On July 13, 2015, Berkeley Breathed published the first new Bloom County strip in 25 years. He did it on Facebook, of all places. (The new strips are archived at GoComics.com.) The Facebook move is at once a stroke of genius, and a way of flipping the bird to newspaper editors who were once the bane of Breathed’s work life.
I’m a comics aficionado. My personal library includes the bound complete works of The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, a significant number of Doonesbury volumes, as well as Bloom County. Of those, Breathed’s strip has long brought up the rear in my affections – like “Weird Al” Yankovic, Breathed delights in sophomoric humor that too often undermines his frequently brilliant satire.
Yesterday, NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast a new interview with Breathed. I was pleasantly surprised: Breathed spoke well and frankly, elevating my opinion of him in the process. (Bill Watterson is the only other cartoonist whose interviews are similarly enlightening.)
I loved the part of the interview when Breathed described the childish ire of editorial cartoonists when Breathed won a Pulitzer in 1987 (they boycotted a convention speech of Breathed’s, and Pat Oliphant refused to sign autographs at the same table.) He also described “having 1200 editors,” many of whom not only offered advice, but regularly changed the strip’s writing according to their own agendas (Breathed said it would be great to compile a book of alternate versions of his most controversial strips.)
Breathed says that creating the original Bloom County was agony. “I never met a single deadline.” He was miserable, so he quit. Around the time he discontinued the original strip, Breathed received a letter from Harper Lee, which he read during the Fresh Air interview.
“Dear Mr. Breathed, this is a plea from a dotty old lady and from others not dotty at all. Please don’t shut down Opus. Can’t you at least give him a reprieve? Opus is simply the best comic strip there is and depriving him of life is murder – a hard word to describe an obliteration of your creation. But Opus is real. He lives.”
Part of the reason Breathed revived the strip had to do with his distress over the publication of Go Set A Watchman, against Lee’s stated wishes. He wanted to protect his characters. In the process, he discovered that he now enjoyed writing and drawing as he hadn’t been able to in the 1980s.
Breathed says he’s mellowed over the years. He described meeting Barry Manilow recently, while out with his son.
“I walked up to him and introduced myself, and he remembered who I was. We both remembered that he sent me a bouquet of flowers when I had broken my back in 1987 in a flying accident. The target of my meanest cartoons sent me a massive bouquet of flowers to my hospital. And we both remembered that, and we laughed about it, and he turned to my son and said, this is one of the greatest cartoonists of our generation. And I turned to my boy, and I said, this is one of the greatest and most famous singers of our generation. And I realized I would – I don’t have it in me now to do that again. It’s under the category of things that I do differently now.”
Thankfully, Breathed hasn’t gone completely soft, his newfound respect for Barry Manilow notwithstanding. One of the original series’ final storylines involved transplanting Donald Trump’s brain into the body of Bill the Cat. Trump-as-Bill buys Bloom County and fires the characters (15 years before The Apprentice immortalized the phrase.) Breathed recently wrote:
“This creator can’t precisely deny that [Donald Trump] had nothing to do with [Bloom County’s return]… Trump’s merely a sparkling symptom of a renewed national ridiculousness. We’re back baby.”