Berkeley Breathed Talks About Why ‘Bloom County’ Is Back

17 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Be reassured: The second ‘Bloom County 2.0′ strip has landed. And yes, it’s a gem..

Berkeley Breathed, as you likely know by now, delivered the superb return of “Bloom County” on Monday, a quarter-century after the Pulitzer-winning, Reagan-era strip put itself out to pasture and headed to the great Milo’s Meadow in the sky. SEVEN YEARS AGO, Berkeley Breathed, trim and grinning, sat in the D.C. offices of his then-syndicate, the Washington Post Writers Group, and shared old stories and well-remembered personal anecdotes.Opus the Penguin and his comic strip world of “Bloom County,” absent for a quarter-century, are back along with the ridiculous times that suit them, creator Berkeley Breathed said.

But because the only means of distribution for “Bloom County” 2.0 is Facebook, those same heart-palpitatin’ masses were left to wonder: When, O heavens, might we see the second installment of “Bloom County 2015″? In it, Opus awakens after what he discovers was a 25-year nap. “Bloom County operated on far less bile than people suspected, and far more whimsical effervescence. The last two decades were not the most conducive to stirring the latter,” he said. “Ridiculousness has settled in again, so it feels safe for a gentle penguin in Jockey briefs applying bikini wax.” The whimsical strip, which viewed politics and culture through the lens of a small town in Middle America, began in 1980, appearing in newspapers daily.

The beloved penguin of three decades would apparently flap his flightless wings no more. “I drew the last image ever of Opus at midnight while Puccini was playing and I got rather stupid,” Breathed told me at the time of the penguin’s farewell ‘toon. “Thirty years. Then yesterday, we were rewarded: Breathed posted a full strip of an awakened Opus who had Rip Van Winkle’d his way through a quarter-century and now was freshly aroused. We’ll slip away for the impromptu rendezvous when the mood strikes him, via social media, where only he, we and all of Facebook is privy to the wiles of Opus, Milo and Quiche Lorraine. Yes, “Bloom County,” the Pulitzer-winning ’80s strip that once attracted tens of millions of daily readers on the still-mighty wings of the Reagan-era newspaper syndication model, was back.

And still frisky, at that. “Opus’s [voice] came screaming back at me — true— when I faced those four empty panels that I hadn’t done since 1989,” Breathed tells me on Monday (fresh off his appearance at IDW’s Comic-Con booth to promote a new collection of his college strip, “Academia Waltz”). But extrapolating from these first three installments, I can’t help wondering whether maybe Bloom County was so about the ‘80s that it never should have left them. But this is all prologue to a gleeful declaration: Two strips in and after 25-plus years, the elastic band in the tighty-whities that is Breathed’s bright wit has lost absolutely none of its snap. I doubt I’m the only one here who has fond memories of , one of a very few comic strips in daily newspapers that revealed any sense of a liberal, or even moderately contemporary consciousness. And it’s a blow to the ecosystem to “lose” three of the latter species in sudden quick succession. 1995 was a cruel year for comics fans, tolling a certain cultural diminution of the page.

Opus Van Winkle, by contrast, is the historical somnambulist we can snicker at, like Austin Powers trying to get up to speed on how to rock new DVD’s (if not BVD’s). Breathed retired his Sunday-only “Outland,” Gary Larson packed up “The Far Side” menagerie, and Bill Watterson let “Calvin and Hobbes” sled off into eternal white space. When Breathed retired the strip in 1989 (replacing it with the conceptually distinct, ultimately indistinguishable, yet massively inferior Outland for reasons passing understanding), it marked the end of something very dear to those of us whose little sensibilities it helped shape. (I might not have understood exactly who U.N.

Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was when she was implicated in a sex scandal with Bill the Cat, but the parody made it seem worth finding out.) But the ‘90s came in hard and the collective comedic sensibility morphed immediately into the assumption of bemused skepticism. And the strip provides the bracing reminder: “Bloom County,” for all of Oliver’s past hacking high-jinks, shuffled off the page before we even had. the. Then, last year, came the latest glimmer of return: Watterson, now a father in his 50s, made his first appearance on the comics page in nearly two decades when he “ghost-drew” several strips of “Pearls Before Swine” in a guest-artist collaboration with Stephan Pastis. The irony such a disparity illustrated—how little even the most jaded liberal artist type understood about consumerism’s appetite and its effect on every level of culture—was the inciting incident of ‘90s pop culture.

Some fans insist that the left-wing-flapping Breathed — the man who once authored a “Bloom County” collection titled, ” ‘Toons for Our Times” — has long found greater inspiration when commenting during Republican administrations. (And if you subscribe to that theory, read what you will into this election-cycle return.) I’m of the belief, though, that comic-strippers thrive and stay inspired if finding joy in their work, and it helps if the ever-shifting culture and arena remain receptive to their style of the “silly.” Because that joy can be deflated or tamped down if it for too long comes up against too much pressure. In the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman’s prisoner character says in omniscient voiceover: “Geology is the study of pressure and time.” The same can be said of “cartoonology.” You don’t get diamonds, or “Pearls,” without the right sustained mix of Father Time and the grandfather clock.

When Watterson made his brief return within “Pearls” last year, he told Comic Riffs: “I had expected to just mess around with his characters while they did their usual things, but Stephan kept setting up these situations that required more challenging drawings . . . so I had to work a lot harder than I had planned to! It was a lot of fun.” And when I hear from Breathed this week, he speaks of a “joy” that can become flattened — like a soda without its fizz, with no buoyancy in its (word) bubble.

It’s an interesting trade-off, isn’t it?” Yet if your long-dormant characters can still turn a side profit while you create gorgeous children’s books and explore other projects, the trade-off can well be worth it for the midlife artist. Breathed tells Comic Riffs that “much of the past two decades [has] been fallow ground for whimsy,” then acknowledges that’s a “glib” answer. Times change, but sometimes it is characters who need to lie fallow for years till the terrain is fertile again, and Opus can rise anew from the daisies and lilies and daffodils, ready to satirize sweetly in his tighty-whities.

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