A Keepsake Garland of Classics
Andrews McMeel: 200 pp., $16.99 paper
Pundits have long predicted the imminent death of the comic strip, even before the Internet threatened to put the daily newspaper on the endangered species list. But Richard Thompson's delightfully quirky "Cul de Sac" proves the comic strip remains a viable art form while bucking current trends. It's not an exercise in merchandising, niche marketing or political ax-grinding. It features no boob fathers or saccharine life lessons. In an era of threadbare strips cranked out by second- and third-generation artists, its characters are as original as its artwork.
"Cul de Sac" may well be the most interesting character strip to come along since " Zits" debuted in 1997. Thompson is not a 22-year-old wunderkind but an established cartoonists-illustrator in his mid-50s who's managed to preserve a little kid's sense of wonder and fear and mischief.
"Cul de Sac Golden Treasury" presents the misadventures of the Otterloop family, a name Thompson chose "because it sounds comical, it's a word that didn't previously exist, and it's a play on 'Outer Loop,' the outer ring of D.C.'s infamous, ever-snarled Beltway." The family dwells in an uninspired development of identical houses and yards. Mr. and Mrs. Otterloop are busy, well-intentioned and largely ineffectual. Eight-year-old Petey sulks in his room, reads comics and checks his ranking among the world's pickiest eaters. When he gets upset, he tries to chew his arm off. Grandma lobs deviled eggs at passing cars.
The star of the strip is Petey's sister, 4-year-old Alice, a girl of many moods and many tantrums. For Halloween, she wants her mother to make her a costume that's "a hideous, revolting scary bat…who's also cute and fuzzy and, ideally, pink." As Petey ponders why Santa would bring him a soccer ball he doesn't want, Alice declares, "The way he makes toys that're impossible to open, you know Santa has a dark side." Most of Alice's time is spent at Blisshaven Academy Preschool, where she and her friends greet Miss Bliss' relentlessly upbeat lessons with a mixture of skepticism and impatience. They'd rather focus on a drinking fountain choked with sand and chewing gum, weird children's books about "Fontanelle the Imperiled Infant" (Thompson's send-up of Lemony Snicket) and other curiosities.
Beni, a wide-eyed Latino boy with a long crew cut, likes to use tools and is the brightest of Alice's friends. If Dill, another friend, seems perpetually frightened and befuddled, it's because he has older brothers who build trebuchets, siege towers and other arcane war devices. When Dill infuriates Alice by mistaking her Halloween costume's bat ears for bedroom slippers, he muses, "People would feel so awkward about a child with bedroom slippers on her head, they'd throw candy at her just so she'd leave." Beni answers scornfully, "That would be pity candy. Nobody wants pity candy."
After Alice declares that one of the cubbies at Blisshaven is haunted, Beni replies, "Really? The school brochure doesn't mention a haunted cubby. You'd think they'd play up an interesting feature like that."
In contrast to the calligraphic brush strokes in "Frazz" or Jim Borgman's wonderfully expressive lines in "Zits," Thompson's drawings have an intriguing, scratchy quality: The reader can feel his pen nib catching on the surface of the paper. But the simplicity of his style shouldn't be confused with the graphic ineptitude of "Drabble" or "Prickly City." The drawings of Alice dancing on her special manhole cover reveal her delight in a favorite game. Conversely, the reader recognizes the self-created terror Alice and Beni experience at the appearance of the infant they call "The Uh-Oh Baby." When Thompson draws Alice and her friends playing on a hot day, they look as sticky as real 4-year-olds.
"Cul de Sac" is widely admired by other cartoonists. In his introduction to the first collection of the strip, Bill Watterson, the notoriously reclusive and critical creator of "Calvin and Hobbes," lavished praise on Thompson's work: "He reminds us that comics can be more than illustrated gag writing, and that good drawings can bring a comic strip's world to life in countless ways that words cannot."
For an example of a supposedly dying art form, "Cul de Sac" feels very alive.
Solomon is the author, most recently, of "The Art of 'Toy Story 3'" and "Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of 'Beauty & the Beast.'"