Paint by Letters: The Lettering of Cul de Sac

As we near the point where Richard Thompson will close his daily comic stripCul de Sac,” I wanted to look at one of my favorite aspects of the strip: the lettering.

Excerpt from Sepember 14, 2010 Cul de Sac via

Take, for instance, this excerpt from the September 14, 2010 strip, part of the pangolin arc.

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!

End of the Road for Cul de Sac

Alice and her sword Michael Cavna on the Washington Post‘s Comic Riff’s blog breaks the news that Richard Thompson will be bringing Ruben Award-winning daily comic strip “Cul de Sac” to a close on September 23rd of this year:

Richard Thompson, widely acclaimed among his peers as the best all-around comic-strip creator working today, won’t still be wearing that crown in six weeks. That’s because Thompson has decided to stop working as a comic-strip creator: He will end his beloved strip “Cul de Sac” on Sept. 23.

My feelings run towards the selfish here, because I have found “Cul de Sac” to be a refreshing, humble, and brilliant strip, awash with visual and linguistic delights. But I can only thank Richard Thompson and wish him the best, and I hope to see his work appearing here and there, even if not in a daily strip.

If you haven’t picked up the collections of his strip or the tribute book (with proceeds going towards Parkinson’s research), there’s no better place to grab them than through his own site.

And, yes, Alice, your little plastic sword impressed quite a few of us.

You Got Your Mass Effect in My Doctor Who

Image from Crabcat IndustriesIn the reality distortion field that is San Diego Comic Con, many lovely cross-fiction mash-ups spontaneously combust. Actors from one property mingle with fans dressed up as characters from another, and magical crossover pictures emerge.

Think Robert Downey, Jr. caught in a picture talking with someone dressed up as Agatha from Girl Genius, or Sir Patrick Stewart speaking with a child stuffed into a homemade R2-D2 costume, and you have the idea.

Or, for instance, this image of Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, wielding an Omni-Tool from the Mass Effect universe, provided by Crabcat Industries, a cosplay team dedicated to the Mass Effect series of computer games.

Strangely enough, an Eleventh Doctor crossover into the Mass Effect universe isn’t all that far-fetched, as IDW Publishing is publishing a Doctor Who/Star Trek: The Next Generation comic series. Somehow the Borg and the Cybermen have become allies.

Well, no one ever said crossovers needed to make sense…

(via Kotaku; image from Crabcat Industries)

A Profile of Richard Thompson, Creator of "Cul de Sac"

Our overwhelming appreciation of “Cul de Sac” is well documented here at Movement Point, so we were pleased to find a profile of creator Richard Thompson in this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine.

Michael Cavna’s article, “‘Cul de Sac’ creator Richard Thompson faces life’s cruel twists with artful wit,” (May 19, 2011) traces both the development of the strip and Thompson’s experience with Parkinson’s Disease.

When you’ve got such comics page legends as Bill Watterson and Garry Trudeau writing encomiums about you, you know you’re doing something right, and though Richard Thompson might slough off such praise, he’s definitely doing something right:

Thompson “has this huge range of cartooning skills…,” Watterson says. “Richard draws all sorts of complex stuff—architecture, traffic jams, playground sets—that I would never touch. And how does he accomplish this? Well, I like to imagine him ignoring his family, living on caffeine and sugar, with his feet in a bucket of ice, working 20 hours a day.

“Otherwise, it’s not really fair.”

The complexity of Thompson’s strips can indeed stop a reader with their wonder. Take the recent run of strips featuring Alice and Sophie on a jungle gym, watching Petey’s soccer practice. That’s some serious perspective going on there:

Cul de Sac strip detail from Richard Thompson's blog.

While I respect that the printed comics page currently exists in the troubled realm of the printed newspaper, whose imminent demise has been predicted for at least a decade, I must confess that I find the Post‘s almost callous treatment of the home-grown “Cul de Sac” puzzling at best.

During the week it rides the Style section along with “Doonesbury”—certainly hallowed company, and fitting for a strip that has better writing than any other strip in the funnies. But on Sundays, comic strip Prime Time, it’s stuffed into the recently revamped (read: downsized and tabloid-ized) Sunday Style section, next to the advice columnists, sometimes in color, always smaller than “Judge Parker,” “Beetle Bailey,” and the egregiously popular and insufferably banal “Zits.” That’s no way to treat what should be the Post’s marquee comic title (not that they do much better by “Doonesbury,” breaking it to run vertically alongside “Pickles” of all strips…)

I can only hope that at some point, the Post moves “Cul de Sac” to the front of the Sunday Comics section. Above the fold. It’s far too good to be buried a page after the wedding announcements.

(“Cul de Sac” strip detail from Richard Thompson’s blog.)

Like Peanuts with Adults: Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac

Were I to attempt to describe Richard Thompson‘s comic strip Cul de Sac, I could do little better than to describe it as Peanuts with adults. The children in the strip behave like children, yet have a delightful tendency to speak wisdom beyond their years in a way that still seems utterly age-appropriate:

Comic from Shapes & Colors by Richard Thompson

The similarly preternaturally insightful children in Peanuts lived, for the most part, in a world where adults were shadows, figures whose voices and presences only revealed themselves in the children’s reactions. Cul de Sac brings the adults into the panel with the children, to excellent effect, reminding the reader that despite the children’s knowing speech, they are still at heart children, a distinction that was occasionally lost in Peanuts. And, of course, it helps that the adults get good lines as well:

Comic from Shapes & Colors by Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson’s drawing line has an agreeable looseness that belies the depth of detail in many panels—and those panels will often be in quite non-standard configurations. Some of his finest strips feature tables that stretch over multiple panels, with each panel hosting a different person. He also knows when to omit background detail all together and focus on the character alone. And what characters they are.

Alice Otterloop is undeniably the star of the strip, ruling over her pre-school chums with a certainty born of being four, but I’m partial to her excessively introspective brother, Petey, and her unibrowed friend Beni. Throw in Dill (a combination of Linus, if Linus loved grocery carts, and Pig-Pen, if Pig-Pen ever washed, to stretch the Peanuts analogy), Nara, bucket-head Kevin, and over-mothered Marcus and you have a strip that never fails to amuse and, frankly awe.

And never forget: You can’t tie down a banjo man! Eternal words of wisdom . . .

(Images from Shapes & Colors by Richard Thompson. Buy it!)