June 28, 2012
(++++) PEN AND BRUSH: MIGHTIER THAN ILLNESS?
Team Cul de Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson’s. Edited by Chris Sparks. Andrews McMeel. $29.99.
There is nothing new about cartoonists ardently espousing causes. Thomas Nast brought down the notorious Boss Tweed and his corrupt Tweed Ring with his single-panel cartoons in the 19th century; Walt Kelly took on McCarthyism in the 1950s, when so many in the creative community cowered before Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s assaults; Patrick McDonnell uses Mutts today to explore the plight of endangered animals and to argue, through “Shelter Stories” strips, for the importance of adoption. But cartoon explorations of diseases, and the use of cartoon art to raise awareness of those illnesses and money to fight them, are relatively new. Tom Batiuk of Funky Winkerbean has been a trailblazer in the field, with Lisa’s Story (2000) and Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe (2007) about breast cancer, and the bold step of having his strip’s title character featured in My Name Is Funky…and I’m an Alcoholic (2007). Even before these books, Batiuk and Chuck Ayers had created Safe Return Home (1998), using characters from the Crankshaft strip in a sensitive and moving exploration of Alzheimer’s disease.
It is in this honorable line that Team Cul de Sac, a creation of Web designer and comic aficionado Chris Sparks, belongs. Richard Thompson, creator of one of the best and most highly regarded comic strips of recent years, Cul de Sac, has Parkinson’s disease, although so far there is no evidence that the incurable neurodegenerative condition has affected his writing or drawing. Sparks’ idea was to enlist dozens of cartoonists to create art based on Thompson’s characters, assemble all the work into this book, and auction the original drawings and paintings online, with proceeds of the auction (plus some of the proceeds from sale of the book) to go to Parkinson’s research by being donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
The idea was not only a thoughtful one but also, as it turns out, an artistically fruitful one. The contributions range from the merely wonderful to the truly outstanding. Bill Amend (FoxTrot) shows four-year-old Alice and her eight-year-old brother, Petey, as FoxTrot characters. Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott (Zits) show Alice’s father’s tiny car, a recurring element of Cul de Sac, trying vainly to get past Jeremy Duncan’s gigantic sneakers, a recurring element of Zits. Children’s-book illustrator Stacy Curtis offers a portrait of Miss Bliss, who teaches Alice and her preschool friends at Blisshaven Academy. Greg Evans has the title character of Luann and Alice making catty comments to each other. Paul Gilligan has Poncho of Pooch Café trapped in the cage that usually houses Mr. Danders, the Cul de Sac guinea pig. Cathy Guisewite has her now-retired Cathy title character show up with chocolate at Alice’s family’s house. Rick Kirkman of Baby Blues shows how to create a comic-book character, using his character Wanda MacPherson and Thompson’s Petey as parallel examples. There are also contributions by fan Sandy Jarrell and eight-year-old Raymond Jarrell, by Lynn Johnston of For Better or For Worse, by Ron Ferdinand of Dennis the Menace, by Patrick McDonnell of Mutts, by Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine, by Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury, by Lincoln Peirce of Big Nate, by Mark Tatulli of Liō, by Mort Walker of Beetle Bailey, by Jim Davis of Garfield, and even by the notoriously reclusive Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes – in all, works by illustrators and animators and editorial cartoonists and graphic-novel creators and comic-book artists and caricaturists. Single-panel works, drawings, paintings, multi-panel strips, works that pull Thompson’s characters into other worlds or introduce other worlds’ characters into his – everything is here, and just about all of it is marvelous. In fact, all of it is marvelous in terms of the spirit of pulling together, of helping Thompson and, through him, all those afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. And every purchaser of this book – may there be many! – is also contributing in his or her own way.
“Cause” cartooning always risks becoming heavy-handed, but the great cartoonists who do it manage to avoid coming on so strongly that they turn people off instead of on to the seriousness of their concerns. Thompson himself is never heavy-handed, and is in fact not a contributor to Team Cul de Sac except in his brief introduction and through the reprint in the book of a Washington Post profile about him that was published last year. But Thompson’s spirit is as much a part of this book as are his characters. It would be naïve to think that any collection of art, even one as well-intentioned and well-executed as this, will be enough to find a cure for a disease as serious as Parkinson’s. But it would be a mistake not to find this attempt absolutely wonderful, not only for its intentions but also for the truly wonderful riffs on Thompson’s unique comic contributions that Sparks and the many marvelous artists here have made possible, working as a team.