Saturday, October 3, 2009

Berkeley Breathed, Bloom County Creator Is Older & Wiser

In the 1980s, there appeared in the newspapers a comic strip that thrilled me. It was fresh and satirical and smart and funny -- all things I liked to believe I was, too. And it seemed like the first comic strip for my generation. It wasn't another 40-year-old strip being drawn by the sons of the original comic creator. It wasn't an aging 1960s/1970s strip with an attitude equally out-of-time. Bloom County was a daily dose of quality and silliness that made you wonder why the heck other comic strips couldn't be half as good.

Bloom County ran from 1980 to 1989, when creator (and comics l'enfant terrible) Berkeley Breathed decided it was time to exit. During its run, Breathed even picked up a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. (He did two other strips later on, Outland and Opus, but neither did anything for me.) The only thing that kept intelligent comics fans going after Bloom County was a little strip called Calvin and Hobbes, which still had another five or six years of life left in it before its creator, Bill Watterson, also decided it was time to exit.

These thoughts come to me not because of encroaching middle age but because of news that a collection of Bloom County strips is headed our way, with the first edition available this week. Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Volume One: 1980-1982 (shown above) has a pretty self-explanatory title, at least as far as what the book includes. But if you weren't alive in the 1980s and reading newspapers, then you probably don't know how great it was to find supposedly neutered, apolitical comics characters go to Canada for baby seal clubbing season or expose animal torture in the cosmetics industry. Remember Opus returning from Granada after the U.S. invasion? This was not your Peanuts or Hagar the Horrible. But it was always funny and well-done.

Breathed was not a hero to everyone, and, as an LA Times article points out, he was something of a pariah within the comics industry due to his I-don't-need-you attitude toward them and their accomplishments. I didn't know about some of the feuds that are pointed out in the article, but I do remember one that didn't make it into the article. When Breathed won his coveted Pulitzer, no less than editorial cartooning giant Oliphant apparently was unamused by this young upstart. Breathed, in typical 20-something swagger and in-your-facedness, proceeded to relentlessly (and almost cruelly) pillory Oliphant's work in Bloom County.

The Times article is noteworthy because it shows that Breathed has grown up and is able to give proper perspective and criticism to his own work and actions. He takes himself to task for passing up the chance to make friends with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, who had reached out to him after Breathed was seriously injured in an accident. He also comes clean about copping from Doonesbury in his early work. When Garry Trudeau pointed that out and Breathed didn't respond well, any chance of friendship or mentorship pretty much evaporated.

Says Breathed in the Times article:

“He came as close to a hero for me as I was going to have in the comics world. ... But I earned his spite by doing a lot of things wrong, and then when he called me on it, and did so relatively benignly, I was a smartass. I was, what, 21? I didn’t handle it well. After that, he had no interest in having a beer with me.”

The Times article is well worth reading, and not only for the above. You also learn about Breathed's friendship with Watterson and his film and children's book success. And it all serves to whet your appetite for the first volume of Bloom County's complete collection.

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