The Line of Our Times: Richard Thompson

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.

A Trove of Richard’s Poor Almanacs

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!

The Complete Cul de Sac Announced

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

Richard’s Poor Almanac Now Online

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,

“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!

(Image detail from Richard’s Poor Almanac on GoComics.)

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.