The Line of Our Times: Richard Thompson

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Franz Kafka by Richard ThompsonThe Washington Post‘s Comic Riffs blog is reporting the passing of Richard Thompson, illustrator and cartoonist, from complications of Parkinson’s Disease.

I’ve been a fan of his work since I saw his caricature of Franz Kafka trying to figure out the key concept of “The Metamorphosis” to illustrate a column in the March 5, 1993, edition of the Post.

The linework looks easy but belies a keen understanding of the human figure, with an economy that focuses the eye on the important details. I saved a clipping of that illustration, and thereafter, I began to see his work popping up everywhere, from the New Yorker to National Geographic and beyond. When he began “Richard’s Poor Almanac” for the Post and then the syndicated “Cul de Sac,” well, it was like a holiday every time I opened the paper.

You could do worse than spend twenty minutes watching a short documentary on his life and work, and collections of his illustrations and cartoons are available via his site.

My condolences to his family and friends.

The Simpsons Finally Cancelled (On DVD)

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Well, they finally cancelled The Simpsons. The DVD releases, that is. As has been widely reported, show runner Al Jean announced last week that Fox would no longer produce season sets of The Simpsons on DVD or Blu Ray.

Behold the glory!

Fox released the extant season sets over a period of thirteen years, launching season one for the 2001 holiday season, then releasing roughly two a year until 2009, when they released the 20th season set out of order to coincide with the show’s two decade anniversary. The sets came one a year after that, through season seventeen in the fourth quarter of 2014. The extensive audio commentary on each episode in the season sets likely accounted for the gradual slowing of the releases, not to mention the slow decline of physical media sales in the last half decade.

Possibly, had the commentary not been recorded, Fox could have released the seasons in a more accelerated manner, though one wonders how much they needed to protect the lucrative syndication market for the show by pacing out the releases. Still, the remarkable commentary tracks were a labor of love, and while the commentary at times diverges wildly from the episode being discussed, it’s hard to begrudge the creators of the show the right to talk about the episodes and their creation.

It’s fashionable to note that the “best” years of The Simpsons are already on DVD, so the loss of the remaining seasons in this format shouldn’t be considered a tragedy, but the later seasons have their share of gems, and to watch the arc of the show is a pleasure in its own right. While Fox does run a streaming site for the series, providing access (with restrictions) to the whole series, there’s something to be said for having them all on the shelf, ready to watch regardless of bandwidth issues or what cable provider I have.

Perhaps DVD is a dying format, but I still want my box sets. Just seeing them all there, on the shelf, mostly uniform in terms of appearance, makes me happy. Like, Homer with beer happy.

A Trove of Richard's Poor Almanacs

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Richard's Poor AlmanacLike a farmer delivering fresh produce to the local market, “Cul de Sac” creator Richard Thompson just announced on his site that he has delivered another signed batch of Richard’s Poor Almanacs—the much-sought-after collected edition of his “Richard’s Poor Almanac” cartoons—to One More Page Books in Arlington, VA.

Given that copies on the second hand market go for $75 and up, the fact that these new, signed copies will run you a twenty, shipped, with change back means you should run, (or type a very fast e-mail) to the store.

Every literate bookshelf needs one!

A Mixed Bag: Peanuts in the Late '80s

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I’ve been collecting Fantagraphics’ sumptuous Complete Peanuts series since the beginning of the run way back in 2004—and reading “Peanuts” strips since the early ’70s—so it is with some trepidation that I approach the most recent volume in the series, covering 1987-1988. Charles Schultz’s unsurpassed accomplishment with “Peanuts,” his seventeen thousand plus strips without a break, brooks no creditable criticism, and yet I find that the strip by this point in the run has become, not stale, but somewhat routinized.

We have Snoopy and the “bird” scout troop trekking about, Charlie Brown and the baseball team, Schroeder and Lucy at the Piano, Snoopy and his incessant hunger for dinner, Spike writing letters from the desert, the kite-eating tree, Sally not wanting to do her homework, Peppermint Patty not doing her homework, Snoopy fighting World War I, and then back again to the beginning with only a few deviations. There’s a comfort in the routine, and each passage through the expected sequence brings pleasant nuances (particularly when Spike appears as a WWI Doughboy). Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Sally all feature far more frequently than they did in years past, and Schultz is not afraid to indulge himself in a long sequence of strips with these characters from time to time. Charlie Brown goes weeks without an appearance in this compilation.

Lydia and Linus, January 28, 1987, from The Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988The one major new addition to the rotation Schultz adds in this time period—a girl with multiple names for whom Linus pines—feels forced rather than fresh, emphasizing that the shopworn is better than the new when it comes to “Peanuts,” indeed, even making us long for a strip with Spike or Rerun, Linus’ kid brother who looks pretty much exactly like Linus, just smaller. The attempt to expand Linus’ role in the strip by giving him a counterpart to Charlie Brown’s Little Red Headed Girl is appreciated here, but Lydia (or whatever her name is) comes across as the one-note joke that she is.

When it comes to cultural references, Schultz seems to have been willing to explore his own interests moreso than in the past. Though no stranger to Biblical references, the “Peanuts” strips in this collection abound with them, and for some reason, Sally (putatively in the second or third grade?) is assigned a book report on Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and a long Hardy quotation serves as a set-up for a punch line. One wonders if Schultz himself weren’t working his way through Hardy’s works at this time.

Hardy Quotation Wide Panel, August 9, 1988, from The Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988

That said, the popular culture emphasis is as strong as ever in this collection. We get Joe Garagiola, the Seoul Summer Olympics, Wayne Gretzky, Garfield, Spuds MacKenzie (!?), Kermit the Frog, and plenty of references that a contemporary child would never have understood, like Beau Geste and, for some reason, Norman Manley, a prodigious hole-in-one golfer. There’s even a rather pointed strip on gun control, where Snoopy gets licenses for everything from being a dog to fishing, but doesn’t need one for an assault rifle, which he carries over his shoulder (December 17, 1988).

Of note, the daily strip changes from four panels to three starting with the February 29, 1988, strip. I’m not sure whether or not this was a personal choice or a change requested by the syndicate. Though I have not made an exhaustive search of all the prior strips, seemingly once this change in size happens, he begins to play with panel sizes, putting together two extra-wide panels or one full width panel or some combination of widths for daily strips. In some instances, like May 16, July 1, and August 9, 1988 (see above), the full width panels are quite detailed, giving a scope to the world of the characters that the usually sparse backgrounds seldom convey.

The Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988 feels comfortable if not awe inspiring. Schultz still delivers some memorable strips and story arcs, and the change in panel sizes feels refreshing, but on the whole, the reader gets what she or he expects: familiar (mostly) characters in familiar situations providing that uniquely Schultz-ian outlook on life. If only because the strips represented in this collection are (almost) never re-printed in the daily paper, it’s a worthwhile purchase.

(Images from The Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988)

The Complete Cul de Sac Announced

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Detail from Cul de Sac, 2013-03-27, via gocomics.comI’m a bit late with this news, but news this good never gets old: Richard Thompson announced on his site that this November brings with it the publication of The Complete Cul de Sac, collecting all of the “Cul de Sac” strips, including from pre-syndication in the Washington Post and, per a comment he made, tantalizing “other stuff.”

While I’m saddened that “Cul de Sac” is at a point where it can be considered complete, I trust that this collection will do justice to the best comic strip of the past decade (and more). It’s conveniently coming out for the holidays, so buy bigger stockings if you must, but stuff this book in there for all your friends and family.

(Image via gocomics.com)

Richard's Poor Almanac Now Online

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Richard Thompson, he of “Cul de Sac” fame, brings news that “Richard’s Poor Almanac” is now available online through comics portal GoComics.

Detail from Richard's Poor Almanac, http://www.gocomics.com/richards-poor-almanac/2012/12/03

“Richard’s Poor Almanac”, a series of observational sketch comics that ran weekly in the Washington Post for years, provides that same uniquely fussy drawing style we see in “Cul de Sac”, with the same wit and insight that never lets you look at the comic’s subject quite the same way again. Given that the collected print version of these comics routinely runs over $150 on the used market, to have access to them (albeit only one a week on Mondays!) is a great gift.

The presentation on GoComics leaves a little to be desired—the comics themselves are vertically oriented and far larger than the usual three-panel strip, so they appear in a reduced version on the screen. A simple click enlarges them, but these beauties deserve a custom presentation. Still, to have them available again is enough (although a reprint of the collected comics wouldn’t be amiss . . .)

Update: Looks like GoComics has made some changes, with a more frequent release cycle and, more importantly, a properly scaled presentation. Go and enjoy!