The Strip Thing: Richard Thompson on Cul de Sac

Cul de Sac

Cartoonist Richard Thompson’s newspaper comic Cul de Sac is one of the most acclaimed strips in recent years. Chronicling the world through the eyes of four-year-old Alice Otterloop, her neurotic brother Petey and the rest of her family, CdS combines witty dialogue, lush visuals, and a dead-on depiction of suburban family life (that, and conversations with a classroom guinea pig). If your paper doesn’t carry it, you can read the last 30 days worth of strips here.

Cul de Sac’s first collection, This Exit, was recently published by Andrews & McMeel with an introduction from Calvin & Hobbes’ Bill Watterson. Thompson, who’s also well-known for his Washington Post series Richard’s Poor Almanac and the much-circulated George W. Bush poem “Raise the Pie Higher,” stopped by to chat with us about his strip.

Newsarama: Richard, did you create the Otterloop family, and what made you want to do a daily strip?

Richard Thompson: I created the Otterloops when Tom Shroder, the editor of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, asked me if I'd be interested in doing a weekly strip for the Post Mag. Tom had been one of my editors for Richard's Poor Almanac, a weekly cartoon I do for the Post's Style section. The Almanac is pretty free form, it deals with politics (sometimes), weather, traffic, culture, literature, astrology, bad restaurants, whatever tickles my fancy and I can squeeze some laughs out of.

But Tom wanted a strip with continuing characters that was set in DC, and wasn't about Washington DC, Capitol of the Free World. We had lunch and talked it over, and then I went home and fooled around with it for about a year (Tom will tell you it took me a year just to get around to having lunch with him).

I fooled around with various characters and approaches and styles: Should it be about wacky low-level government workers? Should it be a satire? Should it be surreally slapstick? I can fret over things forever without coming up with a solution.

For a while it featured a talking lawn gnome and plastic flamingo who were trying to start up a lawn service but kept getting thrown off people's property because they were tacky. That went nowhere fast, though it'd make a dandy Pixar short or even feature film, if anyone from Pixar happens to read this.

In the Almanac I'd done a string of “Baby's Roundtables” featuring little tiny kids discussing issues of the day; medication for ADD, the efficacy of the Mozart Effect, celebrities who write crummy children's books, nothing earthshaking, but interesting nonetheless. And I really enjoyed them, having these kids fly off on tangents, it was fun to write, and I got nice responses from readers.

So I figured, let's have some little kids, let's make it about a kid-dominated family. And let's call them the Otterloops, 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 DC's infamous, ever-snarled Beltway. And the name somehow placed them in the far fringes of the suburbs, which is largely where I'd grown up.

The rest was just casting; Alice, the irresistible force and Petey, the immovable object. And I'd avoided doing anything like a daily strip for so long that when the opportunity presented itself all I could think was, well what do the Otterloops do on weekdays anyway?

NRAMA: What materials do you use to produce the strip, particularly the color Sundays? Also, what are some of the challenges of doing a strip within the confines of a newspaper format?

RT: It's pen and ink on Canson Bristol board, and the color is color-by-number because I've yet to learn color-by-Photoshop. That's for the syndicated work I do now. Originally, for the Post, it was watercolor then shot as an illustration. Scanned, I mean. The challenges are that it's so tiny, and so brief, that you have to hold the reader's attention for just long enough for your point, or gag, to register, and maybe just a flicker of a glance at the art so they can tell who's saying what. Then you have to do it every day, until it sticks in the reader's mind who these people are in this comic strip (that Alice sure is an irresistible force!), and the strip accumulates enough good will with the readers that they become happily addicted. And they complain if their newspaper cancels it.

NRAMA: What were some of the influences on the series? I get bits of things like Feiffer with the characters' conversations and Fox Trot with the Otterloop family's individual voices...

RT: Feiffer and Fox Trot I'd never thought of as influences, directly, at least, but I can see your point. They're both very conversational, in Feiffer's case monologuial, if that's a word. When I have to tell somebody what I do I say I draw a comic strip that's about these little kids who never shut up, so I do like the chatty strips. And Fox Trot has a very clearly defined set of characters who bounce off each other to such great comic effect. That's the kind of friction I'd like to create with the characters in CdS.

But my list of influences is some pretty standard Great Ones. Pogo is my favorite, for the vivid characters and that language and slapstick; Calvin because it's so wonderful, so neatly organized yet infinitely expandable, and so funny; Peanuts because, I don't know it's elemental- if they ever isolate the comicstripium atom they'll find it looks like Charlie Brown's head.

But there are lots and lots of strips I like a lot but don't know as well as I should. Like Barnaby, or the Bungle Family, or Skippy or even Popeye, which I know only half as well as I should. And now I want to go buy that monster Feiffer collection, The Explainers .

Since I worked in illustration for years I can blame a lot of illustrator-cartoonists for the way my work looks now, like Quentin Blake and Ronald Searle, and on an on. And some movies, like Local Hero or Gregory's Girl, and a lot of writers, like Twain and Thurber and Perelman and Milhauser.

I've never read much Dickens and I remember a quote from Maurice Sendak to the effect that in Dickens everything is alive; the chair and the table are alive and so is the fire in the grate, and they all have character. So I'm starting with Great Expectations, and I'll work my way through some, likely not all, Dickens. Watch for the Otterloops to be sent to the poorhouse.

And children's authors! Don't get me started. I've used a children's author in the strip named Oswaldo Twee, who's kind of a parody of Lemony Snicket, whose work I kinda enjoyed in a teeth-grinding way. Twee writes a series of books about Fontanelle the Imperiled Infant who's always on the verge of being crushed by gorillas or dropped off a cliff or into a threshing machine. Who would make a very marketable children's book property, if anyone from Random House happens to read this.

NRAMA: What's your reaction to how the strip has caught on, and what was it like getting the endorsement from Bill Watterson? I imagine that has to be like getting a fan letter from J.D. Salinger...

RT: Well, so far so good. It's in a decent number of papers, but a very good number considering it's only a year old. I'm especially tickled that's it's pretty popular with indie cartoonists and those who pay fairly serious attention to comics, partly because I admire a lot of indie, alternative, other, whatever you call them cartoonists, and I figure the best of them are doing the most interesting work around in comics now. I offer that as the opinion of an ignorant amateur who's only got a loose grip on that end of the field.

But the Watterson endorsement was dang nice, and unexpected though we've had a friend in common for years. As usual with stay-at-homer cartoonists whose work goes out into the cultural ether and kinda evaporates, any feedback is a little shocking, and to have it come from such an esteemed source was doubly though pleasantly so. Such things can really pick you up on a bad day, like when you've forgotten how to draw. On a really bad day all you can think is, boy is he wrong.

NRAMA: How much of Alice and Petey's misadventures come from observing your own kids?

RT: A lot, but not much that direct or specific. I can think of a few things; Alice flossing her teeth with her hair or drawing happy faces on pebbles that she strews around the neighborhood. But most of it is trying to divine the mind of a kid, and apply that, and a lot of that comes from watching and listening and not just to my two girls.

Like I was in a movie theater watching some movie I don't remember some years ago and right at some dramatic moment a little girl blurted out "is he happy or sad?" in an inappropriately loud voice, and it cracked me up. I've used that line with Alice at least once and I'm sure I will again.

NRAMA: One of the fun things about the strip is that DC itself is a character. What do you feel is unique about living in DC, and have you had to cut back on location-specific references as the strip has become more widely distributed?

RT: DC was more a character in the strip's Post Magazine incarnation, and it was a lot of fun because I could send the Otterloops to places around Washington that I've known since I was a kid.

One place was the National Gallery, I had the preschool do a field trip there, and the kids were mesmerized by one of the old heating grates they have in there. The grates are big floral painted ironwork monstrosities that an adult wouldn't notice so much but a kid would, because they're at kid eye-level. I remember getting a note from a former docent at the Gallery after that strip ran in the Magazine saying how little kids always had to touch those grates, and I thought, well yeah, I did too at their age.

But since syndication I haven't been quite so specific as to mention the Smithsonian, or the Metro, or the Beltway, but I could have all those things in slightly more generic form, because I think they're recognizable anywhere.

NRAMA: Would you want to do more long-form stories with the Otterloops and friends, such as a graphic novel or picture book?

RT: Maybe, though right now I'm up to my eyeballs in getting the strip drawn. I did a few extended, 5, 6 and 7-week continuities for the Post Mag, several of which had the adventures of the classroom guinea pig, Mr. Danders. Two of the Danders stories are in the Cul de Sac book that's just about to hit shelves and I'm really happy with them and they were a joy to do.

Talking animals are dangerous things to put in a comic strip as they can unbalance them. My syndicate editor, Greg Melvin, is a very wise man and he's wary of putting a talking animal into a human milieu strip, so I don't put Danders in often. But I could see doing something with him away from the strip. Someday, maybe.

NRAMA: What are some of the challenges in doing Cul de Sac vs. the Almanac?

RT: In Cul de Sac I'm usually hearing the voices, and it comes down to transcribing it and editing it into some sensible form. With the Almanac it's more external; what's making me mad or cracking me up in the world that I can turn into a cartoon. So the Almanac's harder, probably because I'm phlegmatic.

NRAMA: What other projects are you currently working on?

RT: I still do a lot of illustration work, mostly magazines, like The New Yorker and the Atlantic. That's my day job, which I've been wisely advised to keep, as accruing a living from a syndicated strip is a gradual process. These days my favorite project is to accrue enough sleep on a daily basis that I don't doze off on top of a drawing, which happens, and not only to me.

NRAMA: What are some comics and comic strips you currently enjoy?

RT: Pearls Before Swine, Lio, Get Fuzzy, We the Robots, Retail, Brewster Rocket, Barkeater Lake, Diesel Sweeties, Arctic Circle, Big Nate, Speed Bump, Tom the Dancing Bug, Pooch Cafe, Pros and Cons, Zits, Ollie & Quentin, Dog Eat Dog, Frazz… I'm leaving out at least 12, I'm sure. I read a few every day in the Post and I go back and read the rest in batches on the web. I didn't even barely mention webcomics; I'm too far behind in Achewood...

NRAMA: Finally, anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

RT: I mentioned sleeping, right? Then probably not.

Cul de Sac: This Exit is in stores now.

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