Friday, October 21, 2016


In Richard Thompson's comic strip, Cul de sac, a guinea pig escapes from a school classroom.  Once outside, the pig says:

What does he mean by that?

The famous poet Stephen Crane pointed out that we'd better be careful about wishing for freedom:
If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant --
What then?
Thompson never wrote poetry about existential dread but he was able to make the same point using humor, children and talking animals.   Crane's words wouldn't fit in a tiny word balloon, but Thompson effectively grabs our attention by juxtaposing the simple words "I'm free!" with "Help!"

Last week we discussed whether comics are a suitable medium for profound content.  As a general matter, I'd say no.  Comics are short, simple, cheap, badly reproduced and aimed at a low readership.  Most are poorly drawn.   It's difficult to make great art using a medium that chafes and strains against ambitious content.

But every once in a great while, an artist comes along who vindicates the medium by achieving greatness within its confines.  Gifted artists such as Herriman, Schulz, Watterson or Thompson, have the rare ability to simplify larger human truths into brief adventures squeezed to fit in small boxes.

Thompson's brief strip about the guinea pig makes Stephen Crane's point, but in a lighter more elegant way than Crane.  As a bonus, he makes other funny observations about human nature along the way:  

I love the evanescent loyalty of the children:

Like Herriman, Thompson drew with "secret grace and obvious clumsiness."
As St. Augustine said (and as Thompson also shows us) "the virtue of children lies not in their wills but in the weakness of their limbs."

When Thompson's children grow up, they'll develop the guile to conceal their true natures.  But cartoons don't allow room to gradually strip away artifice, so great cartoonists use children to distill grown up truths to their essence.


Anonymous said...

How can you forget (or overlook) Walt Kelly?

Richard said...

Thompson's writing style is very Seinfeldian, which works well with the children.

By stripping away the layers of misdirection that adults use to hide their foibles, their fundamental limits, it allows him to get at something more profoundly human, and unlike Seinfeld, it doesn't require the same level of absurdity. Where Seinfeld's characters became too extreme, larger than life, the fact that Thompson's characters are children allows us to assume their most extreme behavior is merely aped.

Far less suspension of disbelief required. The only specific example in this case being that the Guinea Pig has a speech bubble, instead of a thought bubble, which is itself a nice light touch.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- You're right, Kelly was another brilliant cartoonist, one of my favorites. All of these artists were distinctive; I'd say Kelly was a little different than the ones I've mentioned; he tended to be a little more wordy, and focus more on social and political issues than on timeless human nature. I think Herriman et. al tended to rely on a heavier dose of surrealism and magical thinking, while Kelly tended to spell things out in a more linear narrative. The laws of physics usually applied to those talking animals (at least until they went to Pandemonia). But some of my favorite Kelly strips were his succinct ones that glowed with human truth. He was one of the very best.

Richard said-- "By stripping away the layers of misdirection that adults use to hide their foibles, their fundamental limits, it allows him to get at something more profoundly human." I agree. The talking / thinking guinea pig was an unusual and short lived phenomenon on cul de sac. Thompson wasn't interested in another Snoopy. He kept on inventing.

Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

Another fine post. The vitality and humanity of Thompsons' work is undeniable.

So much, in fact, that it's easy to forget that there are no children, and there's no talking guinea pig.

Observe also how the text fields are not merely superimposed, they are as much parts of the comic strip as the other pictorial elements. This is particularly made poignant in the panel with the chain-linked fence, where the "speech balloon" is what holds the fence together.

As for the children growing up, well, in the second to last panel, they are gone.

Richard said...

By comparison, a selection of pictures from Graphic Novels described by major outlets as "The Best of 2016":

Boy’s Club, Matt Furie

BEVERLY, Nick Drnaso

Frontier #11, Eleanor Davis

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, Chester Brown

Hot Dog Taste Test, Lisa Hanawalt

kev ferrara said...

For the name of a pet that causes allergies, you can't beat "Mr. Danders."

john cuneo said...

Oh, that perfect set up joke in panel 5 (which is also such a plaintive and knowing observation of a child's abruptly processed grief and acceptance). I wonder if RT sketched out a rough version with the kids included before he made the choice to just show the word bubbles and a full drawing of the empty cage. Or maybe that was immediate and instinctive? Whatever, I think there's a bit of genius going on in that kind of decision.

Aleš said...

Wonderful post and another great Thompson drawing.
I'm wondering whether those small children would use the word "recess". It sounds a bit formal to me, something you would hear in a courtroom. Wouldn't they say "break" or something like that? (I have never been to English school of course)

Sean Farrell said...

The openness and trust in children includes affection and each is deeply unappreciated in our adult world, which has pushed them aside for a process of discernment devoid of affection and skeptical by nature. The inclusion of affection in openness was the genius of St. Francis who included even inanimate objects with the affection of brother and sister, never missing an opportunity to see and act with affection.

David Apatoff said...

Øyvind Lauvdahl -- An excellent observation. Thompson's word balloons are indeed "as much parts of the comic strip as the other pictorial elements." We could easily have a discussion devoted to the aesthetics of his lettering and the shapes of those word balloons. They are beautifully rendered in a fashion that aids the humor and the content of the strip. But if you flipped the image upside down, and looked at the balloons solely from the perspective of composition rather than content, you'd see they make a full visual contribution.

"As for the children growing up, well, in the second to last panel, they are gone." Ah, yes.

Richard-- Isn't that something? In the comment section for the previous post, there was discussion about how taste is individualistic and standards are subjective. This calls for humility when passing judgment on other people's preferences. However, sometimes when we see popular ratings such as your "best of 2016" the differences are so stark, we can feel safe in concluding that an understanding of and appreciation for good drawing has declined in our culture. Simultaneously, a self-indulgent audience turns confidently to adolescent, shallow content.

Kev Ferrara-- Yes, Thompson always had a way with names.

David Apatoff said...

John Cuneo-- Agreed. Always glad to receive input on these matters from someone who Thompson regarded so highly.

Aleš-- I'm not sure of the answer to your question, but I know Richard put all kinds of words in the mouths of his characters. Not just precocious language ("His was a fierce and wild spirit that no cage could long hold") but also invented words and wonderful nonsense syllables.

Sean Farrell-- I hadn't thought about it, but I agree that "affection" is an important element here. If you look at the five examples cited in Richard's comment above, affection is remarkably scarce. No interest in the human condition.

Robert Cook said...

When I was in early grade school in southern Indiana in 1960-63, (in other words, not a sophisticated age, time, or place), we called recess "recess." That's what the teachers called it and so that's what we called it.

We moved to northeastern Florida in my third grade year; I do not recall with certainty what we called recess, but I believe it was "recess." I don't remember ever calling it "break."

Aleš said...

Robert, thanks. I'm Googling now and Wikipedia says among other things: "In education, recess is the American term (known as "lunch" or "break" in the UK and Ireland,.../ or "interval" or "morning tea" in New Zealand)". And my dictionary indicates "intransitive verb American colloquially". Maybe the use of the word distracted me because I had British English in school as a second language.