Toon Musings: In Memoriam
The cartooning profession had a very bad day not too long ago: two luminaries in the field passed from this life. The day-to-day goings on in cartooning did not change much, since both artists had retired, but both deaths affected me personally—one for what he meant to me growing up, and one for the potential that will never be realized.
When I was a kid, we got Mad magazine. I don’t recall if I bought those issues, or if my parents did. For all I know, my parents may even have subscribed, since my dad once dabbled in cartooning. Regardless, I enjoyed the parodies of current TV shows and movies, and at that point was beginning to distinguish one artist from another and, to delineate the elements of each artist’s style, Mort Drucker was the more able caricaturist, Wally Wood was doing the more subtly shaded, almost painterly stuff, and Jack Davis specialized in the more frenetic bigfoot stuff, all flying spittle and goofy gags. Later on, I discovered paperback reissues of Mad from the fifties and found out that Davis and Wood were there at the beginning, doing parodies of stuff that was big before I was born. Wood (my favorite, to be honest) dropped off my radar, though he remained active in comics—but not ones I read.
Davis, on the other hand, was everywhere. He did magazine covers (chiefly TV Guide) and movie posters (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Kelly’s Heroes, Viva Max!). He designed the bugs in the Raid commercials. He had a full and varied career. Gonna miss him.
Richard Thompson also had a full and varied career. He began in the 80s as a freelancer with the Washington Post Magazine, also contributing illustrations and caricatures to other magazines like The New Yorker and US News and World Report. He did a popular Sunday strip for the Post called Richard’s Poor Almanac. In 2004, He began doing a weekly panel in the Style section of the Post called Cul de Sac, which became a syndicated daily strip in 2007.
A fully formed and seasoned cartoonist, Thompson brought to Cul de Sac a naïve, yet deceptively sophisticated and completely developed art style. In addition, his writing is canny and snappy, with finely drawn characterizations that don’t rely on easy dialog cues, but on a deeper understanding of the mental processes and underlying motivations of the characters. In fact, the strip itself is totally character driven, with little to no story continuity. The more I read it, the more impressed I became. How would this guy sustain this kind of writing over the decades that this strip deserved to exist?
Note the past tense. In 2009, Thompson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. In 2012 he retired. July 27th, 2016, he died, the same day as Jack Davis. By all accounts he was, in addition to being a towering talent, a really swell guy. The encomiums from his fellow artists are fulsome and effusive. I wish I’d known the guy, and now I can’t. Not that that was ever gonna happen, but a fella can dream, right? Or not.
I wish I could say I was a fan from the beginning, but I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to current newspaper comic strips, newspapers being kind of moribund and all. Who’d’ve guessed one of the most brilliant comic strips ever would exist in this hostile, barren situation? Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, was Thompson’s friend and admirer, and on that basis I started reading the strip online, playing catch-up. Now that he’s gone, I invite you to do the same. Start with this, Thompson’s favorite strip, which ran on the day he retired. It depicts his main characters, the free-spirited Alice (the Irresistible Force) and her insular brother Petey (the Immovable Object) having an argument about the funnies.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.