By: Rob Tornoe
Anyone familiar with the business of syndication knows the past six years have been a terrible time to launch a new strip. The shift in advertising revenue online and the decline in circulation have caused many editors to refuse to make any changes to their comics lineup for fear of upsetting readers.
There have been a limited number of success stories in that time, and you can count Richard Thompson’s brilliant comic strip “Cul de Sac” among them. Launched in September 2007 and syndicated by Universal Uclick, “Cul de Sac” focused on 4-year-old Alice Otterloop and her suburban life experiences on a cul-de-sac. The wit and humor of the strip, rendered beautifully by Thompson’s elegant linework, instantly caught on with editors and quickly found its way into more than 150 newspapers.
The comic is often heralded as one of the greatest newspaper strips of all time. Not only did “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson surface from his hermit-like retirement to praise the strip’s imagination, Thompson received the coveted Cartoonist of the Year award from the National Cartoonist Society in 2011 for his work on the strip.
Unfortunately, the promise of “Cul de Sac” will be short-lived, at least in the immediate future. In the summer of 2009, Thompson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. At first, the disease didn’t affect Thompson’s drawing abilities, but over time that gradually changed, forcing the cartoonist to seek alternatives.
Initially, Thompson went on hiatus for a month as he received treatment, turning over creation of the strip to a handful of guest artists. When his condition worsened, he turned over all inking duties of “Cul de Sac” to fellow cartoonist Stacy Curtis.
Sadly, the demands of the disease and the need for more treatment have forced Thompson to end the strip completely. The last strip ran Sept. 23, and Thompson took time away from entertaining family to talk to me about everything that’s gone on.
You were diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s back in the summer of 2009. What caused you to make the decision to end “Cul de Sac” now?
At first the disease only affected my left side, so my drawing (right) hand worked fine. In November of 2011, the right was getting shaky as a reaction to the Levadopa I’ve been taking. I knew it was a matter of time before the drawing became unreliable, and I’d have to do something.
Did the pressure of producing a daily comic strip on deadline affect your decision?
Oh, yeah. Drawing a daily strip is an insane undertaking in the best circumstances. It’s a marathon made of deadlines, and I’ve always hated and feared deadlines. Toward the end I was missing deadlines right and left. The syndicate was incredibly supportive and understanding and would run repeats, which I kind of hated, as the strip’s only four or five years old.
Did you ever consider promoting Stacy Curtis to being the full-time cartoonist and just continue writing the strip, or maybe drawing it only on Sundays like Bill Amend did with “FoxTrot”?
Yes, I considered everything. I considered hiring an artist, going Sunday-only, trying to do the whole thing with Photoshop, leaving blank pages on my drawing board overnight and hoping the cartoon elves would show up and draw some strips.
What’s the prognosis for your condition?
Parkinson’s is incurable, but the symptoms are treatable to a certain extent. The treatment combines medication and movement exercises designed to slow the progress of the disease. You pretty much have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place. I’m in line for a procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS) where a neurosurgeon implants wires in your brain. A current is run through the wires and fine-tuned to stop the shaking. It wouldn’t improve my balance or speech, but it would reduce the amount of meds I take. I doubt I’ll ever be able to deal with a daily deadline again, but the DBS should improve my drawing.
There are lots of brilliant characters in “Cul de Sac.” My wife’s favorite by far is Alice. Who will you miss writing and drawing most?
I don’t feel like I’m through with these people yet, though I’m not sure what form my future use of them might take. Oh, I miss Alice and Petey about equally. At their best they were just a joy to put on the page, and they were usually at their best when they were in the same panel, often hashing things out in Petey’s room and always talking right past each other.
Now that you’ve created a bit of free time for yourself, do you have the strength to work on any personal projects that you’ve pushed off to the side over the years?
I’m still getting used to the cessation of deadlines. The sudden silence is deafening, though pleasant.
When you look back at the success of “Cul de Sac” in such a terrible market for comic strips, what comes to mind, or what are you most proud of?
I’m most happy with the characters, how they got away from my conscious control and seemed to have a life somewhere off the page. I feel like I was a witness and chronicler of their lives and exploits, and I think I did them justice. Though I’ll bet Alice wishes I’d drawn her prettier and Petey wishes I hadn’t drawn him at all.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.