The Complete Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson (Andrews & McMeel: $75., paperback, two volumes)
Although it only lasted in syndication for five years (September, 2007 through September, 2012), Richard Thompson’s wonderfully imaginative "Cul de Sac" demonstrated the ongoing viability of the comic strip. And Thompson never stooped to political posturing, merchandising, pandering to niche markets or resorted to the threadbare clichés of boob fathers, saccharine life lessons or "adorable" (read icky) little kids.
Andrews and McMeel is issuing the entire run of the strip in a handsome, boxed set similar to the ones of The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, which feels appropriate.
Cul de Sac was widely admired by other cartoonists: Thompson’s peers presented him the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 2010. Bill Watterson, the reclusive and critical creator of "Calvin Hobbes," wrote the introduction to the first collection of the strip saying, "He reminds us that comics can be more than illustrated gag writing, and that good drawings can bring a comic strip's world to life in countless ways that words cannot."
At the center of the strip - where she would insist she belongs - stands four-year-old Alice Otterloop, a girl of many charms, many moods and many tantrums. She’s the terror of Blisshaven Academy Preschool, where she endures Miss Bliss' gratingly upbeat lessons with her friends Benni, a wide-eyed Latino boy with a long crew cut, and perpetually befuddled Dill.
Benni likes to use tools, especially hammers. Dill struggles to overcome his unfortunate family position: he's the youngest of several brothers who build working trebuchets, seige towers and the ultimate water pistol (it requires "an aquifer of sufficient size"). But Alice and her classmates would rather discuss the monkey-shaped stain on the washroom sink or the gum and sand-choked playground drinking fountain than listen to Miss Bliss’ uplifting homilies.
Alice's eight-year old brother Petey leads a life of seclusion; barracaded in his room, he reads "Little Neuro" comics and builds shoebox dioramas. Mr. and Mrs. Otterloop are as well-intentioned and ineffectual as their uninspired tract house.
Alice and her chums never play to adult readers with adorable mispronunciations or innocent yet self-consciously wise profoundities. They share some of Calvin’s bewilderment at a world that often seems perverse and even hostile, despite adult assurances that everything will be fine. While Petey tries to figure out why Santa would bring him a soccer ball he didn't want, Alice glowers, "The way he makes toys that're impossible to open, you know Santa has a dark side." When the school bus breaks down on a field trip to the petting zoo, Miss Bliss has to buy all the kids Freezies - which leave them too sticky to touch any animals.
They look sticky in Thompson's vivid, scratchy drawings that sometime appear to be gouged into the surface of the paper. But the simplicity of his style shouldn't be confused with the graphic weakness. The minimalism of "Cul de Sac" reflects the elegant understatments of Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, not the sloppiness of "Drabble" or "Prickly City."
Sadly, Thompson, who suffers from Parkinsons, had to end the strip in September, 2012, to concentrate on his health. Scores of fellow cartoonists - including Watterson - contributed artwork to a "Team Cul de Sac" book and auction to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
RingTales produced a series of on-line 30-to 60-second "Cul de Sac." But Thompson’s imaginative strip cries out for more - and better - animation. Cul de Sac needs a Bill Melendez, a director with the vision to take the best of the strip and translate it to the screen with movements and a visual style that fit the drawings. While I love A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I wish I could see those classic specials paired with A Cul de Sac Christmas, Alice Otterloop’s Halloween or even Alice Shrugged.
That would be something to celebrate.