Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve sought refuge from the world in The Complete Cul de Sac, volumes one and two (2013, Kindle edition; of note, being able to view in color those strips that ran in color is important). It’s a compilation of the comic strips that first appeared in the Washington Post in 2004 and later went into nationwide syndication for five years, last appearing in September, 2012. These two volumes feature a self-deprecating commentary by the cartoonist, Richard Thompson.
From its debut to its farewell, Cul de Sac was a favorite of mine. Thompson brought a discerning eye to the joys, anxieties, and confusions of children who are, of course, relatively new to a world upon which they are trying, and often failing, to impose their own sense of reality. With warmth, humor, and insight, buttressed by delightful art, Thompson created a remarkably real family centering his attention on four-year-old Alice Otterloop, an outspoken, rather egomaniacal, erratic shooting star of a child, and her brother, the world-wary (and –weary), eight-year-old Petey, whose idea of a perfect day is one spent alone, lying on his bed, staring at a single page of a Little Neuro comic book. (A bit of trivia of which I'm fond: The Otterloops, who live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., have a surname that is a play on the “outer loop” of the Beltway, the highway that encircles the city.)
I was away most of the summer and my contact with newspapers was a bit sporadic. So, just a few days ago, in the midst of receiving solace from Cul de Sac, it was a brutal shock to learn that, this past July, Thompson died at age 58. For several years, he had shown grace and courage as he endured an awful battle with Parkinson’s, a battle that wreaked havoc on his artistic career, forcing the end of his strip, and one that ultimately took his life. As down as this news brought me, the achievement that is Cul de Sac remains, still offering laughter, wisdom, and, most of all, a curious sort of comfort.
For me, the best settings for the strip are in the Blisshaven Academy, A Preschool (so reads the sign outside the building, a former body shop) or in the school’s van, with Alice and her classmates –Marcus, Nara, Beni, Kevin (he of the “bucket head”), and, most certainly, the inimitable Dill (whose comments, at times strange and slightly disturbing, and other times wonderfully trenchant, can provide a counter-punchline in the final panel of a strip).
Thompson knew and, perhaps, understood, four-year-olds. There’s no better indication of that than the strip of October 14, 2007 (see it on GoComics) in which the banjo-playing Timmy Fretwork comes to school to play and sing. After announcing that his first song will involve a farmer and his dog Bingo, he makes the fateful and seeming inevitable mistake that adults succumb to with children at that age – responding to a raised hand and opening the floor to questions.
Nara: I have a dog.
Miss Bliss (headmistress of the school): Nara! That’s not a question.
At which point, the chain reaction cannot be contained and the class explodes with comments.
Various members of the class: I have a dog. I have a dog, too! I have two cats! My dog runs fast. My cat sleeps on my bed. One time I saw my dog eat snow.
And then . . .
Dill: One time I put a snow-globe in the microwave and pushed “Hot Dog”
In the final panel, the entire class is in the time-out corner. And, yes, there’s one final comment.
Nara: Every time that woman tries to cram culture down our throats, this happens.
In the Complete Cul de Sac, Thompson observed, of this particular strip, “I’m told this is a frighteningly accurate portrayal of classroom behavior, which worries me as it’s just my normal thought process.” If another piece of dispositive evidence is needed that Thompson knew young children, check out the strip in which the preschoolers play Charades (November 1, 2009).
Oh, Petey’s bedroom is also one of my favorite venues.
This time through Cul de Sac, I was impressed at how the strip is, surprisingly often, a paean to natural history, at least, as it’s seen through young children’s eyes. Here are just a few instances. In various strips, we have a child:
- observing that wild birds flying loose in grocery stores develop regional characteristics depending upon the aisle they live in (e.g., the cereal aisle denizens sport “gaudy, unnaturally hued plumage”), a situation summed up by Petey’s observation: “Nature’s most interesting when it’s indoors.” (January 31, 2010)
- spouting parodies of those hyped nature shows on TV – Dill explains that he knows how a “new old toy” came to be in the Blisshaven playground because “I saw it on a TV nature show called ‘Silly Migration: Feral Toys of the North American Playgrounds.’” (October 9, 2011)
- misconstruing the meaning of words such as “carnivores” - Alice: “Yeah! Carnivores are the cute ones, right?” (December 18, 2009)
- lamenting animals gone extinct - when Alice thinks she’s met Mother Nature, Dill says, “Tell her to bring back those giant ground sloths. I like those!” (April 25, 2010)
My favorite of all of the Cul de Sac strips ran on May 20, 2007, before the comic went into syndication (no link, sorry). Its setting is the Blisshaven van; the class is on a field trip. Miss Bliss tells them they’re on the way to the National Museum of Natural History. Seeking some sort of recognition from the children about their destination, she blurts out a string of questions regarding the museum: “Where the big elephant is? And the Hope Diamond? The insect zoo?” Silence. No reaction from the children.
Miss Bliss: The dinosaurs?
Then we spiral into the world of four-year-olds where they are amazingly articulate and informed about those things which interest them, and not so much about the rest of the stuff out there.
Kevin: What do you think of recent theories that Tyrannosaurus rex was actually a scavenger and not a predator?
Beni (it’s possible that the speech bubble might be pointing to Dill): What revisionist nonsense!
More informed debate from the preschoolers is interrupted by Miss Bliss.
Miss Bliss: We aren’t looking at dinosaurs on this field trip. We’re going to the Hall of Mammals.
Various class members: What are “Mammals”? Rocks, I think. Must be something new.
Thank you, Richard Thompson.