Monday, 3 November 2014

Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac in 5 favourite things

I finished reading the complete, collected edition of Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac recently, and it's immensely satisfying to ingest a work that fulfills its reputation of greatness. Cul de Sac centers around the Otterloop family- namely 4 year old Alice, and, of course, the Cul de Sac itself, and began running in The Washington Post in 2007, ending in 2012, due to the increased effects of Parkinson's disease, which Thompson was diagnosed with in 2008. It is such a satisfying, rich comic- more so, no doubt, when reading it whole in this manner- even dipping in and out: reading chapters and chunks of story, appreciating characters, running jokes, plot-lines. Thompson's fine, spidery lines and love of hatching and textures provides his cartooning with increased character and unique charm; his handle on tone and moment- when to go big and detailed, when to stay spare, is finely honed. Every aspect of Cul de Sac is immensely appreciable in  its own standing: but it is in the characters, from the Uh-Oh baby to Tommy Fretwork, that it's excellence lies, with each one sewn seamlessly in to the tapestry of the strip, made real no matter how brief the appearance.

Cul de Sac has been called the greatest newspaper strip since Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes (Watterson himself gave it his elusive stamp of approval when he wrote the introduction to one of collections) and for me, the two stand shoulder to shoulder in merit, despite being very different. The similarity they do share is their ability to discuss the good and bad of life, pondering various paths, and yet because ultimately it's seen through a 4 year old's eyes, it returns to something more important- like dancing or water fountains or scary jack-in-the-boxes. Cul de Sac is very much a world that is the sum of its parts: from pets to toys to jungle gyms- even the animate objects are given character, and each wonderful part slots perfectly into the Cul de Sac world. One day, I hope to write more fully n Thompson's achievement, but to start with I just wanted to talk about a few of the things I love about it. Once I began, there were so many to choose from: Ernesto the maybe invisible figment of mass delusion, the global picky eaters website and ratings, Petey's shoe-box dioramas, Petey's Halloween costumes, Alice's manhole dancing, the uh-oh baby, Tommy Fretwork and his banjo, Big Shirley, Mrs Otterloop's Christmas sweaters- enough to do a part 2 somehwere down the line, for sure. But for now here's 5 of my favourites:



Mr Danders: The complete collection opens with some strips on Mr Danders and it's difficult not to be instantly enamoured; I knew from these that I was going to love this comic and its world. Ostensibly Alice's class hamster, Mr Danders (as perhaps evident from the Mr) is a hamster apart: accidentally adventurous, scruffily debonair, outwardly put-upon and resigned who see-saws between being largely comfortable as the class pet and wanting to break out to put his mind and talents to better use. His travels aren't merely limited to the humiliating pass-the-parcel home visits he's subjected to- many of which inevitably end with him spending the weekend or holiday in the garage of not-having-any-of-it parents- as he gets a number of big 'hamster's days out.' These rarely end well: one time he ends up employed as a sandwich board/advertisement at the side of a busy rad, another he decides to go in search of his long lost love, Cavatina, ending up in a vast supermarket and mistaking the brand's mascot bear for his mutated paramour. I really enjoy the way Thompson draws him: odd and distinctive- he's brick like, almost blocky, not your traditional cutesy ball of fluff, which is very much in keeping with his character. The Winnie-the-Pooh nod strip is also both funny and lovely.



Mr Otterloop's car: Mt Otterloop is arguably one of the characters we get to see the least of in Cul de Sac, and Thompson talks of trying to avoid making him the standard ineffectual father character (one of the reasons I'd really recommend the complete boxed set edition of Cul De Sac is that each strip is annotated by Thompson in an educational, engaging manner- just a few lines- never too much); a bit f/dazed by his family and what's going on around him. His personality is brought out by his car: a tiny thing into which he folds and unfolds- there's such sheer joy in seeing him extend a foot and a leg and then an arm, body part by body part as he comes out of it. It's such a good visual gag: simple, on the nose, and funny, and somehow so utterly Mr Otterloop- this ridiculous, tiny car in which he must contain himself. It's not literal, of course- it's a representation of the way Mr Otterloop feels, but all the fun and joy is seeing it drawn and treated as such.The car is often lost in the sandbox or mistaken for one of the children's toys; in the above strip it's knocked over with Mr Otterloop still in it due to the vibrational force of Alice running nearby. All the more hilarious and ludicrous when contrasted with Mrs Otterloop's sensible mini-van.



The playground/jungle gym: The jungle gym in the children's park/playground is truly a beast: a gnarly, almost malevolent presence of vast cylindrical slides, that looks like a whole strange world unto itself. Again, I simply love Thompson's choices in his depiction and rendering: the tubes and turrets, the tall, windy nature of it; It's a bristly beast of a thing, genuinely rather ominous and alive- and that's down to the way in which Thompson draws it, always with some shadow, some texture. It generally has to be give a wide panel to itself to fully capture its singular nature, and I like that Thompson usually sets and positions these strips with Alice and Dill in a corner on the swings looking out to it in the manner of two old-timers discussing something which needs taking down. That's somewhat reversed, as they view it as something to which they aspire to conquer one day, but fear and talk of in tones of awe, with the kids building and attributing stories and fables around it. It helps with perspective, too. As with Mr Otterloop's car, it's unlikely the jungle gym is actually this vast and scary, rather it's drawn as the children see it, and that makes it real and true.



Little Neuro: Ahh, Little Neuro. One of the highlights of Cul De Sac is whenever Thompson chooses to discuss comics; his love for the medium is obvious, his critique affectionate, and yet I can't help but think his homage to Little Nemo in the form of Petey's favourite comic, Little Neuro is razor sharp even within its elements of satire and straight humour.  Little Neuro features a young boy who is so crippled by the thought of doing anything that he does nothing- you can see why it appeals to kid who fears kicking a ball and charts high on the international picky eaters listings. In my mind, I have no doubt were it to exist it would inhabit the acclaimed cult status of genius amongst many a male, 30-odd 'serious' comics reader. What I like about it is how Petey's affection for the book and its themes is portrayed as a relationship; he derives comfort and reassurance from it -many of the traits he exhibits are linked to obsessive compulsive disorder- and reading it helps keep him on an even keel. Some of my favourite moments in Alice and Petey's relationship are also presented here, such as the one in the strip directly above- with Alice leaning against her brother's bed as she chats to him (Petey opens up more when he's talking comics)- very sweet.



Dill's brothers: Dill's many brothers (I forget how many he has) complete the remarkable task of being such a vivid, tangible presence with great impact, despite never appearing in the strip at all. This is just another thing that makes Thompson and Cul de Sac so, so good- I mentioned earlier about how effective his characterisation of everything, be it people or beyond- is, and here, that extends to characters who physically are never drawn - it's an honest testament to Thomspon that this trick doesnt feel like a trick, but the natural way to go. Having moved from the country, the brothers are not used to the sudden shrinkage in space, and their Dill's garden often serves as an outdoor laboratory for their many, varied and increasingly outrageous invetions and experiments. Dill, being the youngest, seems to have missed out on this environmental moulding (instead it seems to have internalised itself somewhat and manifest as a suppressed violent streak), and is frequently the subject of much testing and manipulation. Alice and the other children, needless to say, are in starry-eyed awe of this sense of spectacular ever impending disaster -especially when one of the brothers achieves the nirvana of acquiring a job as a shopping cart collector- whilst Petey is regularly horrified. The cul de sac is tightly tolerant.

If you've not read any Cul de Sac before, it comes with the highest, unequivocal recommendation. It's something you have to read -a pleasurable, nuanced, exceptional work- at some point if you love comics, and there are a few collections to choose from, if you don't want to jump in the deep end with the box-set.