Monday, September 21, 2015

The Surprising Return Of Opus & Bloom County: Just In Time For The 2016 Madness

Back in 2008, Berkeley Breathed, the gifted but reclusive creator of Bloom County, the beloved comic strip that at its height in the mid-1980s enjoyed more than 10 million loyal readers, announced he was quitting his newspaper gig altogether to focus on children's books and films. 

Breathed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1987, had grown weary of the future prospects of the funny papers and print journalism in general. And who could blame him?

But a few weeks ago, Berkeley surprised me and just about everyone with new, almost daily Bloom County strips on his Facebook page (they're online only) featuring the entire gang, including Opus the penguin, Milo, Steve Dallas and Bill the Cat. Ack! Remarkably, Bloom County 2015's content is as fresh, timely and funny as ever. 

Breathed is characteristically coy about why he's returned to Bloom County. But surely this unexpected resurrection has something to do with, well, just look around you. The inmates are indeed running the asylum. There are 2,000 channels on our cable box and still nothing to watch. 

American society has degenerated to a point where a buffoonish, racist reality TV star/real estate developer with really bad hair who calls everyone "stupid" and wants to ship 11 million people to Mexico and whose companies have declared bankruptcy four times is the early frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. 

I mean, is this day and age perfect fodder for Berkeley's magic, or what? It's only a matter of time before Opus and Kim Kardashian become an item.

Breathed recently told the Washington Post, “There is no media that will allow a Charlie Brown or a Snoopy to become a universal and shared joy each morning at the same moment across the country. Maybe the rather marked response to my character’s return is a reflection of that loss. A last gasp of a passing era.”

The Comic Strip for the 'Tweener Generation

At its height, Bloom County had no rival in its hilarious and often poignant exposure of the inanities and insanities of our modern world. But it was gentle venom. How can you get too ticked at a naive, bemused, hopelessly optimistic little penguin? Sorry, Snoopy, but there's never been a more lovable anthropomorphic comic strip character than Opus.

I've always believed that Bloom County was meant for those of us on the tail end of the baby boom -- the ones born roughly from 1957 to 1965. We're the Americans whose primary political and cultural references come from the years just after Vietnam and Watergate. 

We're not really boomers at all, we're 'Tweeners. And happily so. Not as narcissistic as the hardcore boomers, but not as dysfunctionally cynical as the Generation X'ers, we relate to and know a little more about Jimmy Carter, disco and the plane crash that killed the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd than we relate to and know about Richard Nixon, Woodstock and the Day the Music Died. 

Berkeley's sensibilities resonate with us a bit more deeply than, say, Garry Trudeau's, which are full-on, "Big Chill, "Four Dead in Ohio" boomer. Bloom County is just as smart as Doonesbury, and just as topical and satirical, but there's a sweetness and silliness at its center, a childlike innocence and joie de vivre that reveals itself even when the strip is being politically snarky. 

That's what makes it so unique and appealing. 

My Conversation with Berkeley Breathed

My Newsweek interview with Breathed in 2007 was a joy for me, and a bit of a coup. Breathed, who is married with kids, rarely talks. He's like Garbo on 'roids. During our chat I mentioned that his work was a wonderful blend of silly and smart, and asked him how this combination pushes its way into his life.

"It's represented in some ways by my interest in children’s books," he told me. "Cartooning is about deconstruction: you gotta tear something down to make a joke. A story for a child at bedtime, on the other hand, better damn well build something. That yin-yang balance in my art keeps me sane. I want my head clear when it's time to get hit by a train for my kid."

More a libertarian than a liberal, Berkeley has also called libertarians a bunch of tax-dodging professional whiners. I asked him if he was a man without a political affiliation? 

"No, me and a few other desperately cold pragmatists are the founders of The Meadow Party," he said. "Remember that one? That's one where you don't support silly things not because they conflict with political ideology, religion or philosophy, but because they sound silly. Invading a Muslim country, blowing it up and assuming we could leave in a few months with it looking like Vermont was silly. Cartoon silly. Opus silly. Worse, Bill the Cat silly."

Then I asked him how he felt about the state of American journalism. 

"Wobbly," he replied. "There's some great people doing great work under brave and dedicated editors, but they're under siege.  I still buy newspapers and news magazines and subscribe to sites like Salon that are doing courageous, confrontational pieces. The terrorist won't implode America. Fox News—and its deafening silence—will."

Judging from Berkeley's latest strip this past weekend, he remains a staunch advocate for journalism and the printed page. My fellow ink-stained wretches, and any one of you who loves newspapers and magazines, should dig this one:

Welcome back, Bloom County!


  1. Thanks, Jamie. I now have saved the site so I can easily see it every day he publishes. I missed the old gang!