The expressive range of Thompson’s lettering conveys much of the emotional impact of the strip while still remaining secondary to the words themselves, integral to the content though not overwhelming it. Without the contrasting lettering in this particular strip—normal to start, then thick and shouty, then the light, all-caps conclusion underlined with, yes, plaintive squiggles—the joke falls not flat but, rather, unremarkable. But with that lettering, it all comes together as a whole. Even the slightly oversized question mark plays a role, helping the reader see Alice as a small, quite anxious, probably disturbed pangolin. That third panel is utterly plaintive and quite brilliant.
Thompson himself speaks to the notion of variable lettering in his Cul de Sac Golden Treasury, noting:
Emphasizing the right words is a tricky business. Like too many exclamation points, too much emphasis loses impact and everything turns into a shouting match. Choosing the right form of emphasis is tricky, too, as there are many of them and each marks a different change of tone. You’ve got the simple underline, the double and multiple underline, the wiggly underling, the boldface, the drop shadow block caps, and on and on. (188)
Ever since I read that note in the Treasury—and it’s full of insight on the strip and Thompson’s creative process—I’ve paid particular attention to his lettering and that of other cartoonists as well. Other strips use similar variable lettering techniques, but in combination with Thompson’s unique line style and frequent cross-hatching, the overall effect of the lettering in “Cul de Sac” makes the strip a delight to read again and again.
It will be missed. So hurry up and get the next Treasury out!