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Montgomery College Student Success Stories

Drawing on Life
Insights, Fall ’03

Richard ThompsonWhat is so funny about the dog days of August in Washington? Where is the humor in someone’s frequent craving for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? For most people, these common occurrences at best pass unnoticed and at worst evoke complaint. To illustrator and cartoonist Richard Thompson, these routine situations serve as raw material that he transforms into a moment of humor.

Thompson, whose initial skills were honed in cartooning and fine arts classes at Montgomery College, is one of those rare persons who has made a career out of what he enjoys most— doodling in pen and ink. “It is an ideal job,” he says during a recent phone interview from his home in Arlington, Va. For more than two decades, Thompson has been penning illustrations in publications such as Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, and The New Yorker, among others. Currently, his caricatures and cartoons lampoon subjects ranging from political figures to the peccadilloes of ordinary folk in The Washington Post Magazine and Style sections, and within the“ Washington Whispers” feature of U.S. News and World Report.

In a recent drawing published in U.S. News and World Report, Thompson depicted President George Bush grasping a jar of peanut butter with an expression on his face somewhere between a smirk and a smile. The caricature accompanied a piece on the president’s penchant for lunching on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and his preference for a certain brand of peanut butter. The illustration is typical of Thompson’s wry humor and his observational approach to his work. “A piece has to depict something unexpected if it is going to be funny,” says Thompson, explaining what he hopes to achieve with each piece he creates. He describes his creative process as a “series of tangents” that he pokes around in until he has “two or three things that aren’t too bad.”

Thompson, who is 46, came to Montgomery College to explore his interest in the fine arts, specifically painting. At the time, he had no particular interest in pursuing a career as an illustrator or any other career, for that matter. However, he had been cartooning since he
was young, and discovered he had a gift for the art form. His MC professor remembers him well. “He was one of the most talented students I have had,” says Professor Dan Voss, who taught Thompson cartooning at the College and has maintained contact with him over the years.

Unlike most would-be cartoonists, Voss says Thompson came to him with an ability to depict a broad range of subjects and characters, which is often the most difficult thing to teach aspiring cartoonists. “In that sense, there was very little we could teach him,” Voss notes.

Recently, the College’s Alumni Association voted Thompson an outstanding alumni for
his achievements during his career and for giving back to the College. Thompson often
accepts invitations as a guest lecturer in Voss’ cartooning classes.

While at Montgomery College, Thompson drew cartoons for the student newspaper. However, it was several years after leaving the College that Thompson launched his career as a freelance illustrator. His big break was a straight rendering of a jockey getting trampled by a horse for The Washington Post in 1985. “I found I could produce on deadline, and when I realized I could do it two or three times, I realized I could do it forever,” he recalls. Despite the vagaries of employment within the world of freelance illustration, Thompson, who is married and has two young children, has achieved a comfortable level of success. As for the future, he is considering syndication, but he is approaching the prospect with his usual reserve. “Doing a real comic strip regularly could be a fairly overwhelming job,” he says.