Thbbft! Talking with Bloom County's Berkeley Breathed
For 26 years, Berkeley Breathed rejected the notion of ever resurrecting Bloom County, his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip that ran from 1980 to 1989. The targets of his satire—1980s excess, Reaganomics, and Garfield—had run their course. Breathed moved on to illustrated books, feature films, and two spin-off Sunday strips. There would be no more mention of adolescent political journalist Milo Bloom, the neurotic Opus, or the seemingly lobotomized Bill the Cat.
It was a fan named Harper Lee, who just happened to be the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who made him reconsider. In 2015, Breathed was dismayed to see an earlier draft of Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book published under the title Go Set a Watchman. It drew controversy for depicting Lee's protagonist, Atticus Finch, as a segregationist. To Breathed, it felt as though Lee—who passed away on February 19, 2016—had lost control of her character.
To clear his mind, Breathed pulled out the letters he had received from Lee over the years complimenting his work and begging him never to “kill” Opus. He found some old art boards he used for Bloom County, and he considered whether it had been an error to neglect his small-town cast for the past 25 years.
Days later, the first new Bloom County strip since the ‘80s was posted on his Facebook page. “I deliberated for five minutes,” Breathed tells mental_floss. “After 26 years of ridiculing the notion of doing it again. I’ll confess that I love the ridiculousness of that process. As it should have been.”
Beginning in 1985, it was possible to open a newspaper and see Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury, The Far Side, and Bloom County running simultaneously. All of the strips lent a subversive and skewed perspective to a page overrun by empty fare like Blondie and Ziggy. Of the five, only Doonesbury and Bloom County were attempting topical references with popular political and cultural figures. Both were a kind of penciled-in Daily Show for the times, questioning popular rhetoric and lampooning the names that dominated the decade. Donald Trump, best known at the time as an outspoken real estate magnate, once had his brain implanted into the body of drug burnout Bill the Cat.
“He called me a poor man’s Doonesbury in the '80s,” Breathed says. “And more. I love that some things don’t change.”
In what was arguably the strip’s most potent story, Opus breaks into a Mary Kay Cosmetics animal testing facility to liberate his penguin mother. Played for laughs, it was also a sharp commentary on the controversy regarding the company and its treatment of animals. The ensuing public outcry led Mary Kay to eliminate most of the testing practices that were alleged to be cruel.
“A rare foray into satirical advocacy, if that might be a term,” Breathed says. “Not good to make a habit of it. We did provide the final nail into the rabbit testing coffin of Mary Kay … but it’s hard to repeat. She made it easy.”
More than any other strip of the era, Breathed enjoyed poking the biggest bears he could find. His Mortimer Mouse, “brother” of Mickey and a prolific alcoholic, drew the ire of Disney’s legal department; Bill, an orange tabby who rarely manages any commentary beyond drooling, began as a spoof of the ubiquitous Garfield. Jim Davis was not amused.
“If there are two humans on the planet with less in common, it would be Jim and myself, honestly. He was opposite me at Comic-Con and I thought for a few seconds whether I could muster up even a few seconds of polite conversation. I came up empty.”
Breathed collected a Pulitzer in 1987 for editorial cartooning, an odd distinction considering Bloom County never appeared on editorial pages. It was disguised as a funny-animal strip, passing along Breathed’s skewering of politics as smoothly as Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes dissected childhood. Saying that a quality feature “is no more eternal than a ripe melon,” he ended the daily strip in 1989 but continued with the Sunday-only Outland featuring some of the same characters.
Breathed, Watterson, and The Far Side’s Gary Larson all decided to wrap up their strips in 1995. It was the last gasp of relevance for comics as a whole, which were about to be set adrift by the internet’s demolition of newspaper subscriptions. Aside from the Sunday strip Opus, which ran from 2003 to 2008, Breathed considered that chapter in his creative life closed. Then Lee opened it up again.
On his Facebook page, Breathed posts new strips daily—or near-daily—even though he’s under no obligation from a syndicate to do so. He draws four conventional panels even though he has free rein to draw nine, or one, or 20. The constraints of the comics page are still welcome.
“The only rule I give myself now is that regularity and a roughly dependable publishing schedule are essential to the DNA of comic strips and their weird appeal,” he says. “My goal is to publish five times a week. Habit is the mother’s milk of reading comics. The characters become partners with one’s morning coffee cup.”
Breathed’s fans “Like” and comment on his strip in real time, offering a running commentary that appears on the right margin of the strip; it's an immediacy that newspapers could never provide. “It’s the engine of my creative enthusiasm. We have a community now on Facebook. We have to strive to keep it clean and positive, but they love it and it provides me a mental picture of who I’m creating for. It was only a vague blur during the '80s.”
Breathed’s sabbatical from comics led to a number of richly illustrated story books, including Flawed Dogs and Mars Needs Moms!, which was adapted by Disney, his former nemesis, in 2011. The airbrushed work in those titles is also featured in The Bill the Cat Story, a recently-released hardcover that elaborates on how the addled cat came into the possession of his owner, Milo. Despite Bill’s proclivities for illicit substances, it’s an all-ages story.
“It was the challenge my publisher threw me when he asked for a Bill the Cat book for children,” Breathed says. “We’d done it with Opus in A Wish For Wings That Work, albeit an easier hill to climb. Bill’s book would be far more subversive. That’s red meat thrown to my inner demons. I pounced.”
A new Bloom collection that tabulates the Facebook entries, Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope, is also on shelves. It’s part of the overall Bloom County renaissance, although Breathed is not optimistic the characters will be seen in animation anytime soon. The possibility was discussed, but Lee’s death and subsequent publication of her abandoned novel led Breathed to reconsider ownership of his work.
“A year ago, I was in talks to bring Bloom County to primetime TV animation when I realized I would lose control,” he says, “and the legacy would be beyond my ability to protect. Five minutes after I decided to cancel the deal, I went back and drew the first strip after 26 years.”
Some of Breathed's targets, like Trump, are the same. Some—Google, Twitter—are new. But his comic sensibility is still there and still very much his own. It’s the distinctive voice of the only man to win a Pulitzer for drawings of a cat hacking up hairballs. Unlike the Facebook commentary, it's an acknowledgment that Breathed prefers to keep out of view.
“It’s on a shelf, behind a stuffed Bill the Cat."