I was a high-school senior in 1995, when Bill Watterson retiredÂ Calvin & Hobbes, and I thought I was sitting vigil for the last great newspaper comic strip. Â It felt like the end of the line, with the size of strips shrinking and the audience greying and newspaper circulation poised to tip into freefall. Â But then cameÂ Mutts and Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy and The Boondocks and a lot of other strips big and small (but mostly small), and somehow there was always another last great strip, somehow the final demise of the newspaper comic kept getting pushed back. Â Just a little bit. Â Again and again for fifteen years.
In a funny way, I hope the curtain is finally falling now, and Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac really is the last great newspaper comic strip, because it would be such a beautiful strip to end on. Â Bill Watterson even came out of retirement to write a glowing introduction to the first collection, as if to acknowledge that the funny pages had one good reason to have kept going on without him.
This is a gloomy way to begin, isn’t it? Â That’s wrong, because Cul de Sac isn’t gloomy. Â It’s weird and colorful and deceptively robust, making the most of the increasingly hostile newspaper environment, like a lichen twisting into spindly, surprising shapes to hook into every crack in the rock. Â Like the giant tubeworms that flourish around the hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, the cold, sunless place where life began. Â They grow there in glorious colors, pink and yellow and shocking red, Â even though there’s no light to see them by. Â Not until someone brings a light down.
The Cul de Sac Golden Treasury of Keepsake Garland Classics (a satisfyingly sarcastic title) isn’t the one with the Watterson intro. Â It belongs to another phylum of comic-strip reprint, the oversize omnibus with commentary from the artist. Â I love all such collections and have ever since I was a teenager and pored over that old fat paperback retrospective of Bloom County, another strip that was going to be one of the last ones. Â Thompson chooses a solid selection of key Cul de Sac strips and comments winningly on his characters, his artwork, his references to Alexander Pope and Huckleberry Finn, his firm belief that pancakes are funnier than waffles (a thesis I find dubious), and things he’s seen children do with ice cream. Â ”Petey is likely also a fan of the more somber and intense modern graphic novelists,” he notes, providing a grim reminder of what you could be reading instead of Cul de Sac. Â And, “A wise man once said you can break hearts with a joke.”
Cul de Sac, for those still looking forward to the pleasure of reading it, is a daily strip about a nuclear family, the most tired and easily-abused of comic-strip genres, but also the sturdiest. Â The action focuses on the two children of the family: grade-schooler Petey, a budding neurotic with a lovingly-assembled collection of eccentricities, phobias, weird tics, and totemic security objects; and preschooler Alice, hurtling like a locomotive through a happy world that exists only for her. Â Petey is the one who spends soccer practice lost in existential fantasies where he has multiple out-of-body experiences and argues with crowds of himself. Â Alice is the one who collects sticks. Â There are a couple of parents, a scary grandma, a bunch of other kids (most notably Alice’s friend Dill, one of those hard-luck kids who attaches himself to someone else’s family because his own is too chaotic–in this case Dill has a huge number of older brothers constructing medieval siege engines in their front yard), and a guinea pig, and that’s just about enough to make a strip.
Making oddball characters work in a daily strip is hard; that’s why most comic-strip characters are flat and predictable stereotypes. Â A strip about Petey has to be funny if you know Petey, but also on its own. Â Fortunately, everyone knows some weird kids, and Thompson knows how to make his characters’ personal quirks universal. Â This is a difficult balancing act to pull off, and I’m still not entirely sure how he does it.
The art is both beautiful and funny–another balancing act–and, like the writing, is deceptively complex. Â It wasn’t until Thompson pointed it out in his commentary that I realized he does all his shading by hand with crosshatching; I didn’t miss the lack of screentone, the lazy black-and-white illustrator’s friend, at all. Â The art is sketchy and organic, and the characters have funny faces. Â Too many cartoonists overlook the value of funny faces.
The Cul de Sac Golden Treasury of Keepsake Garland Classics feels like an artifact from another universe, a universe where, for the past fifteen years, comic strips kept getting better. Â It doesn’t belong in this world, it’s too cheerfully and effortlessly good, but here it is. Â Strange and funny and lonely and beautiful, like a tubeworm, like a Joshua tree.