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Coping With Disease While Capturing Childhood

MICHEL MARTIN, host: Next, we open up the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. And this week, there was a particularly poignant story that caught our eye about someone who found his life's work, but whose body is slowly robbing him of the ability to do it.

We're talking about Richard Thompson, the creator of Cul-de-Sac, a daily comic strip syndicated to some 150 papers worldwide. The strip features a preschool girl named Alice Otterloop and her interactions with family and friends who share her cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The profile of cartoonist Richard Thompson was written by Michael Cavna, a style editor and comics blogger for The Washington Post. And he's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Richard Thompson, the creator of Cul-de-Sac. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

MICHAEL CAVNA: Hello. Thank you.

RICHARD THOMPSON: Hello. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I guess I should admit that I am a huge fan. I should probably just - in the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell everybody I'm a huge fan.

THOMPSON: Bless your heart.

MARTIN: So, Richard Thompson, can you tell us, how did you get the idea for Cul-de-Sac?

THOMPSON: I was doing a weekly cartoon for The Washington Post called Richard's Poor Almanac. And my editor there switched to the magazine back in, oh, 2000, I think, 2001 maybe - Tom Shroder - and he said, would you ever think about doing a weekly cartoon - a comic strip with continuing characters? I thought, well, I thought about that one time when I was 20 years old, maybe.

MARTIN: It's intimidating. I mean, you got to do it every day.

THOMPSON: It is, yeah.

MARTIN: It's, like, got to be every day.

THOMPSON: It was for Sunday only at the time, for the Post magazine. But I thought about it for, you know, I think it took us about two years of me thinking about it before he convinced me it was possible.

MARTIN: Michael - Richard, I'm not going to ask you this because I'm sure you're a little too modest to talk about this, but this is a strip that other comic strip artists love.

CAVNA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And what do they love about it? In fact, in your piece you were able to get an interview - a very rare interview with the renowned comic strip writer Bill Watterson, who's viewed as the J.D. Salinger of comics. He's the creator of the retired strip Calvin and Hobbes. And he apparently does not give interviews and he granted only the second interview, post-retirement, to you, to talk about Richard Thompson.

So what do other artists love about this strip?

CAVNA: Well, a couple things. I will say I was grateful to Mr. Watterson. Yeah, my understanding is it was only his second interview in 22 years. And I got very much the sense from Bill Watterson that he sees Richard as a kindred spirit, someone who knows how to sort of pour his soul into a comic strip and create - isn't just always going for gags, but is going for depth. Knows how to use the panel, knows how to create, you know, characters that come alive.

MARTIN: What does the public like about it too? Now, that's what the professionals like about it. What do you think the public responds to?

CAVNA: Well, I think it is Richard's take on childhood. You know, he brings it down to a child's eye level and observed closely. And that, of course, is universal, as it was in Peanuts. With Richard, what we get is he captures childhood, both the universal and the individual. It's both - we can recognize common things and also what adults can recognize about how parents act when we see them.

And the factor is, though, there's Richard's individual quirkiness. And I mean that in the best way, you know, how he observes it. And he has - he brings his own special take to that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

That's Michael Cavna you just heard. He's the author of a Washington Post magazine profile of Richard Thompson, who's the artist and author of the syndicated comic strip Cul-de-Sac. They're both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. And now to the pain part. I understand that, Mr. Thompson, you were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Was that a big shock?

THOMPSON: It was kind of a relief in some ways. At the same time I thought, you know, geez, you're in for a haul with this thing. Timing in comedy is everything. My timing on this was, you know, pretty exquisitely off.

MARTIN: Because?

THOMPSON: Well, you know, as soon as I hit the syndication deal it's like things start sliding downhill. So it's been manageable enough. But, you know...

MARTIN: One of the effects of Parkinson's disease is loss of motor control, which is crucial to drawing.

THOMPSON: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: How are you coping with that? Is it treatable?

THOMPSON: Well, it hasn't really hit my right hand too much. My left arm is, you know, pretty lousy, but I'm right-handed. And when I'm concentrating on a drawing, a lot of the symptoms seem to kind of disappear. I think it's - there are mental tricks you can play on yourself to, you know, fend off a lot of the symptoms of it, I think.

MARTIN: One of the poignant things about this is that it's, if you don't mind my putting it this way, you've been recognized as a freelance illustrator, but to come to this level of prominence in your field, you came to it rather late.


MARTIN: One might argue. Is there a part of you that feels cheated in a way?

THOMPSON: Well, yeah, not so much cheated, but it's about, you know, I should've done this 20 years ago, but it's my own fault. So, but you know, I don't think 20 years ago I could've done what I'm - whatever it is I'm doing now. So...

MARTIN: How come?

THOMPSON: It's, you know - I don't know. If I think I tried to do a comic strip 20 years ago it would not have been about children. I fooled around with some ideas for - 30 years ago, when I was in my 20s and just, you know, put them aside because they were kind of lame and silly. You know, you look at your stuff and you think - I was always my own strongest critic, which is a good thing and a bad thing.

But, you know, I don't - I felt like, you know, I think I popped through a window of opportunity that was very briefly open and, you know, I feel lucky for that.

MARTIN: Michael?

CAVNA: I want to say, I do think there's something critical about how Richard, when he came along, you know, on one hand, as I wrote in the piece, you can feel cheated like Mr. Watterson and others, you know, broke through in their 20s, Charles Schulz and others. But on the other hand, as I talked to Richard over a matter of months and talked to other - his editors and other people, it was such a natural progression where he was an award-winning illustrator in the mid-'90s, but it was as if he were, you know, like a professor accumulating knowledge.

And when you see it unfold, it was almost like everything was pointing toward this sort of preparation. So on one hand I could see how Richard would feel cheated - on the other hand, I don't think it would be Cul-de-Sac if there hadn't been this very gradual progression. And you see, you look back at his work and you see evolution every step of the way.

MARTIN: And also the life experience, you know, you're a parent yourself.

THOMPSON: Yeah, oh yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: You've got that - you know, you live the life.

THOMPSON: The things you notice. The things you would otherwise never have seen.

MARTIN: What's next for you? Are you going to continue to be able to draw?

THOMPSON: I think, well, for a while, I'm sure at least. It's, you know...

MARTIN: What's a while?

THOMPSON: It's - I don't know. Could be... I was at my doctor's last week and he said, you know, things are going OK. It's, you know, a degenerative disease, but you know, who can say? Michael J. Fox is going strong and he's had it for 20-some years. So, you know. And, you know, anticipating many changes are, you know - it's one of those things where strides are being made. Who knows if there's a cure in sight, but it's, you know, symptoms are treatable in ways that they were not treatable five years ago. So it's, you know, who can say?

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Our best wishes to you.

THOMPSON: Thank you very much.

CAVNA: And have you heard about his Team...

MARTIN: And Michael Cavna, hold on a second, you wanted - there's a final thought from you. I understand that Mr. Thompson is also - has been nominated for a very special award and we'll find out in a matter of days whether he's won it. Tell us about that.

CAVNA: Yeah. This Saturday, the National Cartoonist Society gets together in Boston and this is a peer award. This is where your colleagues decide who is the best cartoonist of that year. And this is the second straight year that Richard has been nominated and that's - it's fairly amazing. And I should say he's also doing this Team Cul-de-Sac effort, which is - you know, they're trying to raise. The deadline is June 15th for cartoonists to submit. But there'll be an auction and a book. And they're trying to raise through Michael J. Fox's fundraising arm a quarter million dollars for Parkinson's research. So there are sometimes, you know, out of left field other turns come out of this.

MARTIN: Michael Cavna is the Comics Riffs blogger for The Washington Post. He's the author of a profile of Richard Thompson, the artist and author of the syndicated comic strip Cul-de-Sac. They both joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio. And if you want to read the piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. Richard Thompson, Michael Cavna, thank you so much for joining us.

CAVNA: Thank you for having us.

THOMPSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.