July 03, 2014

(++++) HAUT DU SAC

The Complete Cul de Sac. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $75.

     Just when you think everything that can be said and done in a suburban-family comic strip has already been said and done, just when you think any form of comic-strip art that can be created has already been produced, along comes a strip like Cul de Sac to show that you have no idea what you are thinking. Although saying “a strip like Cul de Sac” is misleading, since there really is no other strip like Richard Thompson’s. Or rather was no strip like his – Cul de Sac ended its far, far too short run in September 2012, having debuted in syndicated form a mere five years earlier, in September 2007 (although Thompson produced individual sequences for The Washington Post as far back as 2004).

     Cul de Sac literally means “bottom of the bag,” although in French it should really be cul du sac, which in either case is a synonym in English (and, hey, maybe in French, too) for “faceless suburban dead-end street.” So haut du sac would place something in the opposite position in the bag, on top, which is emphatically where Thompson’s strip belongs. There is nothing even close to faceless about these cartoons; in fact, the characters’ faces are among the strip’s many remarkable qualities, being so brilliantly individualized as to be instantly recognizable even for readers who see them without the attached bodies. And with the bodies, the characters are even more distinguished, not only precocious four-year-old Alice Otterloop (a longstanding comic-strip type given multiple new twists here) and her eight-year-old brother, Petey (with his lightbulb-shaped head and cynical/pessimistic worldview), but also the Otterloop parents and grandmother, the highly individualized kids at Blisshaven Preschool (and Miss Bliss herself), and such subsidiary but endlessly fascinating characters as Mr. Danders, the erudite guinea pig; possibly imaginary proto-adult Ernesto Lacuna; oversize marimba player Viola d’Amore; and even more oversize (as in gigantic but correctly proportioned) explosions-oriented budding cartoonist Andre Chang.

     One of the many remarkable things about Cul de Sac is how quickly it transcended its origins as a local feature for the Washington, D.C., area: the name Otterloop, for example, is from “Outer Loop,” the term used for the counterclockwise portion of the Beltway that rings Washington, and the very earliest strips even showed some D.C. features. It is obvious in retrospect that Thompson’s wonderful writing and drawing deserved national (and maybe even interplanetary) distribution, but this was by no means clear at the start, when his strips ran on Sundays and were done as watercolors. The entire history of Cul de Sac is spread out for everyone to see in Andrews McMeel’s marvelous two-volume set of oversize paperbacks, slipcased to provide all the gravitas that a reader could possibly desire.

     It would have been better, though, if Andrews McMeel had been unable to produce this set – at least for many years. For the unfortunate reality is that Thompson, who was diagnosed in 2009 with Parkinson’s disease, had to stop doing the strip in 2012 to focus on his medical treatment, and it is only because Cul de Sac no longer exists that this full retrospective is possible. The valiant late attempts to keep the strip going, with guest cartoonists drawing certain weeks and Thompson collaborating to produce others, are all here, providing a sad conclusion to the books even though some of the fill-in artists’ work happens to be quite marvelous (and sometimes shows Thompson’s characters in a new and fascinating light). Thompson is only 57, far too young to be memorialized through a release like this one – but for all the bittersweet elements of The Complete Cul de Sac, it has to be said that few cartoonists of this or any time have created a body of work so sensitive and special as Thompson’s. The multitudinous concepts, from Petey’s dioramas and out-of-body experiences, to Alice’s manhole-cover dances, to the trebuchets built by the never-seen brothers of Alice’s friend Dill, to Alice’s grandmother’s habit of throwing deviled eggs at passing cars, to the ever-growing and possibly multidimensional tube slide, show a mind as fertile and inventive as any that cartooning has been fortunate enough to possess. And the pithy and frequently pointed comments that Thompson offers beneath many of his collected strips only deepen their impact, whether he is talking about a particular skateboard ramp being “a joy to draw” or explaining how one Sunday sequence “started out as a parody of shampooese: the weird hybrid language used on hair-care products.”  It is a tremendous shame that readers did not have a chance to enjoy 20 years or more of Thompson’s brilliant blend of amusement and outstanding comic-strip art. It is a tremendous joy to have The Complete Cul de Sac as a celebration of the years of wonder and wonderfulness that he did provide.

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