Archive for Cul de Sac

Dancing on the Manhole Cover: The Genius of Richard Thompson (at The Comics Journal)

Richard Thompson, The Complete Cul de SacThe great Richard Thompson, creator of the best comic strip of the 21st century (so far), passed away last week.  If you don’t know his Cul de Sac, you really should.  The easiest way to acquaint yourself with its (and his) genius is to pick up a copy of The Complete Cul de Sac — two volumes, covering all 5 years, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman.

In case you need further persuasion, you might take a look at my brief essay in today’s issue of The Comics Journal.  Here’s a little excerpt:

Its ability to generate joy in each rereading is one reason that Cul de Sac will endure, even though its creator has left us. Richard Thompson lives on in his work precisely because his work is so alive. His line is loose but solid, scribbly yet calligraphic, energetic but focused. Each panel of Cul de Sac — heck, each corner of each panel — is full of art, humor, and character.

And here’s a Cul de Sac:

Richard Thompson, Cul de Sac, Feb 2011

Many other great tributes and essays:

More Cul de Sac posts on this blog:

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The Genius of Cul de Sac

Richard Thompson, The Complete Cul de Sac

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac is one of two comic-strip masterpieces of this century.1 Fortunately for the busy comics-reader, you can now read the entire work in The Complete Cul de Sac (2 volumes, just out from Andrews McMeel). Unfortunately for the medium (of comics! of Art!), the complete run of the Thompson’s daily strip is a mere five years (2007-2012).2 Parkinson’s Disease forced him to end the strip a couple of years ago.

Cul de Sac, 14 Mar. 2010

But what a marvelous five years! Thompson’s ability to convey the emotional lives of children is a delight to see. Facing a bewildering and unpredictable world, Thompson’s child characters display a mixture of fierce independence (embodied in his preschooler protagonist, Alice) and insecurity (embodied in her neurotic older brother, Petey). They seek guidance from the fanciful logic of older siblings’ stories, half-remembered truths passed down from their elders, and their own inventive interpretations of reality. As fellow Cul de Sac fan Jeanne Birdsall (author of the delightful and keenly observed tales of the Penderwicks family) puts it, Thompson portrays “children living parallel lives from ours, seeing and hearing all the same things, but experiencing them in a completely different way.”3 Exactly.

Cul de Sac, 6 Jan. 2008

I especially love the way that the characters — especially the young children — talk past each other. Each is her or his own planet, and sometimes orbital paths bring them closer to each other, but other times they zoom in opposite directions.

Richard Thompson, Cul de Sac

And then there’s Thompson’s Art — yes, Art with a capital “A.”  As Bill Watterson wrote in the introduction to the first Cul de Sac collection, “With a mix of rambling looseness, blotchy crudeness, and sheer cartoony grace, Thompson’s expressive pen line is the equal of any of cartooning’s Old Masters.” And, as Art Spiegelman writes in his intro to the Complete Cul de Sac,

It’s that ferbile quill pen line — Thompson’s “cartoony grace” — that totally wins me over. It’s hard to master a quill pen! They tend to dribble ink and spatter if you push ’em too hard. They spit up blobs of wet ink or dry up in the middle of a line. Thompson’s mastery seems to be achieved by letting the instrument have its way. They line starts like it’s gonna behave — Mmp — then fattens up where you might not expect it to — MMNG — and then backs up on itself in a breathless skritch of scribbled hatch marks — HEENK!

Cul de Sac, 1 Feb. 2008

Above: the strip to which Spiegleman is referring.

More than that, it’s Thompson’s ability to make inkiness into art. As Spiegelman puts it, “How can a style be distinctively sophisticated while also humbly down-to-earth?”

Comics fans will also love the comics jokes! Petey’s favorite strip is Little Neuro, a parody of Winsor McCay’s classic Little Nemo. His Comics Camp teacher is Dan Spinnerack, because — as Thompson points out in his notes — “Comic books are commonly displayed on a spinner rack.”  And I swear that Alice’s friend Dill is the great grand-nephew of Happy Hooligan, the protagonist of Frederick Opper’s early-twentieth-century comic strip.

Cul de Sac, 8 Sept. 2008

My enthusiasm for Cul de Sac is such that I feel a bit like Dorothy Parker trying to write a review of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby: “I cannot write a review …. I have tried and tried, but it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine.”  So, not that you need more to read, but if you’ve any interest in the narrative art of the comic strip, do yourself a favor and check out Thompson’s Cul de Sac. And then give copies to your friends.

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  1. Since you asked, I’ll tell you: the other is Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts. And, yes, you may argue with me in the comments, below.
  2. It ran for five years as a daily, but there are some Sunday strips that go back for a few years — to February 2004.
  3. Jeanne Birdsall, email to author, 28 May 2014.

More Cul de Sac on this blog:

  • Cul de Sac = Classic (28 July 2010). One of the very first posts on Nine Kinds of Pie was on Cul de Sac!  Here’s an excerpt I should’ve incorporated into this post: “Cul de Sac is funny, but is character-driven rather than gag-driven.  The humor develops from Petey, the anxiety-ridden comic-book obsessed older brother; Alice, the force of nature that is his younger sister; Ernesto, who may or may not be imaginary (Petey isn’t sure); Dil, who has thus far survived his older brothers’ many experiments; and many others.”
  • My report for Comic-Con, July 20, 2013.  Scroll down to “Team Cul de Sac” to read Lincoln Pierce (Big Nate), Mark Tatulli (Lio), Jenni Holm (Babymouse) and others sing Thompson’s praises.

More Cul de Sac:

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Comic-Con, San Diego, Saturday, July 20

To begin today’s post, here is a photo of Eric Reynolds and I fending off the crowds at this morning’s signing.

Philip Nel, Barnaby, Eric Reynolds

One at a time, folks! One at a time! There are plenty of books for everyone.

Seriously.  There really are plenty.  I’ll be signing at the booth again on Sunday, from 2-4.

Small-Press Comics for Small People

You already know Jeff Smith’s Bone, Drawn & Quarterly’s picture-book editions of Tove Jansson’s Moomin comics (the latest is Moomin Builds a House), and Andy Runton’s Owly. But do you know these contemporary comics for young readers?  I only just encountered them here, at Comic-Con.

  • Debbie Huey, Bumperboy and the Loud, Loud MountainMike Bocianowski’s Yets! is a whimsical Walt-Kelly-esque fantasy. Though I wish the format were slightly larger (the typeface can be a bit small), but — based on my reading of the first volume — they’re charming adventures for young readers.
  • Debbie Huey’s Bumperboy series features Bumperboy, his pal Bumperpup, and their friends. I haven’t read the Bumperboy Gets Angry sequence, but Bumperboy and the Loud, Loud Mountain, Bumperboy and Friends in “First Day of School”, and Pictonese Lessons are all charming.
  • Konami Kanata‘s Chi’s Sweet Home stars a kitten, and may be for slightly older (say, grade-school) readers, but also very much an “all ages” comic… about a kitten!
  • I already knew James Kochalka’s Johnny Boo series, about the eponymous ghost and his pet ghost Squiggle, but they’re worth a mention, too. (And they’re also on display here.)

Since I started by mentioning Owly, I must add that I bought a couple of Owly books for my niece yesterday (I didn’t buy them for myself because I already have a complete set), and Andy Runton — who is just as kind and thoughtful as you’d expect Owly’s creator to be — inscribed them to her, including some original drawings. Very cool.

Never Mind the Bullock

We tried to find the Jack Kirby Museum booth, where Charles Hatfield would be signing copies of his Jack Kirby: The Hand of Fire (2011, Eisner Award winner), and The Superhero Reader (which he co-edited, 2013). Instead, we found ourselves adjacent to a booth where Sandra Bullock was signing autographs. Later, we realized that the “5000” numbers in the convention hall are not contiguous: some are in the back left corner, and others are in the front right corner.

Will Eisner and the Graphic Novel

Neil Gaiman, Dennis Kitchen, Scott McCloud, Jeff Smith

Paul Levitz, the moderator of this panel, seemed to have quite a lot to say. He really knew his subject (Will Eisner), but I kept wanting him to stop answering his questions before he had asked them.

That aside, the panelists themselves were excellent.  When the panel began, Neil Gaiman had yet to arrive.  But we had Denis Kitchen (literary executor for the Will Eisner Estate), Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), and Jeff Smith (Bone).

Denis Kitchen recalled meeting Eisner during the period when Eisner was doing his educational comics. Eisner actually sought Kitchen because Kitchen was involved in underground comics, which had a different business model. The creator had copyright control, the original art would be returned to creator, and so on. This interested Eisner. So, although Kitchen had questions for Will, Will had more questions for him.

Scott McCloud said, “Will was completely different from anyone else in his generation. I saw him arguing with Will Kane about Maus. Will thought it was important for all the reasons we now know. Gil Kane thought it was so badly drawn that he couldn’t get past that.” Speaking of Eisner as an innovator, McCloud offered, “He was leading an army into battle before anyone knew there was a battle before anyone knew there was an army.” Eisner, McCloud explained, “was the first one who really understood what to do with the page.”  Mc Cloud also saw Eisner as part of the non-fiction comics revolution. “We’re only now just beginning to exploit the possibilities that he saw decades ago.” A Contract with God “is not technically the first graphic novel, but the shot across the bow that showed everyone what it could be.”

Jeff Smith told us, “I loved his drawing — the over-the-top caricature — the amount of emotion in is characters.” Smith recalls being fascinated by the fact that “there was some sense of continuity as the story developed.” He noted, for example, that when the Spirit got injured, he would be on crutches for several issues, rather then emerging in the subsequent issue fully intact. “I’d never seen that before,” Smith told us. “Will was so interested in what the new people were doing, what the young people were doing.  He wasn’t just interested.  He had to know…. And I believe in passing it on.  I learned from him that that’s important.”

Jules Feiffer, TantrumJules Feiffer was writing Tantrum at about the same time that Will Eisner was creating A Contract with God. Why didn’t Tantrum have the impact?

Jeff Smith answers, “Will was a comic book guy. Jules was a newspaper guy, known through the Village Voice and stuff like that.”  And so, he said, “I don’t think it [A Contract with God] clicked at the time. I think it clicked in retrospect.”  He added, “It was when you saw that next generation of comics people, … [A Contract with God] made them want to do it.”

McCloud said the problem was that “Tantrum looked at home.  It looked like it belonged.  Will did things that don’t belong.

At about that moment (20 minutes into the discussion) Neil Gaiman — wearing dark glasses and dressed entirely in black — arrived through a side door and walked right in front of where we were sitting. He dashed up onto the stage, and immediately entered the conversation.

Gaiman recalled, “I bought Tantrum with my own money. I was 17.”  He had a very different — and, I think, better — explanation for why Tantrum didn’t click.  “The pschyo-sexual odyssey of a 40-year-old man was less accessible than A Contract with God.” And “It didn’t look like a comic.”

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Signal to NoiseGaiman remembered meeting Will Eisner, and he spoke of “Having learned everything I knew about comics from Will, going out and buying Comics and Sequential Art,” which became his guide for how to write comics.  Then, once he wrote comics, he wanted “to do something that was good enough for him. He remembered giving Signal to Noise to Eisner, in an elevator, and then listened to Eisner while he told Gaiman his thoughts on Signal to Noise.  All of the panelists conveyed the sense that Eisner was not just generous to the younger generation but genuinely interested in their work.  One reason, Gaiman said, was that Eisner “wanted it [comics] to expand. He wanted it to embiggen.”

Here is an amusing exchange about Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which Neil Gaiman read when it was still in draft form.

Scott McCloud: I was a stone-cold formalist. Neil had to harangue me into a chapter about storytelling.

Neil Gaiman: I don’t know that I harangued you. I remonstrated.

Levitz says, “Let’s get back to influence.”  Gaiman tells the following story:

I interviewed Will.  The last one we did was on stage.  And we talked for an hour.  … The bit of the conversation I remember was asking will why he kept doing it…. Why are you bringing graphic novels out now at an age when all your contemporaries are retired are dead or both.  And he started talking about a film which he saw in which Kirk Douglas played a trumpet player, and he was looking for the note.  And if he kept playing his trumpet , he would find the note, and he could finish.  And he described his entire career as being in search of the note.  He knew he could hear this thing somewhere up ahead, and he wouldn’t need to do anything after that.  And he’d finish it, and he’d look at it, and the note would still be moving across the horizon, and so he’d still keep looking.

Jeff Smith offers, “Will provided a good example of how to do a career.  I’d look at him and say I want to do that job.  That’s a good job. …. Will was still really active…. He was still present, he was still around.  That’s the model.  Why not go for it?  Why stop?  This was my sense from him.”

McCloud says, “I’d go one step further and say that he was certainly a role model for me. He was pretty much the whole package.  I saw the relationship he had with Ann.  I wanted to have that kind of relationship with my wife, Ivy.”  McCloud notes, too, that Eisner “was always open to change” and that he was “optimistic — in the good sense of the word, not the deluded sense.”

Kitchen adds, “He was intellectually curious.  He was not like most old people I knew.  Of his generation, no one else was even willing to read underground comics.  He not only looked at them.  They influenced him.  It was people like Justin Green and Jack Jackson that he found very influential.  He was happy to talk about it, and he was happy to credit them.”

Neil Gaiman asks, “Do ever you think it would be interesting if he had really done the autobiographical comic that he could have done?”

Will Eisner, The DreamerKitchen: The Dreamer is the closest he comes.

Gaiman: The Dreamer is a kind of greatest hits. He kind of flirted with autobiography. He took his experience, and he Eisnerized it.

Kitchen: The Dreamer is the one where he pulled his punches.

Kitchen also tells us that he had to push Eisner on The Dreamer, trying to get him to say more.  Eisner, explained that he couldn’t do autobiographical comics because “I’m not like Crumb. I can’t let it all hang out.”

Jeff Smith recalled that, when Scholastic wanted to publish Bone, Smith said OK, if you’re going to do that, you have to put it with the other books.  You can’t put it with the Dungeons and Dragons.  He added “That was me channeling Will.”

Neil Gaiman observed, “He set up the publishing model that gave him The Spirit. I encountered Will [Eisner’s work] for the first time in a proto-comics shop when I was 15.  … On the wall in this basement was The Spirit, no. 2, Harvey edition.  I had no idea they were done in the 1940s. They were the best storytelling I’d ever seen. … Will, unlike pretty much everyone else of his generation, had not sold his baby.”

Levitz introduces the topic of what was learned from Eisner.

Gaiman answers, “Share knowledge. Be collegiate. That was one of the most interesting things I learned.” Smith and McCloud concur.

There was no time for audience questions.

Team Cul de Sac

Chris Sparks, Lincoln Pierce, Mark Tatulli, Lucas Turnbloom, Jenni Holm, Matthew Holm, Andrew Farago, Shaenon Garrity, Rob Harrell

Deftly moderated by Tom Racine, this all-star panel included Chris Sparks, Lincoln Pierce, Mark Tatulli, Lucas Turnbloom, Jenni Holm, Matthew Holm, Andrew Farago, Shaenon Garrity, Rob Harrell.

Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac Golden Treasury (2010)First, if you haven’t read Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac, what are you waiting for? Though Thompson’s Parkinsons has (temporarily?) cut short its run, the strips have been collected in several volumes, and The Complete Cul de Sac is due out this fall. In the early days of this blog, I did a brief post on it. But you should go and read the strip itself.

If you’re not a Cul de Sac fan, you may not know about Chris Sparks’ Team Cul-de-Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinsons, a book which has raised over $105,000 for Parkinsons research. Sparks, who invited cartoonists to contribute to a book honoring Cul de Sac and Thompson, won the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award at the Eisners last night.

Sparks tells of how he met Richard Thompson, and how devastated he was when he learned that his favorite comic-strip artist had contracted Parkinsons.  He read Michael J. Fox’s book Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, and decided that “If a rich good-looking movie star could do this, then so could a poor web designer.”

Here’s what some of the other panelists had to say about Thompson and Cul de Sac:

“The best comic strip since Calvin and Hobbes, one of the best comic strips of all-time.”

— Lincoln Pierce

“He’s one of my heroes”

— Lincoln Pierce

“Petey is one of the most perfect comic strip characters of all time. I used to think you couldn’t do better than Charlie Brown, as the everyman.  And yet Petey is more idiosyncratic….”

— Lincoln Pierce

“What I love about Richard’s work is that it doesn’t appear to have any sort of forethought….. It’s very natural and very loose”

— Mark Tatulli

“Petey is my favorite character…. I can remember that from my childhood”

— Mark Tatulli

“I thought there was a lot of mediocrity in the comics, and it’s just not fair”

— Mark Tatulli, on why he created his specific contribution to Team Cul de Sac

In case you don’t know the strip, here is a Cul de Sac for you to enjoy.

Richard Thompson, Cul de Sac

More quotations from panelists:

“It’s just the perfect comic. It’s one of those things where you look at your work and you think I’m doing it wrong. This is right. And I’m doing it wrong.”

— Lucas Turnbloom

“Our entire adulthood was shaped by Parkinsons.”

— Jenni Holm on her and her brother Matt; their father had Parkinsons

“His writing is so amazing because he just nails family life.  The funny dynamics between the mom and the kids, and the kids and the kids. It’s so hard to pull off.”

— Jenni Holm on Richard Thompson’s writing

“It feels like an autobiographical strip I did as a weird 10-year-old kid, sitting in my room and reading comics while all the other kids are playing baseball.”

— Andrew Farago

“The combination of art and writing in the strip is perfect. … They capture the character and the sense of humor at the same time.”

— Shaenon Garrity

“I worship his art.”

— Rob Harrell

“I don’t want to speak for everybody else, but I feel like we’re all faking it and he’s the real deal.”

— Mark Tatulli

“One of the great things about all comics is that as you read them you see that they have their own obsessions. And one of Richard’s is shopping carts”

— Lincoln Pierce

From Comic Book Artist to Fine Artist Extraordinaire: A Chat with Robert Williams

Karl Meyer, Eric Reynolds, Robert Williams (of course!), Gwenned Vitello, and William Stout

This panel featured Karl Meyer, Eric Reynolds, Robert Williams (of course!), Gwenned Vitello, and William Stout.

I went to this panel because Eric was on it and because I knew nearly nothing about the artist, who (I learned) started as an underground cartoonist — was one of the original Zap Comix artists — and in the 1970s began to create fine art.  The art itself reminds me of Dalí and R. Crumb. Robert Williams is a contemporary of Crumb (and they were/are friends) — so, I’m not suggesting his work is derivative of Crumb, but rather that they’re artistic kin.  Stylistically, Williams does not use Crumb’s squiggly line but Dalí’s crisp, precise, realistic renderings of (often) impossible scenes.  Fun fact for ’80s metal fans: Robert Williams did the original cover art for Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction.

A few quotations from the panel.

“The ideas do not come easy. They have to be excreted under pressure.”

— Robert Williams

“He’s taken some of the tropes of comics and infused them into his fine art.”

— Eric Reynolds

“Put enough color and action in there so that it [the image] sticks with ’em [the audience], whether they like it or not.”

— Robert Williams

“There would be no Fantagraphics if it weren’t for Zap Comix

— Eric Reynolds

Another interesting tidbit I learned: Leonardo diCaprio’s father, George diCaprio, was an underground comix distributor.

Williams had lots of great stories, which I would record here … if I wasn’t so fatigued at the end of the day (this panel began at 7).

My Dinner with Eric

What? You think I’m going to write up my dinner with Eric Reynolds? Sorry. This blog post has gotten long enough. We did have a great chat, though — always great to hang out with Eric.  He’s a good person, and I feel very fortunate to be working with him on the Barnaby books.  Oh, did I mention — another signing on Sunday, 2-4 pm, Fantagraphics?  I did?  Good, then I’ll see you there, at booth 1718.

The rest of my 2013 Comic-Con coverage:

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10 “Bests” from 2010

1. Best novel that I missed when it came out: Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything (Scholastic, 2006).  Narrated by a nine-year-old, this is an all-ages book about love, faith, and growing up.  It has a sense of humor, too.  I devoted a post to this book earlier in the month.

Dessa, A Badly Broken Code2. Album of the Year: Dessa’s A Badly Broken CodeDessa is a poet who raps and sings.  Consider this excerpt from the chorus to “Children’s Work:” “But some nights I still can’t sleep. / The past rolls back / And I can see us still. / You’ve learned how to hold your own / How to stack your stones / But the history’s thick. / Children aren’t as simple / As we might think.”  And now listen to her perform it:

Children’s Work Dessa

Mesmerizing.  There are also quieter pieces, like “Poor Atlas” or the concluding song “Into the Spin.”  And compelling, moving narratives about relationships, like “Mineshaft II” and “Go Home.”  I had never heard of Dessa before listening to this album (she has one earlier EP), but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for anything else she does.

Suzy Lee, Shadow: cover3. Picture Book of the Year: Suzy Lee’s Shadow.  There were many great picture books this year, but this is one I’d like to see get more attention.  I loved Lee’s debut, Wave (2008), a wordless story of a girl, some gulls, and a wave.  Shadow shows that Lee is here to stay.  You hold the book so that the binding is horizontal, and then lift the pages up.  Above the gutter, a little girl plays in her basement; below it, the shadows convey what she imagines… or do they?  As in Where the Wild Things Are, this beautifully designed book knows that the imagination can have a life of its own.

Thompson, Shapes and Colors4. Best Comic Strip of 2010: Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac.  To read Cul de Sac is to watch a classic being written. I’m reminded of reading Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes as it was being published. I look forward to each day’s strip, and am impressed by the fact Thompson’s invention never seems to flag.  Even more impressive is that the humor isn’t scattershot like Pearls Before Swine: Stephan Patsis’ strip is funny, but I always get the impression that there’s no gag he wouldn’t try.  There are gags Thompson wouldn’t try.  His humor almost always develops from the characters themselves.  If you’ve not read this strip yet, you can read it on Go Comics, or buy any of the four collections — Shapes and Colors is the latest.

Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library No. 205. Best Graphic Novel of 2010: Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library No. 20 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010).  With a modernist’s eye for detail, Ware tells the life story of Jordan Lint, a bully who used to pick on Rusty Brown (featured in Acme Novelty Library Nos. 16 & 17).  The scenes of Jordan’s childhood are worth the price of admission alone: shown from Jordan’s perspective, Ware beaks down the universe into the shapes and objects that a baby sees.  Flattening perspective and labeling each item (tree, car, ant, momma, dad) as if it were a children’s book, one two-page spread shows Jordan witnessing his father hitting his mother.  The layout is bright and beautiful, like a Mondrian painting, but the content is dark — and foreshadows later, troubling developments in Jordan’s personality. Ware’s dense pages that require re-reading, his panels that can be read in more than one sequence, and his extraordinary sensitivity to space, sound, light, time … tend to slip by all but the sharpest students when I teach his work.  But connoisseurs of comics, and my best students, know they’re reading the work of a master.  He’s the James Joyce or Virginia Woolf of the graphic novel.  And Acme Novelty Library No. 20 is one of his best.

6. Best person to follow on Twitter: Steve Martin (SteveMartinToGo).  Wry and consistently funny.  Earlier today (New Year’s Eve), he posted:

4…3…2…1…HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

7. Most interesting person to follow on Facebook: Mark NewgardenMark uses Facebook like others use Twitter — he post links to curiosities, most of them on YouTube.  Recurring subjects include rare animation, and silent films.  I have no idea where he finds all of this stuff.

8. Best Literary Criticism: Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 101 27.4 (Winter 2009): 67-94. This article is actually from 2009, but I didn’t encounter it until this year.  It’s thoughtful, theoretical, historicized — and all rendered in lucid prose.  To answer the question “how do people dance with things to construct race?” Bernstein brings together photography, toys, children’s literature, cultural history, and — with apparent effortlessness — writes with insight and clarity.  For example, to think about script behavior, Bernstein brings in (a) Frances Hodgson Burnett’s childhood re-enactment of scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and (b) E. W. Kemble’s racist A Coon Alphabet (1898).  She writes:

We have contextualizing information in the history of alphabet books, but we have no corroborating archival evidence — no journal entry, no letter, no photograph or film clip, no eyewitness account — to tell us how living children interacted with Kemble’s book. These disparities do not necessarily mean, however, that we can make more reliable inferences regarding performances involving Burnett’s doll than regarding Kemble’s book. To the contrary, we can make more reliable inferences about the latter, because it is possible that Burnett misremembered, distorted, or flat-out lied in her memoir, but it is not possible that no child ever turned the pages of Kemble’s alphabet book. By reading things’ scripts within historically located traditions of performance, we can make well-supported claims about normative aggregate behavior: in the 1890s, competent performers turned pages of picture books. (76)

I like, here, the inversion of expectations: you think that actually having a reaction (Burnett’s) might be the more reliable gauge of how contemporary children reacted, but Bernstein deftly challenges that assumption.  Her book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights is due out from NYU Press in 2011.  You can bet I’ll be buying a copy.

9. Best TV Show: Mad Men.  Confession: I watch very little (in fact, almost no) TV.  I just started watching Mad Men this year (on DVD), and have just finished season 2.  So, I’m unequipped to comment on the latest season.  But what I enjoy about the show is the uneasy juxtaposition of nostalgia for the style of the early 1960s with the lack of nostalgia for the prejudice, sexism, disregard for the environment, etc.  It’s the close proximity of a longing for the look of the time coupled with a distaste for the attendant social mores — that makes the show work.  I also enjoy the fact that it does not editorialize: it simply presents homophobia, sexism, racism, with the knowledge that its viewers will find the behavior repellent.  It helps, of course, that sympathetic characters (Don, Peggy) are more tolerant of difference and more sympathetic to people on the margins of society.  But I find the blunt presentation of ugliness in such a lovingly recreated setting to be very compelling viewing.

Mad Men, Season 2: cast photo on stairs at Sterling Cooper

10. Best App: Angry Birds.  As is true of the above comment, I’m rather unequipped to be claiming what’s “best” here: I don’t spend much time playing games on the iPhone.  Furthermore, I have not played video games of any kind in over 25 years. In fact, this is the only game I play at all. Anyway, Angry Birds has a delightful mix of cuteness and aggression, whimsy and competitiveness.  I also like that it’s not addictive.  It’s enormously fun to play, but then I can put it down for days (weeks!) and do other work.

Angry Birds

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Cul de Sac = Classic

If you don’t already read Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac, you really should. If you are among those who don’t, I should clarify that this is not the singer-songwriter Richard Thompson.  This is the creative genius behind Richard’s Poor Almanac and this new, daily strip.  I say “new” because it’s one of the newer creations on the comics page, but it’s actually been out for for a little while: it began as a weekly strip in the Washington Post in 2004, and went into syndication in 2007.  And I say “genius” because this is one of the strips that will, in the future, be regarded as classic.  It’s up there with George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.  It’s that good.

Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac (10 Sept. 2007)

Cul de Sac from 10 Sept. 2007

Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac (11 Sept. 2007)

Cul de Sac from 11 Sept. 2007

Cul de Sac is funny, but is character-driven rather than gag-driven.  The humor develops from Petey, the anxiety-ridden comic-book obsessed older brother; Alice, the force of nature that is his younger sister; Ernesto, who may or may not be imaginary (Petey isn’t sure); Dil, who has thus far survived his older brothers’ many experiments; and many others.  I confess that, when I began reading it last year, I grasped that it had a unique point of view, but I didn’t quite “get it.”  I was intrigued enough to stay with it, and — after a couple of weeks — it became my favorite strip.  Indeed, when I’m traveling, it’s the one strip I make sure to read on-line, every day.  So, stick with it.  You won’t be disappointed.

Richard Thompson's latest Cul de Sac book (2010)The third and latest collection, Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics (2010), would make a good introduction — it collects strips from the first two volumes, Cul de Sac: This Exit (2008) and Children at Play: A Cul de Sac Collection (2009).  Not incidentally, the first book features a foreword by Bill Watterson, who writes, “I thought the best newspaper comic strips were long gone, and I’ve never been happier to be wrong.  Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac has it all — intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings.”  So, if you don’t trust my judgment, then perhaps Calvin and Hobbes’s creator will persuade you to check out Thompson’s work?  For your sake, I hope so.

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