On Nov. 2, one of the great American satirists will publish his final chapter in an epic tale that has spanned the last 28 years. Oh sure, he’s threatened to quit at least twice before, and almost had quittin’ forced upon him for good in 1986 when he crashed his motorcycle, but this time, it’s really “it.” Berkeley Breathed’s retiring from the comic strip business. The moustached gent who gave us Bloom County, Outland, and most recently Opus; who created Bill the Cat, Steve Dallas, Ronald Ann, Mike Binkley, Oliver, the Banana 6000, Milo Bloom, Lola Granola, Big Pig Peaches, Milquetoast the Cockroach, the Basselope, and who managed to present Jeane Kirkpatrick as a love interest, shall strip no more.
Here’s what Bloom County, et seq., did for us: in the 1980s, President Reagan was projecting an odd mix of heartland “Morning in America” populism and “Star Wars”-era paranoia, televangelists roamed the Earth and the concept of politics as entertainment was entering its precocious tweenage years. Bloom County was the perfect mirror image of the absurdity of its age. Here were a bunch of kids, talking animals, and a shady young lawyer, living somewhere in the heartland (probably Iowa or Kansas, both traditional homes of populism, mind you), and finding themselves inexplicably and hilariously involved in a world of nuclear acceleration, runaway capitalism, and drastic change. In the 1990s, Outland, with its weird and lush visual dreamscapes, proved that Clinton-era political correctness could be just as rich a vein for comedy as 1980s shallowness.
Here’s what Bloom County, et seq, did for me: it taught me to question political authority. It got me thinking about things like censorship, animal testing, doing the right thing even if it isn’t popular, and even stuff like Apartheid (I was ten.) More than anything else, it taught me that, not only could you get your point across through laughter, but that everyone’s point of view could be laughed at, if looked at a certain way. Breathed’s cartoons were definitely left-leaning, but he got his digs in on the left as well. (Despite all the jokes he made at the expense of the right, Reagan still invited him to the White House. )
His artwork is amazing, too. It started out, in the early days, as a Doonesbury ripoff (he’s admitted this), but it quickly developed into a singular style that incorporated elements of Walt Kelly and Don Bluth. Later on, in Outland and Opus, he got really good – like Little Nemo in Dreamland and Terry and the Pirates good (i.e. so good that it was almost too good for the comics as they were at the time – Calvin excepted, of course.) My favorite visual moment, though, is a simple one: Oliver’s Banana 6000 Jr. computer, which was essentially a yellow Mac Classic with legs, jumping up and down excitedly on Steve Dallas’s back, going “poink! poink! poink!”
It’s his writing that got me, though – I love Binkley’s “anxiety closet”, I love all the folksy nonsense words(“renooberate” – to reconfigure in an overtly complicated manner; “hottentot” – an attractive young lady; “tomato” – an extremely attractive young lady; “higglety-pigglety” – chaos… and so forth). The basselope saga sticks out in my mind, for some reason. The basselope is a rare crossbreed between a basset hound and an antelope. They eat Pop Tarts. They’re nearly extinct. Not because of environmental reasons or natural selection, of course – they’re extinct because of clogged arteries. (“Basselopes like lots of butter on their Pop Tarts.”) Genius.
Oh, and Bill The Cat, a character invented for two reasons: to make fun of Garfield, and to make fun of celebrity rehab culture. He actually died a few weeks after being introduced into the strip, and the next few color Sunday strips were devoted to a Bob Woodward-esque celebrity expose on his sordid final days.
Opus the Penguin, our nebbishy, occasionally prudish, half-sensible hero with Oedipal problems, is so layered and complex that he’s barely 2-D anymore. Breathed’s been writing about him and drawing him for almost three decades, so he’s obviously going to have to change lest the ideal get stale (looking at you, Garfield, just sayin’) Opus has: run for Vice-President (twice), played the tuba in a heavy metal band, had his memory erased by the Soviets, gotten almost-married, rescued his Mom from the Mary-Kay Commandos (who wield Pink Uzis, of course), stood in for Sting at a rock concert, founded the Meadow Men’s Couch Club, appeared as an extra in a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird (as directed by Quentin Tarantino)…. and, still, he’s happiest lying in a patch of dandelions.
That’s really the point of the Bloom County oevre: the best pleasures are the simplest. Its view is conservative in that the past, the heartland, and the family (adopted though they may be) are the places from which we draw our greatest strength. Its also, obviously, quite Liberal in that it takes a strong stance on equality and environmentalism and other things. And it’s really, really funny. Go forth and dig through the stacks at your local (independently owned) bookstore, and you’ll no doubt find a few copies of old Bloom County collections (I heartilly recommend Bloom County: Babylon and Billy and the Boingers Bootleg) – if you missed the 80s and want to know what they were really like, they’re a great place to start.
So, thanks Berke, for warping many, many American minds, young and old. That’s all I have to say on the subject.
Oh, so here’s the next-to-last Opus cartoon. At the end, it tells of a contest where you can win $10,000 for the animal shelter or animal rescue organization of your choice simply by guessing correctly where Opus will wind up in his final strip. I’ve made my own guess, and hopefully the good people at Grey2K – a group dedicated to the protection of greyhounds and other racing dogs, based in Somerville, MA – will be receiving a sizable check in the future. I encourage all of you to enter. Like the site says, all the clues are there in the last few weeks of the strip, available online at Salon.com.