ROBERT SEIGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. This just in. The bowtie-wearing, tuba-playing, onetime vice presidential candidate on the National Radical Meadow Party ticket is headed for that great comic strip in the sky. Opus, the penguin, who has charmed comics readers for nearly 30 years, starting with Bloom County, will be meeting in unspecified end.
Today, cartoonist Berkeley Breathed announced that he's giving up his Sunday comic strip, Opus, to focus on children's books instead. And, in fact, he has a new kids' book out this month. It's called "Pete & Pickles." Berkeley Breathed joins us from Thousand Oaks, California. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. BERKELEY BREATHED (Writer and Illustrator): I'm so happy to be here. Although, I have to say, it's a bit of mixed blessing.
BLOCK: A mixed blessing. Yeah. I'm beginning to think you are the Brett Favre of the cartoon world. You have given up your comic strip before and come back. Shall we take you at word this time?
Mr. BREATHED: Yeah. I'm afraid that, for structural reasons, there's probably not a way that I could come back. But I'll be leaving Opus in a way that it should be very clear that this time, there's no going back home. I don't think of myself, and haven't, as being sentimental about my work and my characters.
BLOCK: Uh hmm.
Mr. BREATHED: But I happen to be doing - I was drawing the last image I would ever draw of him in the last panel, the last strip. And I had Puccini playing - unfortunately, at the moment, it was about midnight, and I was getting unrealistically emotional about the whole thing and had to stop. And then I thought about why I was getting particularly sad about this.
I have to say that, now that I'm a father, and I have some small children, I extrapolated the passing of my character, of Opus and his child-like ways, with the passing of my children's childhood. And Opus is a permanent child. He's never going to be an adult. And as I drew him finally at the very end, I knew that that was the end. His childhood was gone. It took me a few minutes, and I had to pull myself back together again and face the fire.
BLOCK: Well, 30 years is a good run by any measure. But why now? Why did you decide that it's time to say goodbye to Opus and his friends?
Mr. BREATHED: Let me tell you the story. A year ago, I was working on two deadlines, two things at the same time. For the comic strip, it was the drawing of Dick Cheney emerging from Opus' closet of anxieties with a marsupial squatting on his head. And when Opus asked why there was a marsupial on his head, Dick Cheney insisted that there clearly was not and any suggestion that there was would be traitorous and unpatriotic.
Now, the other drawing I was doing was for this book, "Pete & Pickles," and it was of a large elephant wearing a Hawaiian shirt sitting in the front of a coffee shop. He was sharing his frappuccino with the stray dogs in the neighborhood, and their mouths were covered with whipped cream.
And my daughter was watching me going back and forth between these two drawings, which were due that day. And she said, while I was drawing the elephant, I had a very happy, silly grin on my face. And when I flipped back and was drawing Dick Cheney, I was grinning, but it was more malevolent.
And I realized that was a perfect illustration of probably what's made both the curse and the blessing of my career, which is a tug of war between the Michael Moore in me and the Walt Disney or the Charles Schulz. I'm more happy when I'm leaning toward the Walt Disney, but I can't resist the ranting of a Michael Moore.
What I am worried about, to tell you the truth, Melissa, is that we are heading for some difficult times in the next few years, politically. And I want to leave Opus on the plus side of that balance, where he's leaning towards sweetness.
So that's - it explains the children's book. It explains "Pete & Pickles." It is the reverse of that. It is telling children that we have a bright future ahead of us. And you have no reason to worry, and we are here to comfort you.
BLOCK: Well, this new kids' book, "Pete & Pickles," started with a drawing by your daughter, Sophie, who was five at that time. She drew it on a kids menu at a restaurant. She drew an elephant with a pig wrapped in his trunk, and she explained it to you. What did she say?
Mr. BREATHED: Well, the elephant was dropping flowers on the pig's head, and I said, why is he doing that? And she said, well, he's sad, Dad. And I said, well, why is the pig sad? She says, well, it's not that he's sad. He doesn't know he's sad. And I thought, that is beginning of a great story. What I ended up doing was writing a story that talked about people who love each other tend to take each other for granted sometimes, and how it's incumbent upon us to make sure it never gets too late before we do realize that we're meant for each other. So that's where it came from. But the idea that a pig didn't know he was lonely was what grabbed me, and we went from there.
BLOCK: And Pete the pig is lonely. He's a perfectly practical pig, as you describe him, and one of the first times we see him, he's vacuuming his wife's grave outside his house.
Mr. BREATHED: Yes, we leave that in subtext, Melissa.
BLOCK: But it's right there. I mean...
Mr. BREATHED: It is. You know, it's up to the parent to point out exactly what he's doing. I read it to my own children to see if they noticed. And they didn't necessarily notice that it's a very happy-looking headstone. But if the parents wish to point out that they have it at their fingertips as to, yes, there are sometimes very good reasons why people are sad, and they tend to ignore or they tend to deny that they're as lonely as they are. And their heart closes down to new people and new opportunities and new possibilities.
BLOCK: Pickles the circus elephant, who is rescued by Pete and comes to live with him, has this, you know, extraordinary outsized zest for life, and she upends his practical world in all kinds of ways. What does she do?
Mr. BREATHED: She uses her imagination, of course. We have a pig whose big night out the town is a tray full of frozen food at home, and an escaped circus elephant drops in to his lap and touches a place in Pete's heart that he didn't know was there. And the way he does that is to immediately broaden Pete's life with imagination. And he takes him for a balloon right over Tuscany, and they go sledding down the slopes of the Matterhorn, and they drift down the canals of Venice. But, of course, they're not doing those things in reality at all.
And I think it was a nice opportunity to show kids that imagination can be used in a way that's almost therapeutic, which is how, of course, it works for Pete and opens up a world to him that he didn't know was all around him at the same time.
BLOCK: There's a moment that the real turning point of the book is when a terrible disaster happens in the house. We know that Pete the pig is desperately afraid of drowning, and that's just what's happening. The house is filling up with water. Pickles comes to the rescue and ultimately - well, without giving too much away, but Pete...
Mr. BREATHED: We can't give it away!
BLOCK: Turns into the savior here. Pete saves the day.
Mr. BREATHED: Well, of course, things are saved at the end. But I can't resist the great moment of truth. It's what draws me to a story. It's what I find lacking in most children's stories is that they're afraid to bring a moment of danger and threat and potential death to a story, which I think is absolutely critical in carrying a child through the art that I think is required for him or her.
As long as you show them the other end of that tunnel and the decisions made to get out of it, I think that there are themes that are absolutely valid to bring into children's stories.
BLOCK: Well, Berkeley Breathed, it's good to talk to you about "Pete & Pickles" and maybe not so good to talk to you about the end of Opus. But thanks very much.
Mr. BREATHED: Oh, I've enjoyed it. Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: And you can see illustrations from Berkeley Breathed's new children's book, "Pete and Pickles," at npr.org.