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For those that aren’t in the know, it was announced last week that Richard Thompson (the cartoonist, not the Fairport Convention guitarist) is bringing to a close his daily comic strip Cul de Sac due to the demands of his ongoing struggle with Parkinson’s disease. It’s rotten news, both in the sense that a talented artist is being denied the opportunity to make a living doing what he loves and, from a more selfish perspective, the sense that readers like myself will be denied the opportunity to enjoy what I regard as the best comic strip going, no arguments.
In honor of Mr. Thompson (who, by the way, I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing and is a warm, funny and lovely man) I thought, rather than try to sift through and pick my favorite individual strips (a madman’s game if ever there was one) I’d list some of my favorite characters instead. Hopefully my meager descriptions will be enough to spur those of you unfamiliar with the strip to check it out, either online, in a book or — dare I imagine it — an actual newspaper.
1. Mr. Danders. Mr. Danders is the guinea pig that resides at Blisshaven Preschool, which young Alice Otterloop (ostensibly the strip’s main character due to her sheer force of will) attends. He’s easily the most erudite and sophisticated creature in the strip — not that it does him any good, being stuck in a cage all day and all. He’s a bit given to overstating his own importance and stretching the truth from time to time (the hermit crab next door dubs him a “resume-padder”). Still, he serves an important role at Blisshaven, “gweeping” encouragement to the students whenever possible. Not that they notice.
2. Earnesto. Earnesto’s existence is a matter of some debate, at least to Peter Otterloop, Alice’s older brother. Peter is convinced, evidence to the contrary, that the loquacious, anal-retentive youth who interrupts his solitary musings from time to time is a figment of his imagination. Real or not, Ernesto’s existence does have its advantages. (“Hey Mom! I just met a kid who’s even weirder than me!”)
3. Dill. Alice’s good friend and classmate Dill is perhaps not the brightest kid in the preschool, though that doesn’t stop him from forming some interesting theories (like that prunes are made from people who stayed in the bathtub too long). What he lacks in smarts he more than makes up for in sheer energy — give him a picture to color and he’ll not only color the picture but his whole face and eyeballs too. Give him some glue and he’ll put it, well, where most kids there age usually put glue. It’s no surprise that Dill is as … off-kilter as he is, given that he’s the youngest in a rather large family, made mostly of brothers that like to build working trebuchets and other medieval siege weapons.
4. The Uh-Oh Baby. Who can protect us from the Uh-Oh Baby, who toddles through the playground yelling out the only phrase it knows? Viewed as a “portent of doom” by Alice and the other children, the Uh-Oh Baby doesn’t have much of a personality to speak of, but I include it on this list mostly because the reactions the poor toddler tenders are so side-splittingly hilarious.
5. Peter Otterloop. The ultimate picky kid (he frequently goes online to check his pickiness rankings), Peter is so wary of the world around him that he almost attains a sort of perfect stasis. It’s not for nothing that his favorite comic book character is Little Neuro, a little boy whose adventures mainly seem to consist of not getting out of bed. The immovable object to his sister Alice’s unstoppable force, Peter serves as a nice foil to Alice’s zaniness, filling her head with wild conspiracy theories and ghost stories and trying to avoid as much interaction with the outside world as humanely possible. In reality, the poor kid would be on Zoloft by first grade. In the strip, however, his perpetual anxiety is a endless source of amusement.
6. Alice Otterloop. While her vocabulary might exceed that of the average 4-year-old, in mind and spirit, Alice typifies the modern-day tyke in her irrepressible energy, boundless curiosity, frequent confusion and genial self-centeredness. Let’s face it, that’s a pretty winning package, especially for a family-based comic strip, so it’s no surprise that Alice quickly became the lead character in Cul de Sac — or at least the one who frequently gets the best punchlines. A father himself, Thompson clearly bases some of Alice’s behavior on his own relationship with his daughters, but more importantly, it’s also clear he never truly forgot the sense of wonder and bewilderment that accompanies early childhood. It’s an nigh-essential trait for any good cartoonist to have, and it’s one of the central reasons Cul de Sac has been so delightful throughout its brief run. I shall miss it dearly.