Apatoff, David, Nick Galifianakis, Mike Rhode, Chris Sparks, and Bill Watterson. The Art of Richard Thompson. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel, 2014. 224 pp. $35. 978-1-4494-4795-3.
Richard Thompson is one of the United States' premier cartoonists, having received accolades from stalwarts such as Pat Oliphant, who called him "Michelangelo with a sense of humor"; Edward Sorel, who thinks of him as "one of the best comic artists of his time"; and Arnold Roth, who "salutes" him for the "delightful absolute excellence of [his] artwork and thinking." Anyone familiar with Thompson's subtle and cerebral humor cartoons knows he is more than deserving of these remarks.
Certainly the authors of The Art of Richard Thompson (David Apatoff, Nick Galifianakis, Mike Rhode, Chris Sparks, and Bill Watterson), all friends, feel that way as they assess his career, work habits, and personality, through observations of, interviews and discussions with, him, his own delightful essays, and many examples of his varied styles and forms of comic art.
Thompson's oeuvre consists of, at least, illustrations, summary-type cartoons (his long-running "Richard's Poor Almanac" in the Washington Post), caricatures, and an award-winning comic strip ("Cul de Sac"), portrait-paintings, humorous writing, and rhyming ditties. The authors (pushed by self-named "The Enforcer" Mike Rhode) write in a light-hearted, humorous manner that fits Thompson's personality and work. Though they justifiably heap praise on him, they do so with levity and much admiration. The images chosen to supplement the text reflect Thompson's exquisite art, deep literary, history, music, and trivia knowledge, and brilliant use of language in captions containing silly rhymes, bon mots, and well-thought-out parodies. A few examples: an illustration labeled "Manhattan, 240, 193 B.C." showing a graffiti-splattered mammoth; subversive and cynical satirical everyday events, such as "Benjamin Franklin Cartoonist," showing his political contemporaries not understanding the symbolism of his "Join, or Die" cartoon, or "An Introduction to Electronic Voting," where the technology fails miserably; and, to the surprise of this reviewer, refined (or simply-drawn) and artistically, often contextually-funny caricatures that interviewer and acclaimed caricaturist John Kascht said, "capture(s) a likeness in a new way. Your drawing isn't like him, it is him."
A number of Thompson's caricatures are of classical music maestros that he liked and whose works he played earlier when he was a pianist; others were of politicians (Ross Perot emerging mole-like on the White House lawn or Bill Clinton discretely discarding his wedding band upon laying eyes on a scantily-clad lass), entertainers (Elizabeth Taylor loaded down with a slew of expensive fur coats on a blistering hot day -- even the head of one of the furry animals she wears pleads for water), literati, sports figures, and more. In the interview, Thompson explained he draws people he likes or admires (exceptions George W. Bush and Jesse Helms), without anger, from memory, seeking to find his subject's "emotion."
Seeing that Thompson's "Cul de Sac" has been favorably compared to the classic "Calvin & Hobbes," it seems natural that Bill Watterson would interview him. (To get Watterson to come out of seclusion for the occasion was a feat in itself.) The interview serves a double usage, mixing Watterson's experiences and views with those of his interviewee. Obviously, Thompson knows and appreciates the works of fellow comic strip artists, slipping into "Cul de Sac" an occasional "Little Neuro in Slumberland" or a subtle reference to a "Peanuts" character.
The Art of Richard Thompson is a masterpiece, beautifully designed, intelligently planned, and craftily written. It will bring joy and laughter to the casual reader, knowledge about the whos, whys, and hows of cartooning to practitioners and scholars, and aesthetic pleasure to the art-inclined. It is a book that can comfortably grace a coffee table, fill a slot in a library reference section, or sit on the drawing table of a cartoonist.
John A. Lent