusual for Richard to make a dozen preliminary sketches on the way to understanding his subject, but there is no hint of homework in his final works. They are live performances, unique in the moment.
DAVID APATOFF (co-author, “The Art of Richard Thompson”):
“Beware of Pig” will always epitomize the essence of Richard for me. No fancy techniques, clever acrobatics or dazzling skill– just a blissful pure sweetness, stripped down to its core. A line and an idea, dancing together on the page.
“Candide” reminds me to keep an open mind. Over the years, I’d formed a hard prejudice that crosshatching was a tool for cowards — a manual version of Zipatone, devoid of character or charm. But here Richard wields his pen nib like Zorro wields his rapier; his bold crosshatching reminds me that in the right hands, even the most dull and boring technique can become new and brilliant.
When I first saw “Squinto,” one of Richard’s imaginary county-fair events, its conceptual brilliance just bowled me over. The name alone deserves a Reuben Award.
CHRIS SPARKS (Editor, Team Cul de Sac; co-editor, “The Art of Richard Thompson”):
This Sunday is as perfect as any strip ever. It is very possible that Richard lived in this preschool as a stalker. Perfection.
This “Richard’s Poor Almanac” was a tryout for The Post. Richard told me they said it was still too soon. We were laughing so hard about this. Years later, he gave it to me.
This was a Washington Post Magazine cover. I don’t remember what the interior story is anymore, but I loved the expression on both Lincoln and the Park Ranger’s faces, and the Lady Liberty seems so cuddly and modern. Richard, being a very generous man, gave me the original art.
Richard didn’t talk down to his readers in his cartoons. Even before Google.
I always loved Richard’s exercising Valkyries. I think this was done for the Post’s Health section.
NICK GALIFIANAKIS (“Carolyn Hax” column artist; co-author, “The Art of Richard Thompson”):
A perfect example of the difficult balance between gravitas and humor. So few can achieve this, yet Richard did so over and over again.
Unpublished (and a favorite piece of [wife] Amy Thompson’s), it hung in their living room for years. Richard wanted to make an ugly painting, something you might find in your aunt’s basement. It’s beautiful in its darkness.
Although it was Richard’s favorite portrait, he disliked it so much that he buried it in a drawer for years. He happened across it one day and, after accepting its brilliance, hung it on his wall.
There are two portraits of Beethoven: This one, and all the others. (This piece was actually stolen while on exhibit, and a distraught Richard tried to re-create it. Of course, the second version wasn’t exactly the same. Richard was delighted when the original was anonymously returned almost two years later.)
This is the “A-HA” piece of Richard’s career. He had finally arrived at an approach that had the forethought of structure but also the energy and immediacy of something made in the moment — the Holy Grail of making art.
BOB BURNETT (filmmaker, “The Art of Richard Thompson”):
This original Richard Thompson watercolor is in my office. The look on Poe’s face reflects inspiration and exasperation as he ponders the not quite all there Donald Duck knock off. Plus–“nevermore”……. how about that for bittersweet.
One favorite Richard Thompson creation is this outtake from shooting “The Art of Richard Thompson.” This is his drawing desk. It makes me think of all his moments of solitary ink splattering that would go into what in the end would be an incredible final creation.
Author’s note: Some images secured with the aid of archivist Mike Rhode and curator Caitlin McGurk.