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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/18/2008

The Interview: "Cul de Sac's" Richard Thompson

By Michael Cavna

CUL DE SAC Strip (Richard Thompson)
Enlarge Comic

It's not often, when promised a "Q&A," you are delivered a literal question-and-answer. As in one Question, one Answer. But -- voila! -- here 'tis.

"Cul de Sac's" Richard Thompson (Courtesy of Richard Thompson)

Y'see, when we asked "Cul de Sac" creator Richard Thompson to mull the lasting impact of Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" -- upon our learning that Watterson wrote the foreword to Richard's upcoming book -- Thompson waxed quite eloquent. (As did many of you last week, in the Comments thread to our riff titled "Ode to Calvin and Hobbes.") So here, for once, we ask a single question and quickly move off the stage, to let you enjoy Thompson's single insightful, engaging answer:

MICHAEL CAVNA: Some of our readers have drawn loose and favorable comparisons between your young Alice character and elements of "Calvin and Hobbes." Do you think "Calvin & Hobbes's" has had any lasting effects on subsequent cartoonists who draw strips with children -- either verbally, psychologically or aesthetically?

RICHARD THOMPSON: Oh boy, has it ever. Calvin's little sneakers are big shoes to follow, and don't even try to fill them. Watterson pretty much permanently defined a hyperactively imaginative 6-year-old, who is, of course, the perfect occupant of a comic strip. Children fit into a comic strip remarkably well, especially those of small stature but vivid personality. Watterson's genius was to not only create a particularly vivid kid, but to make that kid's imagination the other character in the strip.

The best way to do a kid strip after Calvin is to avoid following too closely in Calvin's footprints. Of course don't put a talking stuffed toy in it, that's obvious, But also be careful about doing a strip with daydreaming in it. Spaceman Spiff's adventures resolving into Calvin having a hard day in school pretty much filled the quota for that kind of daydreaming gag, so you'd better build a new way of doing 'em. But in these as in many things Watterson was using, sometimes unconsciously, models from many older comics. Winsor McCay did many strips with daydreaming, all beautifully drawn. Chuck Jones's handful of Ralph Phillips cartoons shrank Walter Mitty down to kid-size. But Watterson put it all together and tossed in Hobbes, Calvin's daemon better half, who was himself part Albert the Alligator and part Mr. O'Malley.

Daily comics play themes and variations, and Watterson not only got the tune right, he also wrote almost every possible variation on it. Kids play with cardboard boxes. Go from there to Calvin's series of cardboard marvels that reached some kind of mad comic peak when Calvin stepped out of his Transmogrifier as a tiny clone of Hobbes. It is now probably physically impossible to draw a comic strip with a kid in a cardboard box. Which is not to say it shouldn't be attempted.

The most memorable kids in comic strips are only partly kids. The Peanuts gang have the capacity for anxiety, joy and cruelty of slightly purer adults, and Calvin has the vocabulary and sometimes the logical reasoning of a Princeton undergrad. It's hard for me not to hear Calvin on one of his extended rants when writing dialogue for Alice when she goes off on a tangent. But things are funniest when they're most specific, and I hope Alice's specifics are not the same as Calvin's (to start with, she's not a big dinosaur fan). But how can my guy Petey learn to ride a bike when Calvin's malevolent two-wheeler is still fresh in everybody's mind? I don't know.

So my conclusion is, Watterson sure hasn't made my job any easier.

But thanks anyway, Bill.

By Michael Cavna  | August 18, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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The way around the Calvin Conundrum is to make him a grown-up janitor that hangs around kids all day.

Posted by: yellojkt | August 18, 2008 2:16 PM | Report abuse

or make his hair red and give him a dog named rover ...

Posted by: Horacio | August 18, 2008 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Did someone compare Red to Calvin?

To quote Charlie Brown, upon hearing Lucy describe how telephone poles grow:

"Ow Ow Ow Ow Ow"

Posted by: f2 | August 18, 2008 9:59 PM | Report abuse

Why isn't the daily Cul de Sac available in the Post's comic links?!? And it's not the only one. Frazz, too. It makes no sense to me that the Post carries it in their paper but not on their site.

Posted by: tigger | August 19, 2008 9:45 AM | Report abuse

I posted this over at the Daily Cartoonist blog site, so I cut and paste it here as a response to this article:

If I may be so bold, I believe Richard’s writing is actually BETTER than Watterson’s in many instances.

Watterson was great for quick character studies which over all defined Calvin’s dominant personality. However, Richard seems better at accomplishing longer story arcs.

Take Petey's oboe recital. When Petey had his out of body experience when called up to the stage, that was one of the most brilliant visual story telling conventions I’ve seen in a comic strip in a long, long time. In my opinion, better than Watterson could have done.

Posted by: Garey Mckee | August 19, 2008 4:18 PM | Report abuse

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