from The Art of Richard Thompson, 2013
BILL WATTERSON: When I was a kid, I loved Peanuts, so I wanted to be the next Charles Schulz. I didn't understand what that meant of course, but it seemed like a plan. You came to your comic strip from a different path, however.
RICHARD THOMPSON: Yeah. Off in my own little world of being a pretend cartoonist. Without a plan.
BW: So how did you envision cartooning? What was your experience of it as a kid?
RT: Well, Schulz pretty much defined "cartoonist." But I remember in fifth grade, a friend's older sister had some Pogo books and we spent the day poring over them. That was the first time I understood some of the jokes. It was pretty intimidating and dense for a kid.
BW: Yeah, that's about the age when I found Pogo too.
RT: There were two daily papers, the Post and the Star. The Star carried Pogo, my mom loved Pogo, and that's what we took. I never read Peanuts in a newspaper, only in the books.
BW: Cleveland had two papers as well, but Peanuts and Pogo were in the paper we didn't get, so it was the books for me too. Isn't that odd!
RT: And Peanuts was pretty ubiquitous with all the marketing and stuff. Probably small potatoes by today's standards . . .
BW: So at that time was your focus primarily comic strips, or other types of cartooning?
RT: Yeah, mostly strips. Comic books were hard to find. And a strip is a one-person deal. Not like animation, where you've got to work with other people.
BW: As a kid, animation just seemed out of the question to me. I wouldn't even know how to go about doing it.
RT: It was interesting. But even when I was old enough to maybe try it, I always hated the idea of working with others.
BW: Plus, you needed film equipment and all that.
RT: Yeah. Really, though, I did cartoons without any clear thought of having a future in it.
BW: Do you mean you simply weren't thinking in careerist terms? Or that cartoons weren't a serious interest yet? Or that a career in cartooning seemed an impossibility?
RT: I think the first. I had no realistic careerist plans at all, though I had plenty of ambition. I wanted to do great work, in an unfocused, inchoate way. I'd look at work I admired and think, way deep down, that I could do it, but I didn't know how. I'd get pretty damn pen-throwing frustrated. Frustrated at myself, because I couldn't produce the kind of work I wanted. Every successful drawing was made by force of will, by making some mental leap. Struggling artist! In retrospect it was ridiculous, but at the time it seemed desperately important.
Even when I was an established freelancer getting lots of work, I'd often feel that with every drawing I'd have to learn to draw all over again. What's the phrase? Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Every time I sat down at the drawing table, I'd have to get some bad rough sketches out of my system before I could go on to doing the assignment. By "some" I mean "a lot." I did a cover for the Post's National Edition - a weekly roundup that wasn't available in D.C. - of Edwin Meese and George Schultz. I stayed up all night and filled an entire pad with drawings before I hit on one I liked a few hours before deadline. I think this behavior is kinda universal to any endeavor that demands a creative oomph, or push, or whatever.
One of my best editors at the Post, the great Henry Allen (who was fired/retired in 2010 at age about seventy for starting a brawl in the newsroom - never call an ex-Marine a pussy, even if he draws and paints like Hopper) said, "on deadline, when you're at your nadir of psychic desperation, you're ten minutes from filing." Which is good news, I guess. So the cover finally came out fine and won an award from the Society of Illustrators, but what a stupid way to run a business. Of course, sometimes the opposite would happen and I'd get in some zone, like the first piece I did for the New Yorker, when I did five rough sketches and they bought one as the final. I thought I'd finally figured it out, but I could never repeat that. Wait, I forgot the question . . .
BW: So did I! But, OK, you talk about your endless all-night revisions to get the drawing you want. And you were often applying this perfectionism under the gun, right up against the deadlines. How did you make that process work for you? Seriously, I'd have had a nervous breakdown working that way. It seems an insane amount of pressure. How did you cope with that? Was there no other way it would get done? And if the last-minute pressure sometimes pushed you to new heights, did it ever force you to accept compromises?
RT: Oh, yeah, all the time. Sometimes I'd look at what was in front of me and think, this particular job may not be worth going through a meat grinder. Maybe I didn't think that often enough. I didn't want to give short weight. It took me a long time to get over that feeling, the sneaking suspicion that everybody out there was some kind of genius. OK, not a genius necessarily, but far more competent than I. At least it kept me on my toes. It took a little while to wear off. I was awfully good at building elaborate brick walls for myself to walk into.
BW: So back when you were a kid, what did you draw with? There was virtually no cartooning information back then. How did you find out about papers, and pens, and inks?
RT: I just used whatever we had around the house. My folks were great for indulging my art interests. My dad would always bring home blank paper from work - cheap government stuff. And my mom liked to dabble with paints. She had no pretensions, but she liked to copy Van Goghs with watercolor.
BW: That's ambitious!
RT: My mom was mostly a homemaker, but she was secretary to Thomas Turner, then dean of the Hopkins School of Medicine when I was born. And later she was secretary and assistant to Dr. Ira Miller, a general surgeon in Bethesda. She was proud of her work, and they were both interesting jobs. She never did anything with art, but she always liked to draw. She would draw for younger kids at various orphanages where she'd lived. She'd draw stuff with me, like Disney characters. . . . But I stuck with it longer than she did!
BW: Any other strips or cartoons that had any impact as a kid?
RT: Some strange ones. There was a panel called Mr. Tweedy about a hapless little guy. I don't remember who drew it. And there was Freddy by a guy who signed as Rupe. I think he was local.
BW: I don't know either one.
RT: I think it was probably in one paper. Also, Wizard of Id . . . BC . . . and Mad Magazine of course. I discovered that when I was probably ten.
BW: I remember there was some shock value in bringing Mad home.
RT: Right. (laughs) I remember the first time I picked it up in the grocery store and said I wanted to buy this. My parents looked at it and went ickkk. But my dad finally read it and started giggling. He had a good sense of humor, thankfully.
BW: My next-door neighbor bought it regularly, and he'd bring it over and I'd pore over the drawings. Eventually I worked up the nerve to ask my mom if I could get it. There were a number of years when I really thought Mad was the cat's pajamas, although now I think it was pretty formulaic. But even as a kid, it seemed out of the mainstream of cartooning. It was off in its own world.
RT: It seemed to open up this whole subculture.
BW: Could you imagine yourself doing something in that direction?
RT: Kinda vaguely.
BW: I could never see a way in. I couldn't imagine myself drawing movie and TV satires. I guess Don Martin did the closest thing to a regular cartoon, but in that grotesque style. Or Dave Berg's whatever. . . .
RT: The Lighter Side Of (laughs). I'd often read it first. It was always so square!
BW: Right! So what did you respond to in Mad? What aspect?
RT: Oh, the art. The Aragones drawings in the margins and stuff like that. There was no one thing. Spy vs. Spy, which was kind of exotic. And of course the parodies, where you discover caricature.
BW: I marveled at Mort Drucker, but I didn't see any road between here and there. At that age, my drawing skills were pretty much limited to drawing things in side-view outlines.
RT: I would try, but . . . I do remember seeing David Levine drawings of Nixon in like, sixth grade, in my classroom. My teacher was an anti-Nixonite. These beautiful, elegant drawings of Nixon - I remember being fascinated by them. He was using ink like paint, almost.
BW: What, the hatching?
RT: Yeah. So elegant.
BW: I never really responded to Levine. The likenesses were strong, but sort of like stone sculpture, or something - not warm. I dunno. I remember Oliphant's caricatures really impressed me - so wild and cartoony, compared to Drucker.
But getting a likeness is really hard. What made you want to do that?
RT: Caricature was something that'd always interested me. Later, as a freelancer, I thought the more arrows in my quiver, the better. When I showed the art director at the Post, Mike Keegan, some pages of caricature sketches, he was delighted. I was suddenly taken more seriously too. I remember the British show Spitting Image had just premiered, and it gave me the kick I needed.
BW: Hm, I'm trying to think what else was in the air back then. . . .
RT: I remember we had a bunch of New Yorker cartoon books in the classroom. This is like fifth or sixth grade. The teacher would bring them from home or something.
BW: OK, you moved in more sophisticated circles than I did!
RT: I didn't quite understand them. There's a Roz Chast drawing about her as a child finding Charles Addams cartoons, and I remember finding those too, and how gruesome they were. And the painting in them was soft and -
BW: The grays?
RT: Yeah, like no one else.
BW: I was probably a bit older when I saw New Yorkers. You know, if it was a cartoon, I'd jump to read it, but I don't remember them making much impact. Well, actually, I still like George Booth a lot. He's one of the few New Yorker cartoonists whose drawings are funny.
RT: I remember being impressed with New Yorker cartoons, but I probably didn't understand much.
BW: How about comic books? Nothing?
RT: Some. They were hard to find. I'd find them occasionally, and then I'd probably whine till I got them. If they were Batmans.
BW: Really, they were hard to find? My town had three drugstores that used to carry them, and I'd get them sometimes, but superhero comics didn't do a lot for me.
RT: Archie and whatnot . . . I had a few of those but I was never really into them.
BW: One summer my neighbor gave me this huge box of Archie comic books, and I read them in the car on some family vacation. I have no idea where he got them, but there were a zillion of the things, so my brother and I sat in the backseat reading one after another until it nearly killed us. We read ten thousand Archie comic books and they were all exactly the same.
RT: And the drawings are so clean.
BW: Yeah, very slick. Even then I thought they were dumb and outdated. It's a bizarre memory.
How about underground comix? Did they have any impact on you?
RT: Some. I came late to undergrounds. I had friends who collected them (Henry Allen has Zap #0) but my main exposure was all in histories and anthologies. I liked, revered, Crumb, though he is overwhelming, and thought Wonder Warthog was freaking hilarious.
BW: I saw some in college and I liked Wonder Warthog too, but on the whole, the undergrounds didn't make much connection. I preferred sillier, more cartoony stuff, I suppose.
What non-cartoon things made an impression on you as a kid?
RT: My folks liked doing things and making me a part of it. I remember when the Mona Lisa came to town. I was about six. We stood in line for a long time. Red draperies and guards every few feet, and then eventually, there it is. My mom liked it a lot. The whole way, she was telling me what an important painting it was and the story of it. She had a great appreciation for culture. She didn't have any great understanding of it so much as just liked it, I guess.
BW: Wow, I guess you're one of the few people who's ever seen it without a foot of bulletproof glass in front of it.
RT: I think so. You couldn't get right up to it - there were velvet ropes. But you could breathe the same air.
BW: (laughs) I don't remember much exposure to fine art - just the popular culture of the day. I think of my childhood as the Batman TV show, the Beatles, and the moon landings. Although I do remember in middle school there were a few years when I read all the Doctor Dolittle books. I loved those - the idea of talking to animals. A PETA sensibility ahead of its time. It probably had some subliminal influence on my strip. What aspects of pop culture did you participate in?
RT: Well yes, the moon landings and takeoffs. You knew it was important when the teacher pushed the TV into the classroom.
BW: What types of drawings did you do as a kid?
RT: Monsters. (BW laughs) There was a girl in fourth grade who liked to draw monsters too. I always wondered whatever happened to her.
BW: So were your drawings narrative at all?
RT: Somewhat. I never had the patience to finish them. I'd get these grandiose ideas and draw the cover, and -
BW: Like Petey's ongoing graphic novel that -
RT: - never will be finished, yeah.
BW: Were you trying to write humorous stuff?
RT: Probably. It was probably very awful. Some adventure and space stuff. Everything.
BW: I think most everything I drew was designed as a comic strip.
RT: That's how you saw yourself.
BW: Well, I don't know if it was any real vision of myself. It's just that's what I thought cartooning was. I took the Peanuts model without a whole lot of introspection or considering of alternatives. And really, if it was something different, I just wasn't that interested. A narrow little vision of things. I'd try to come up with a character and some sort of story, and something that was intended to be a punchline. But you were more just drawing stuff that interested you for its own sake?
RT: I'd just try stuff. It was kind of lame, I'm sure.
BW: Did you think so at the time?
RT: Well, probably.
BW: You weren't impressed with what you did?
RT: Not too much. It didn't stop me though!
BW: (laughs) So by high school, were you drawing for the school newspaper or anything?
RT: Yeah, my last year.
BW: What type of work?
RT: Oh, whatever.
BW: Single-panel cartoons?
RT: Yeah, and editorial, illustrating articles, whatever. We had a real good paper in high school.
BW: Did you write for it as well or just draw cartoons?
RT: Some. I wrote an interview with Brant Parker, who did Wizard of Id.
RT: I had a teacher who knew him slightly, and said "you should call him." I was nervous. A couple of years ago I found this note to myself that said, "Hi, Mr. Parker. My name is Richard Thompson." (BW and RT laugh) He had his studio in an old bungalow that was a saddle shop, and it smelled real good. My dad took me down and there he was. So I asked him the usual "where do you get your ideas" and stuff. I thought Brant's studio was immensely glamorous. There was a flag on the ceiling, a huge drawing board, the TV was on with the sound off, a kitchenette, cartoons everywhere, and the whole place smelled of leather and saddle soap. And he got to go there every day! He was extremely courteous and affable.
BW: Was he the first cartoonist you had contact with? Did you write to anyone?
RT: I wrote to Dik Browne, who did Hagar the Horrible. I got his address from the roster of a group I belonged to, a medieval reenactment group. It was insanely geeky, but also a reason to go off in the woods with swords and beer and girls. It was focused on pre-Battle of Hastings history and Dik Browne was an honorary member. A year later he answered my letter with an apology. It was a very nice note, but I didn't follow up on it. You know, what are you gonna do?
BW: I wrote to Schulz when I was maybe eight. He wrote back - it was a form letter, but I didn't know that. It was on stationery that had a nice drawing, and boy, it just sent me over the moon. I always remembered how exciting and important that had been to me, so for years, I personally answered all the mail that came in. The first letters, at the beginning, I did on a typewriter. (RT laughs) It took a lot of time. Once we got a computer, my wife and I could sort of categorize answers. Most of the letters were requests - "love your strip, give me something" - and after the sabbatical, it just all seemed too much, so I asked the syndicate to deal with it.
RT: The syndicate offered to handle it for me.
BW: Now it's different, but back then, this was the only direct contact you had with readers.
RT: I had a friend who called Charles Schulz and he answered the phone! "Hello, this is Charles Schulz." Shocked him. He expected to go through several layers.
BW: (laughing) I'll bet! . . . I'd have hung up!
So when did your interest kick into high gear? Shaun Tan, the writer and illustrator, said something to the effect that people always ask "when did you start drawing?" but the fact is that everyone draws as a kid, so the more interesting question is when do people stop? You know, people get frustrated with their skills or find other interests more compelling, or whatever. What kept you going? Did you just keep meandering around for fun, or did you get a different sort of ambition?
RT: I guess high school focused it some, but it was still pretty amorphous. I kept thinking, well, I should do something with this. My folks, and especially my mother, were very supportive, so I kind of felt like, if I did not keep at it, I'd be letting them down. . . . Also, I needed an answer to the question of "what do you want to do?"
BW: (laughs) Lots of people like cartoons, but very few go on to become cartoonists. Can you say what it was about cartoons, or certain kinds of cartoons, that made you say, yep, this is the thing for me? Or was that not your response? I'm trying to get a bead on what clicked for you, and how.
RT: That's an interesting point, about "why do people stop drawing"? I just kept going with it. It was fun and filled some need and filled the time. Maybe I got so addicted to drawing as a quiet, indoor activity that nothing could take its place.
BW: I remember it was a thrill when my work got printed. Until then, drawing cartoons was ephemeral - you'd show it to your mom and she'd say that's nice, and that was it. I think I basically looked at childhood as killing time until I could be a cartoonist (RT laughs), so I went to the high school paper because they'd print anything, and then I went to the college paper, and so on. Getting published made it seem real.
RT: Hanging around the office in high school was a lot of fun. Probably too much. It was a great experience and a wonderful way to waste time. The college paper was not quite as fun.
BW: More serious?
RT: It took a while to kind of kick in. Not as friendly. Eventually it became more so.
BW: What sort of work did you do for the college paper?
RT: Same stuff.
BW: Just whatever came into your mind?
RT: Yeah. I wrote too. I think I wrote a review of Monty Python and the Holy Grail . . . which probably still stands today. (BW laughs) I had a journalism class and had to cover a public transportation story. They'd started a cheap bus line for commuters in the county. I rode it a lot. I was trying to do the assignment quickly with as little human contact as possible, and the guy on the phone started in on facts and figures. Right then I knew I'd never be a journalist. I asked, "Was it a success?" He said, "Yes." I said, "OK, thanks!" (BW laughs) It didn't take long to teach you all this. But I guess I passed.
BW: Somewhere along the line, your drawing and painting skills got seriously advanced. What art or drawing training did you have? Was cartooning always the goal, or did you keep your options open?
RT: I've had a few good teachers but I guess I'm mostly self-taught. Which is mostly stealing from everyone you like. I feel like everything worth learning is worth teaching yourself. You end up reinventing the wheel several times over, but it's a good way to invent something new. If you've got the time to waste and you're not too goal-oriented. And yeah, cartooning was always in the forefront, but I get bored doing one thing.
BW: We talked about the strips you read growing up, but what about the classic strips that were long gone by then? Did those shape your thinking much? Krazy Kat really set off fireworks for me when I was drawing Calvin and Hobbes. The better I got, the more it taught me. People today would not believe how difficult it used to be to find and read the early comic strips. How did you discover them, and which ones, if any, had a serious impact on you?
RT: I discovered, or started discovering, old classic strips when I was in high school. I remember the occasion. Sometime in the mid-'70s, the Kennedy Center mounted a show of historic cartoons. All the greats were in it. As a matter of fact, there was an ancient pencil drawing of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie that had slipped loose of its mat, so I tucked it back in, marveling that I was touching a bit of History. Disney, Krazy Kat, Barney Google, all the usual suspects. I was no expert.
Of all the comics on display, none appealed to me like a Krazy Kat Sunday page. It had a depth and charm that kept pulling me back to stare at that inky, scratchy piece of ancient Bristol board. I remember that some of the white lines were scraped into the inky patches, going right back to the white Bristol. Wow.
BW: Right, in places it's almost like scratchboard, drawing with white. He also scratched away tiny mistakes. The originals aren't caked with white-out like mine; they're gorgeous. But what I'm curious to know is, where do you personally connect with what Herriman brought to comics? I mean, there are some comic strips that I'm happy to acknowledge are great, but which don't open any doors for me. Steve Canyon, or something. Other works, like Krazy Kat, lit a fuse in my head and blew down the walls. Where does Krazy Kat fit for you?
RT: I can't say that Krazy Kat is a deep personal touchstone, because I did not discover it until I was in high school or later. But it is the strip that sets off fireworks for me too. I love the way Herriman pushes the medium as far as he can. It's done with such casual playfulness.
One big thing it does: It makes me want to do what Herriman's doing. Not copy him - every time I try to imitate his style it looks boring. Like imitating Herriman's dramatic lighting effects where it looks like high noon but the sky is pitch-black. Yeah, I want to draw Krazy Kat, but my own way. It makes me want to do something comparable in depth and gesture. Silly, no?
BW: I think I know what you mean. It's such a pure vision - that's what we all aspire to. But you're right, you can't copy it, because it's so quirky and personal that it just screams "phony" in anyone else's hands. What seems silly and natural with Herriman looks precious and contrived outside its own context. Obviously, I learned a lot from Krazy Kat's panel designs in my own Sunday strips, but mostly, I think Krazy Kat made me more attuned to timing, language, and how you express the idea. Heaven knows, the guy drew thirty years of strips with just one joke, so he got very inventive in how he said it, and that's the fun of it.
RT: Herriman has things that would work in no other medium, like the constant changes in background detail, and you know he only does it to avoid the boredom of drawing something over and over. And the presentation: It's theatrical and artificial, yet when the wind blows through and the weather changes, the effect is more natural than nature. It's a heightened reality.
I can see how people miss the point of the strip. I have friends who just don't get it; it's not for everybody. If you get it, you get it. If you don't, you don't. But once you decipher Krazy Kat and learn its odd and hilarious humor, it opens a whole new world like no other. There are strips that are classics that I respond to on many levels without loving them (Little Nemo is one). I can enjoy such strips without really learning too much from them. But Krazy Kat is a whole course in comics. A feast.
BW: I feel the same in admiring, but not loving, Nemo. It's wonderfully imaginative visually, but I find the strip very thin. The setting is always more interesting than the characters. Your satire of Little Nemo goes back some years before you used it in Cul de Sac, right? What brought on "Little Neuro"?
RT: It was an idea for a predecessor to Richard's Poor Almanac that I put together for the Washington Post's Outlook section in the late '80s and went nowhere. It was merely clever, like most early ideas.
BW: A predecessor? You mean like a regular feature?
RT: I almost did a weekly comic. Fortunately, I dawdled it to death. I wasn't ready for such a thing, but it got me thinking in terms of a weekly strip. One page of roughs was a whole series of Little Neuros. It's like the genesis of Calvin and Hobbes; you have disparate pieces that need to be fit together.
BW: You did a cartoon essay on bigfoot cartooning that I absolutely love. It's all true, and describing Beetle Bailey as "Bigfoot Moderne" makes me laugh every time I think of it.
RT: Thanks. I made it up as I went along. I enjoyed using art speak on something as silly as bigfoot cartoons.
BW: Barney Google, Popeye . . . don't you miss some of that rollicking energy in comics now? When was the last time a comic character jumped out of his socks when he heard the punchline?
RT: It was about the last time a character's derby hat jumped off his head in response to some similar stimuli. Yeah, I do miss it in comics now.
BW: I've changed my mind about things - I think comics have gotten too sophisticated for their own good! You should always feel a teeny twinge of embarrassment when you read a comic strip.
If there's not something a bit stupid or sleazy in it, you're doing it wrong.
RT: "Teeny twinge" of embarrassment is entirely too small; I prefer a full-on debilitating attack of shame with my comics.
BW: Says the guy who drew cartoons about Mozart and James Joyce! OK, let's jump ahead. One thing that strikes me is how different the Almanac is from Cul de Sac in their basic construction. The Almanac is utterly freewheeling in its subject matter and approach, while the comic strip, of course is constrained by the consistent characters, setting, and format. How did you respond to those differences? Was either one more liberating or more frustrating?
RT: My plan, insofar as I had one, was that the Almanac would be different each time. It wasn't titled anything. I couldn't think of a title for it. My editor said, just make it different each time. Thankfully, I had some really good editors. Eventually they just kind of left me alone. I'd figured out by then that I can usually tell when I'm not being funny, but I can't tell when I'm being incoherent. It took three years before I came up with the title and that was accidental.
BW: I can't think of another cartoon like it. It's so idiosyncratic that I imagine the genius of it is also the curse - it's just stuff going through your head.
RT: And can you make sense of it?
BW: Yeah, can you make sense of it, and can you do it again?
RT: (laughs) Exactly!
BW: Did you enjoy that freedom?
RT: Eventually, yeah. I figured it out, and realized, hey, I can do anything - make a fool out of myself. But it was also kind of liberating that I never had much feedback from readers. I didn't know if anyone was reading the thing, so I could just have fun. Until I'm discovered - that's the danger!
BW: I remember that too. When I was first doing editorial cartoons for a suburban newspaper, there was never any response from readers, and I was being paid next to nothing, so eventually I developed a what-the-heck attitude, where I just started trying stuff. You know, if nobody cares, I'm going to amuse myself. And you learn a lot that way. I guess it's the one upside to having a minuscule, indifferent audience.
But I picture the Almanac being like The Far Side or something, where OK, you can talk about anything, but every day you've got to get the engine going from a dead cold start. Was the strip any easier, working with the same characters every day, or did it seem confining?
RT: I was always kind of scared of doing a strip. A former editor, Tom Shroder, who was then editor of the Washington Post Magazine, asked if I'd like do something with continuing characters, and I said kind of . . . but maybe not. A half-assed answer. I'd had a talk with my friend, the freelance cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, a few years before about "do you have a comic strip in you?" My answer was "no!" The idea of endless deadlines scared me.
There's something more personal about a strip too. You're exposing your imagination in different ways, not hiding behind these funny jokes all the time, or hiding behind pop culture. You're compelled to think about working with people who have names, and you have to design a little world for them.
I don't know. It took a while. I thought about it for a year. Dragging my feet. (laughs) I've had all these dream jobs, but I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to each one. (BW laughs) In retrospect, it's kind of like, "Stupid! What were you waiting for?!" But it seemed to work out OK.
BW: Well, you had a different situation. For me, doing a comic strip was an alternative to unemployment. I wasn't afraid of failure, because there was nowhere down to go. That's not much risk compared to adding a strip onto all your existing freelance work and the Almanac.
RT: But you were doing it daily. I was just doing the strip on Sundays for the Post Magazine, so I sort of eased into it. As I went, I started thinking, OK what are the characters doing on the days in between these Sundays? That made it easier. It kind of snuck up on me.
BW: What did you think about working weekly at the beginning?
RT: I liked it. I did that, and the caricatures for U.S. News & World Report, and the Almanac all together. And freelance stuff.
BW: You painted the Post version of the strip with watercolor, unlike the flat printed colors the regular comics have. That part was important to you?
RT: I enjoyed doing it.
BW: You wanted something lush and illustrative?
BW: One of the things that surprises me even now, looking at the early strips, is how fully realized the world is. There's not the groping for situations and characters that you see in most new strips. By the time this actually appeared in print, you seemed to have a pretty clear idea of what you wanted to do. But working weekly is a tough way to establish continuity.
RT: Yeah, in a weekly strip you have to remind people where you are and who's who.
BW: So how did all of it work for you?
RT: Well, Alice was kind of narrating her life. And it was kids in a suburb and a preschool. I know that, I've been there. So, then it was memory after that - what made me laugh? What was funny about this, what was funny about that? People seemed to recognize it too, so that was good. So much of it came from life. You change a little bit, but it's identifiable.
BW: You had the entire preschool cast from the beginning.
RT: I know these kids. The mom was based on my wife, Amy, and my mom and her mom. Petey is like the anti-Bart Simpson. Bart Simpson is cool; OK, what's not?
BW: Petey is one of those characters where, once you see him, you wonder how the world ever went around without him.
RT: That was something I worried about for years. Creating characters is so hard, I thought. For years! I remember looking at Walt Kelly's stuff, and Beauregard Hound Dog, and he's narrating what he's doing, and he's doing nothing! "The noble dog . . . !" (BW and RT laugh) and he'd be no help at all, and it was just so funny! I'd look at it and go ohhhh (hopelessly).
BW: I was thinking a while ago that you broke several of what I would consider comic strip rules right from the beginning of Cul de Sac. It all works beautifully, but I'm not sure how. The first thing I'd have said is you've thrown too many characters at us with this preschool class. The reader will never figure out who they all are. But, actually, that turns out not to be true. Over time, we catch up and start seeing the connections and personalities that have been there all along. There's a lag time, but it's really fun when you start to understand who Dill is, for example, and realize that he's a great personality in the strip.
RT: With the two strong characters, though, you're seeing it all through them.
BW: True, but you were giving all these other kids their own voices, and they were getting some of the punchlines! And I'd have said, no, no, no, Alice is your main character. If Alice is in the room, she gets to make the joke - that's a rule. You didn't push the other kids into the background as I would have done. So the big ensemble surprised me, and that's fun.
And I also would have said you cannot have a main character devoted to stasis! (RT laughs) I'd have thought, man, Petey's going to send you into a dead end by the second week! If a character avoids all confrontation with life, you know, there's no comic strip. . . ! But there is! Again, a year later, I was thinking, ooh, I wish I had thought of that! It's brilliant, but it's nuts.
Did you think of these as unconventional choices, or was this just how things occurred to you?
RT: Not so much unconventional, but I wanted ideas I hadn't seen before. Petey's not been done before, so I liked that.
BW: Did you know Petey was gold when you thought him up?
RT: It took a while. He's just a quiet lunatic. He's the hermit king or something. He's up there smelling his bag of comic books. The peculiar smell of an old comic book. He's peering into this bag and he's huffing . . . (BW laughs) that vinegar smell.
BW: He's so specific! That's one of the things I really like about the strip. The characters are so particular - every one of them. And they're visually particular too. Most cartoonists just have a couple of stock heads and they just put different hair on them, but yours are all very individualized. Like Viola, the girl Petey seems a bit interested in, just seems so real.
RT: She's based on a kid I saw waiting for a school bus at a street corner. She had a big beret, and long tall socks up to her knees. She visually impacted me. I don't know who she was. She had a big head of hair too. And she was like Julia Child - large.
BW: Right! There's that time in school when all the girls are bigger than than the boys!
RT: Yeah, my wife noticed that when she was teaching Shakespeare. The kids are in fifth grade, and they're doing Romeo and Juliet, and when they do the casting, all the Juliets are this tall and the Romeos are this tall (gestures lower). Different!
I found writing the kids so easy. I enjoyed it so much in the Almanacs, whenever I'd have kids in it. Their opinions just flowed, and writing it was so much fun. I thought maybe I could do this forever.
BW: It just clicked for you.
RT: You look to see what's working for you and what's not. Does it come easily or does it come hard?
BW: Yeah, when I was sending in my first strip submissions, I was always trying to imagine things out of nothing and bullshit my way through it. That never worked. They were dead on arrival. But once I focused on Calvin, the motor started humming. I finally knew what I was talking about.
RT: You did the logic so well.
BW: My problem was writing plots. How about you? You've done a few of them - longer stories.
RT: I never knew where I was going.
BW: Did you resolve them before you sent them in, or were you really up against the deadline?
RT: (laughs) I was really up against the deadline!
BW: (laughs) See, that makes my heart pound, just to imagine working that way. I wanted a big lead time. I'd always write the whole story before I'd ink a single panel, because I was so afraid that I'd paint myself into a corner and not know what to do.
RT: I figured I would eventually.
BW: Boy, I never trusted that. Because, really, you not only want the story to make sense, but ideally, to have some sort of payoff at the end as well. I figured the odds of that happening on the fly were about nil.
RT: I did one story; it was a preschool winter pageant. It was so much fun to write. It was like, what's the worst thing that can happen each time? All these things are going wrong in the play, Dill is a head cold germ, and he's leaping in, attacking kids, and the payoff is that the mother's [strangely animated] sweater, after being on the fritz, finally spells out "Merry Christmas." And it was, boom, so that's what happens!
BW: I've noticed that you talk about the frustrations of drawing and the ease or flow of the writing. Is that actually the case? It sure wasn't that way for me.
RT: Part of it is that, just physically, writing is a lot easier than drawing. I mean, you turn in a drawing, and it has to be physically "perfect," clean, legible, and camera-ready. With writing none of that matters, and you can fix and change things (like spelling) right up till the last minute. This is an obvious point, but still. . . . And writing just came easier. I usually overwrote everything, then threw out whatever didn't fit. That was when I'd decide what it was about, what he point was. It usually changed a few times in the writing process. Although sometimes the point didn't reveal itself - then I'd keep going, trying to stay alert for any clue that would tie things together.
BW: When did you figure out you could write characters? None of your illustration work or the Almanac would have prepared you for that, and I'd say that very few cartoonists write truly character-driven strips. They write situations and gags, and the characters are simply the vehicles for that.
RT: It was one of the hardest things, and I was wary of it for a long time. I think I finally figured it out by working with Alice and Petey as opposites. And they also like each other, or tolerate each other. In some earlier version I had them fighting all the time. It was not funny. It was stupid, like a sit-com or something. I knew it was going nowhere. You get to the point where you think, well, instead of this happening, maybe this happens, and you step out of your box a little bit. You realize you're working with a stereotype, so you think, OK instead of having him insult her, how about if he says something nice. And things became easier.
BW: Did you have some instinct, or was it just playing around and seeing, OK, this opens a door?
RT: Yeah, yeah. It gets more interesting.
BW: I remember being nervous at the beginning whenever I had to make a decision about Calvin, because I didn't want to choose something that would box me in later. At the beginning, every day requires those kinds of decisions. Can he read? Does he take piano lessons? Even superficial stuff, like what the character looks like. You see strips that go along for ten years, and the characters start to look out of date, so there's the inevitable story where they go get a new hairstyle and come out looking more fashionable and contemporary.
BW: (laughs) But your interest from the beginning was in the characters more than the jokes?
RT: I wanted the characters to be identifiable, so you say, I know this person, or I was this person. Without it being mawkish or anything.
BW: I think I heard somewhere that Stephan Pastis advised cartoonists not to start by constructing a cast of characters and all that. He said, write a bunch of jokes, and the jokes will show you the strip's world and characters. Which is a very different approach.
RT: I can't do that. I can't write jokes. I never do the set-up and punchline. I'd write something kind of funny, but it's not the same kind of funny. Not like telling a joke.
BW: Right. It's Petey himself that's funny. Whatever he says becomes funny because he's the one saying it.
RT: Yeah, that makes it so much easier. I felt I could write about anything. I remember one of the first interviews I gave to some reporter somewhere. She called and I told her, "the particular is always more funny than the general." And she said, "Could you be more specific?" (BW and RT laugh) . . . And I couldn't think of anything! I hemmed and hawed for ten minutes. (laughter)
BW: I think you broke another cartooning rule by introducing Ernesto, (RT laughs) who has become my second-favorite character. I'd have said, if your main character is weird, don't add a character who's even weirder! I'd be afraid Ernesto would make Petey look normal.
RT: He conflicts with Petey. He's not likable, like Petey is. Petey, you sort of feel for.
BW: Right. Petey's more vulnerable.
RT: Whereas Ernesto's more of a mystery, by design. I remember I drew him because Petey needed to have a foil, because otherwise it would just be him and the other kids, and he didn't really fit in. He and Alice are different. Early on I figured it's more interesting if you can mix in any direction. You can't have a formula about this character and this character. It becomes like a machine.
BW: Yeah, but I think that's what a lot of cartoonists are looking for - that machine. Because, once you've built the machine, you just turn it on and it cranks out the material. You were trying to avoid machines?
RT: Yeah. I remember reading a book by Anne Tyler who wrote The Accidental Tourist and some others. They were all about different sorts of odd people and misfits and sort of embarrassing things. In one part there was this kid with asthma who's kind of a nerd and he's sitting next to this jock who was sort of a juvenile delinquent, and they got on like balls of fire. It was a small bit, not integral to the plot. And I liked that. It was unexpected. It worked.
BW: I'm sure that keeping relationships in flux like that is more exciting for you as well as for the reader, but that's a tough way to work on a deadline, year after year.
RT: But it's also easier in some ways, because you can go in any direction.
BW: OK, I see.
RT: I think the one mistake I made in the strip was talking animals. I was kind of iffy about that.
BW: Mr. Danders?
RT: It was fun for awhile, but some people liked it and some people didn't. It didn't quite jell.
BW: I thought he worked. It all seemed to fit as I got into the strip's world.
RT: He's kind of obnoxious, kind of insufferable. (BW laughs) Nobody ever calls him by his right name, just "the guinea pig."
BW: (laughing) And he pretty much has only monologues, because the kids don't pay attention to him, and he's full of condescension toward them! I like how everyone's talking and nobody's listening. Or he's in a life-threatening situation, stuck out on the highway, and the kids have stopped caring - they've moved on! (BW and RT laugh)
How did Dill come about? He seems slightly icky and maybe not too bright, but he's very sweet and almost poetic underneath.
RT: I just wanted a character who was a little loose in the head, like Churchy LaFemme from Pogo. I figured if he's the youngest, accidental, brother of many brothers, he'd be a wild child, left to his own devices, wears shorts in the winter, probably doesn't eat so well, etc. He kinda accrued characteristics - like perpetual stickiness - that seemed fitting.
BW: What about the egg-throwing grandma with her bear-sized dog? I love the way she looks. She's so odd and so specific that I'm a little nervous to ask how you came up with her.
RT: Grandma is based on my grandma, my dad's mother, who lived to 101. She was much less threatening, though she did have two large dogs that scared my brother. My uncle Jack, a huge comics fan, said one day he opened the paper [to Cul de Sac] and "there was my mother." She used to stay up all night reading and making food, and I remember a large plate of deviled eggs showing up one morning. I knew that would make my dad laugh.
BW: How do you see the strip in your career? You've done such a wide range of stuff. Is Cul de Sac just another train stop, or do you see it as a culmination?
RT: It retrospect, yeah. It all came together.
BW: What aspect of the strip makes it seem more fulfilling, or important, or whatever?
RT: Just the body of work. I'm sure you've had this feeling too. I'm happy with most all of it.
BW: Did you not feel that way with the other work?
RT: Not really.
BW: Really? Geez . . . going through the stack of your stuff, it's all so playful and fun. Even the little spot illustrations - I don't know what they were for, but they're delightful. Every piece just seems to pull out a different strength.
RT: Yeah, some of those were all right. The strip seemed to pull everything together that I did before. It seemed to flow so well.
BW: Tell me about some of your technique. Somewhere you said that "ink is a liquid medium." There are implications to that that I don't think most of us think about, or take advantage of.
RT: I think I learned that from Ronald Searle. His ink does everything you could possibly do. It drips and splatters - there's so much you can do with it. ?But you can do too much, too. I used to overdraw stuff fairly often. In one of my more pompous moments I said that an inked line has three characteristics that define it: weight, direction and velocity. Once you can control those you're sitting in gravy.
BW: I don't think I was so attuned to the medium and its properties. I tend to care more about results than process, so it was all very utilitarian for me. I used ink simply because ink makes a black line that reproduces well.
RT: You used a brush. I could never draw with a brush - even for coloring it's hard.
BW: Yeah, I started that in college, and it was a steep learning curve. I liked the sexy line of Walt Kelly. With a brush you could get these lovely swells around the curves. I also admired Pat Oliphant's brush work a lot. I think Oliphant once said a brush can look like a pen, but a pen can't look like a brush. But I never really thought about either in terms of playing with ink.
RT: You did an early drawing for Target magazine, where you mimicked Ralph Steadman.
BW: Yeah, Steadman really opened my eyes, but even there, it was not so much about the ink. I was struck by the violence of his drawing - how the crude marks conveyed outrage or horror. I thought, whoa, it's like he's drawing with a knife. His spatters look vomited, so I was interested in that emotional vocabulary. Again, it was the usefulness of those expressive tools.
But you seemed to get into the materials for their own sake with all the media you used. Is that true?
RT: I guess, probably. I'm not sure if it was helpful, or just time-killing. (BW laughs) I had a friend who was a really good painter, and he told me about ultramarine blue, and how it was very expensive and taken from Iraq.
BW: Lapis lazuli.
RT: Yeah, washed by hand and all this stuff. And in France in the 1800s they had a contest to develop a more simple pigment, and somebody came up with a method with sodium and something, which cost like two bucks and a quarter, and it instantly changed things. I thought that was so interesting. It's a tangent, a useless piece of information, but it was so cool.
BW: Just the alchemy of it?
RT: Yeah. Like imperial purple - it's made of some kind of whelk, it takes tens of thousands of whelks to dye one robe, and they've got this whole pile of stinking whelk shells to get the purple, and they ground them down to stain the robes. I thought, God, that's cool!
BW: (laughs) I've learned a little of that in recent years as I've studied painting. Reds that were made out of bugs, and all the horribly toxic pigments artist have used. . . . But was that all just part of the fun of drawing for you? Just playing with the stuff?
RT: This was kind of outside that - an unnecessary detour - -but it was a lot of fun. And I figured I'm using these things all the time, so I ought to know what I'm using. Different inks, what's good, what's bad. Like in watercolor, I had a friend who used dyes all the time, and they fade, sadly. It took a long time for me to like watercolor. I was scared of it for years. You know, if you make a mistake, that's it. It's over.
BW: I should've been more scared of watercolor than I was. The art critic Robert Hughes said, "Watercolor is a beginner's, but really a master's, medium." It's simple but unforgiving.
RT: But it's also less mess. And the accidents are always better than the intentional stuff. I started just using blue and brown to make it easier. And once I learned how to stretch paper, it became a whole lot easier. It was better than using all these sprays and things.
BW: I was looking at some of your stuff at the Library of Congress this morning, and I was trying to figure out what on earth you were using. You did stuff with alkyd oil paints and Liquin, right? And maybe there was some colored pencil in there? And crayon? And they looked like they were glazed with several layers. . . . And some of these were little bitty drawings!
RT: Yeah. Kinda stupid.
BW: (laughs) Well, that's certainly what I was thinking! It's beautiful, but I thought, this guy's doing all this on deadline?! (laughs) These are colors you peer into - it's exquisite - but I'd say, first of all, the subtlety won't reproduce, and second, this must've taken a month! What were you doing?
RT: Yeah, I was spraying Krylon on them to speed drying. All that stuff is toxic.
BW: Was this solely an effort to avoid watercolor? Or is it just what occurred to you? Or were you just messing around? I mean, of all the art materials you could use to color a cartoon, I can't imagine anyone else choosing all that! (RT laughs) But I guess you were you painting stuff anyway, right? Some of the caricatures were virtually full-on paintings.
RT: Trying to. Kinda lame.
BW: They're great!
RT: Some. I was drawing stuff beyond my experience. Grandiose ideas.
BW: Did you have some look in mind that you were trying to achieve?
RT: Kind of, but I finally found out I could not really do it. And these were more polished than I needed to do. Making messes is a lot more fun, and watercolor's better for that. Also, by this time we had kids, so I didn't want to be spraying toxic stuff. Don't spray the baby.
BW: (laughs) That was considerate of you. Your career shows what a wide range of skills you have in writing, drawing, and painting. Conceivably you could have taken those talents in a number of other directions. What is it about cartoons and comics that suited you so well as a vehicle for your personal expression and voice?
RT: I don't know, what do you think? Did I make the wrong decision? Is it too late to change my mind?
Cartooning seemed the most natural synthesis. I didn't have to really think about it. There were all kinds of other benefits, like I could work by myself, undisturbed, without shaving for days if need be. And personally it was a good fit. Growing up I'd watch TV with my brother and we'd make fun of whatever was on, trying to outdo each other and get the other laughing really hard. Silly stuff. But fun. I was never the class clown, but I liked being funny. I never understood the world of fine art, though I like modern art well enough. So cartooning was the easy way out. And in my house it certainly wasn't looked down on. My folks would've been disappointed if I'd dropped cartooning.
BW: I'm assuming you were interested in that British tradition of cartooning, Searle, Steadman, Scarfe. What aspect of that appealed to you?
RT: I was twenty when I got a book of Searle's. It was a revelation, what he could do. Some people were trying to do exactly that, but it did not work. You have to go beyond it or you'll fall short.
BW: I came to Searle more via Oliphant, I guess. I tended to like the people who branched off from Searle. Oliphant and Steadman were more important to me than Searle himself. I'm not sure why.
RT: I liked Levine.
BW: That's a different kind of line altogether.
RT: Or Sorel. I love his stuff.
BW: Hmm, I never cared for his work. All those swoopy lines. Too many lines.
RT: Really? It's like they're carved into the paper. It's sort of indefinite. He's always looking.
BW: Right, he finds the form through all of it.
RT: I watched a video of him recently. He draws without roughs. Ink on paper, that's it. It's so ballsy. I watch that and go, "God." I get so frustrated. He has this intricate drawing and he starts here and he starts there and you watch it all come together, and it's fascinating, but I think I could never do that. . . . Well, I could, but eventually I'd kill myself. . . . Or somebody else.
BW: Does he have to go through three or four drawings to get a good one?
RT: At least. I think if you can do it, God, more power to you.
BW: But you tend to draw stuff over and over too, right?
RT: Yeah, but I do some slip-sheeting. One sheet on top of another.
BW: Using a lightbox.
BW: How did working with the lightbox come about and why did you do that? It seems unwieldy compared to just inking over a pencil line.
RT: The lightbox was a lifesaver! I have real trouble inking over pencil; I'm distracted by the pencil lines, I always screw it up. I love the look of an ink-and-paper drawing with no pencil used as a guide. And for color pieces I needed a way to ink on Bristol board, and later onto watercolor paper. And my roughs can be messy. I liked how a lightbox let me separate the pencils and inks. I got to keep the roughs too, so I always considered them as a form of art of their own, potentially at least.?
And I really like roughs. Ninety-nine percent of my roughs are better, livelier than my finals (that seems a fairly universal sentiment among artists). You get to see the thought process behind the art.
And the lightbox helped me make the switch to watercolors, which should've happened much sooner.
BW: In your work there's this balancing act between accident and control. Even my loose lines were not high-risk situations. But you seem to like to work in that area where things could go terribly wrong.
RT: "Disaster averted," someone said. (BW laughs) I remember working, having six drawings of the same thing on the floor, and my mother came in and said, "What are you doing? You're wasting your time." I couldn't explain what was wrong, but I knew that if I was forced to finish one of those drawings, it would be wrong somehow. I'd throw them away and eventually there'd be one that was right for me at the end.
BW: Does Searle connect to this process?
RT: No, I hear Searle knew what he was doing every inch of the way.
BW: When you learn from your teachers, I think the bad students slavishly copy and the good students pick and choose what they want. There's a critique as well as an homage in the relationship to the teacher.
RT: It might be subconscious.
BW: It might be, but on some level, you're saying, wellllllll, I like this part, but I don't like that part quite so much. Can you say what parts of these artists we've talked about do and don't connect with you?
RT: Well, with Searle I like the sketchy stuff best. Seeing the thought behind it. It took me awhile to get that.
BW: I've become more interested in that lately. The viewer gets to participate a bit in the artist's process. When things become too finished and perfect, it sort of shuts you out and it's less interesting.
RT: Yeah. The accidents, the thumbprints, the mistakes.
BW: What about cartooniness versus realism? One of the things about all your work that's been a revelation to me is how you've taken all these things that I hate to draw, like architecture and cars, and you've made them look like they were a blast. I don't know why I didn't think to push that more. Obviously, anything can be drawn a thousand ways, so how did you decide the direction you went?
RT: I always thought about what would make it fun to draw. One time I had to draw the Senate floor - all these desks, and chairs and people. All that perspective. But it was kind of a pattern. It's about not caring about stuff. I had trouble drawing all those things in front of other things.
BW: You just let the line go right through the chair.
RT: Yeah. Who cares? You make your own rules.
BW: How did you discover that?
RT: Accident. Years of doing it the other way.
BW: That's exactly the type of assignment I wouldn't have a clue what to do with.
RT: Crowd scenes, all that stuff. Of course in a comic strip, you don't do so much of that. Although I do remember drawing a whole room full of people watching Petey's oboe recital. "Why'd I do that?!" (BW laughs) And one time I had to draw the Metro with a car full of people, and I just figured, let's make it fun. Turn a chore into comedy. I don't know if that answers the question. It's self-indulgent, but it works.
BW: Well, the great thing about that is it transmits that fun to the reader. I always think the reader doesn't have any fun unless the cartoonist has fun first.
RT: Yeah, otherwise you see the labor.
BW: Right. I've done so many drawings like that, where I go, "ughh, architecture!" and I construct it, and the finished drawing has all the joy of that construction - which is none. These goofy things you do instead are just delightful. And you pick these difficult things! These restaurants with all the crap hanging on the walls and ceilings! First of all, I would never even set a story there. (RT laughs) But you do it, and the drawing adds so much. Everybody recognizes those crazy places, and Petey's sort of creeped out by the big moose head or something over his table, and it's all funny and true. The same with the "restaurant closings" in the Almanac - there's an affection for these weird environments that comes through in the drawings.
RT: I like taking some boring place in D.C., like the window of a dry cleaners, and there's some dead flies in there, a rubber plant . . . you know, I've been there.
BW: What did you start with when you started the strip in the Washington Post?
RT: Just the family and the preschool. The rest just happened. Last summer I was going to do something with the grandma, and Mrs. Otterloop was going to take off, and Grandma was going to watch the kids, which would be disastrous. (BW laughs) And Alice was going to recognize briefly, fleetingly, that she and Grandma have something in common, some common ground.
They're undoubtedly a lot alike. So there'd be a tiny, momentary epiphany. But you can't really have a great change. It would be growth.
BW: Yeah, one of the strange things about comic strips is that you don't want your stories to go anywhere. All this stuff happens, but afterward, you're right back where you started, so you can do it again. The stories aren't linear, they're looping. I think that's funny. One of my ongoing jokes was that Calvin never learned anything from anything he did.
Did your writing process change when you went from the weekly Post strip to daily syndication?
RT: Yeah. Of course with the daily there are so many chances to tell a joke. You can spread it out over a week, as long as each strip is equally OK. There's nothing quite like it. The access to the audience is right there. It startled me, what people pick up on. I got a letter from a kid about the fish-slapping bear, and I wrote that years ago. I like working with small things, small ideas.
BW: Yes, I do too.
RT: Big ones are too big. I like the idea of something like gravel in the street. (BW laughs) It's funny! There's something funny about it, I'm not sure what. But you could have a whole a week about it! It flexes your talents somehow.
BW: . . . On minutiae!
RT: Yeah, I drew Dill crawling after a bug. Why? For no reason. The bug crosses the street and Dill can't. (BW laughs) You think, why is this funny? It's inexplicable. But it is.