Richard’s Poor Almanac has appeared in the pages of the Washington Post on a weekly basis for the past seven years. The strip, and the book of the same name, comes to us courtesy of Richard Thompson — who should probably not be confused with the Scottish troubadour of the same name — a cartoonist of limited acclaim but no small talent. The fact that the Almanac is a regional confection has perhaps resulted in fewer accolades than the quality of his work would suggest, all of which goes towards saying that this anthology is well-overdue.
In the realm of modern newspaper publishing, a strip like Richard’s Poor Almanac is an anomaly. The well-documented homogenization of the funny pages has resulted in increasingly generalized and toothless strips aimed straight at the largest possible demographics. On the editorial pages, the number of professional editorial cartoonists has been steadily shrinking, with some papers eliminating the position altogether in favor of cheaper syndicated offerings. So the existence of Thompson’s strip strikes me as a minor miracle, seeing as how it is not only stridently local — pertaining closely to the Washington, DC area — but mildly political and even occasionally quite cerebral. Newspaper editors, or at least those in charge of picking strips for the comics section, are notoriously conservative. There is simply no way a feature like this could have blossomed through syndication in the current climate.
But let’s salute the Post for having the foresight to cultivate something so wonderfully unexpected. As a cartoonist, Thompson is simply a joy. The obvious influence of Pat Oliphant (who contributes the introduction) looms over his sketchy linework and lumpen forms. But his caricatures also draw obvious inspiration from post-Kurtzman Mad, and his more outlandish designs bring to mind the hyper kinetic, elaborately primitivistic work of Ralph Steadman. But most importantly, his loose style is flexible enough to approach a multitude of comedic scenarios with aplomb. Thompson switches between scratchy pen-and-ink to subtle ink washes with no difficulty (although it must be noted that a few strips look to have been converted from color into black and white for the purposes of the book). He even seems to enjoy drawing humorous buildings, devoting multiple strips solely to architecture and restaurants. That his buildings are as interesting and distinctive as his more obvious caricatures is no small feat.
Richard’s Poor Almanac organizes the strips in a loose approximation of the four seasons, grouping strips by their subject matter as they relate to winter, spring, summer and fall. Unfortunately Thompson’s ability as a humorist lags slightly behind his competency as an illustrator, with frequent recourses to hoary chestnuts such as county fairs, taxes, and potholes. He can usually be forgiven for such lapses considering that they are invariably amusing, but well-trod ground is well-trod ground nonetheless. More telling are those strips devoted to less picayune subjects such as Henry James, Arnold Schoenberg and Rutherford B. Hayes. I respect any comedian in this day and age with the wherewithal to respect his audience’s intelligence, and the frequent punch lines involving more than a passing knowledge of literature, history, and music are a breath of fresh air. One superb Rutherford B. Hayes joke makes up for quite a few moldy “Big Wheel of Cheese” jokes.
Also, Thompson betrays a more-than-passing interest in comics history, which pleases this specialist, if perhaps it might baffle the average D.C. reader. This comes out in a handful of gags which some would probably glaze over — such as the burning jealousy of Violet, the forgotten Peanut (there’s even a Shermy cameo!), and another featuring the caveman from Johnny Hart’s B.C. telling a group of graduates that they’re all going to hell (Hart is infamous in comics circles for inserting not-so-subtle Evangelical Christian messages into his strip).
Thompson is an accomplished and eminently likeable cartoonist, buoyed by a strong sense of the impishly effective caricature and a facile, attractive style that manages to redeem a fair amount of banal jokes. He’s at his best when he leaves behind the mundane in favor of the bizarre and the abstruse, giving the strips a cerebral flavor which seems quite unique. There are no shortages of strips, which feature the hazards of day-to-day life, but those which would utilize the existential despair of Gustav Mahler in a punch line are quite rare indeed.