I brought a Cul de Sac comics anthology home from the library yesterday. My daughters, who knew the strip from GoComics.com but until now hadn’t truly bathed in it, spent the rest of the day and night fighting over the book. One of them skipped watching a TV show so she could read it. The other, petulant because she’d been told her computer time was up, calmed down instantly when it was suggested she could read Cul de Sac for a while instead. At bedtime, a schedule had to be devised, of so many minutes with the volume apiece, or nobody would’ve gotten to sleep.
I love Cul de Sac myself, and can only read it myself when the girls are out of the house. The strip’s often compared to Peanuts—including by Cul de Sac creator Richard Thompson himself, who in the anthologies annotates and analyzes some of his gags. In this book, commenting on a strip about the father character’s baldness, he muses on Charlie Brown’s hair blending in with the color of his scalp: “Mr Otterloop does have hair but, like Charlie Brown, it blends in with his head. Unless Charlie Brown is bald, in which case I have to rethink everything.”
Cul de Sac, if you don’t know it, is a child-based strip, vaguely in the tradition of such strips dating back a century, but with some new ideas. It doesn’t modernize its all-American suburban environment, which seems in the same zone as ‘60s Peanuts or ‘40s Winnie Winkle or ‘20s Skippy. It’s not like Norm Feuti’s interesting new strip Gil, whose protagonist is a socially awkward, overweight 8-year-old with divorced parents.
Cul de Sac’s central kids, Alice and Petey Otterloop, are basically innocent and untraumatized. Thompson’s gift is in showing how how excited and confused and indignant and overwhelmed and dreamlike kids can get, while still maintaining an outsider’s perspective. We’re not along for the ride the way we might be with Calvin and Hobbes. We see more of the whole picture—the difference in the children’s ages, how they connect and disconnect with their peers, which things give them inexplicable degrees of enjoyment (a parade of shopping carts) and which they are oblivious to. A trip to a diner can last for an exhausting, exhilarating week of strips.
Often, the punchline in Cul de Sac is simply a blissful reaction to an invitation. Alice is presented with something that excites her beyond words, and she screams “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Or Petey, given to out-of-body experiences and paranoia about inanimate objects attacking him, goes “Gah!”
It’s no wonder my girls are responding to it so virulently. Eeeeeeeeee! Gah! Cul de Sac speaks to them. But—“Omigosh!” and “Um. Okay. Sure,” as the Otterloop parents say—it speaks to me too.