'Bloom County' And Opus The Penguin Return After A 25-Year Hiatus
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Berkeley Breathed has brought back his popular comic strip "Bloom County" after having retired it 25 years ago at the height of its popularity. At the time, "Bloom County" was published in over 1,200 newspapers. Anthologies that collected the strip were best-sellers. Our producer Sam Briger used to read "Bloom County" and was pleasantly surprised when he discovered the strip had returned so he recorded an interview with Berkeley Breathed which we're about to hear, and Sam is here to introduce it. Sam how did you find out that "Bloom County" was back?
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Well, I was surprised to find it on Facebook. That's where he's posting it now.
GROSS: Just not in newspapers anymore.
BRIGER: That's right. It's no longer in newspapers. It's a Facebook-only comic strip.
GROSS: So Bloom County won a Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, but it's not a strip that was ever on the editorial pages per se.
BRIGER: That's right.
GROSS: Tell us something about the strip.
BRIGER: Yeah, it was in the funny pages. It took place in a small, Midwestern town called Bloom County, and there are a variety of characters, including probably the most famous which was a penguin named Opus. There were other human characters. And it often lampooned popular cultural figures of the day and politicians as well.
GROSS: Like who?
BRIGER: Well, like Donald Trump, for one.
GROSS: Oh, OK (laughter).
BRIGER: And he's actually made it back in the new version, "Bloom County 2015."
GROSS: So there's an interesting back story that you had started telling me about how Berkeley Breathed brought back the strip in part because of his connection to Harper Lee who wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird." And this past summer, the original draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird" was published under the title of "Go Set A Watchman," and he was very upset when it was published.
BRIGER: Yeah, that's right. He had a big, emotional reaction to the publication, and mostly because he was upset how the character Atticus Finch was treated. In the original "To Kill A Mockingbird," Atticus Finch is this very heroic character and in "Go Set A Watchman," he's portrayed as a racist. And Berkeley Breathed was worried that this was going to kill off the character in the imagination of readers. And it made him reconsider his own characters.
GROSS: So why don't we get to that part of the interview that Sam did with Berkeley Breathed.
BERKELEY BREATHED: I watched slack-jawed in horror as they threw one of the 20th century's most iconic fictional heroes, Atticus Finch, under the bus. At the time - and this was a couple of months ago - it made me think that there would have been no "Bloom County" without "Mockingbird" because I was 12 I read it, and the book's fictional Southern small town of Maycomb had settled deep into my graphic imagination and informed it forever. If you look at any of my art for the past 30 years, there's always a small-town flavor to it.
So this summer, just a couple months ago when "Go Set A Watchman" was causing an uproar, I went back to my files and I pulled an old fan letter from years ago. It says (reading) dear Mr. Breathed, this is a plea from a dotty old lady and from others not dotty at all. Please don't shut down Opus. Can't you at least give him a reprieve? Opus is simply the best comic strip there is and depriving him of life is murder - a hard word to describe an obliteration of your creation. But Opus is real. He lives. Harper Lee, Monroeville, Ala.
BREATHED: When I pulled that out - I hadn't seen it for 25 years. And I choked up, and I thought about the preposterously ironic impossibility of my literary heroine from my childhood demanding that I not kill one of her fictional heroes. The universe throws us some obvious little pitches sometimes, and we need to be awake enough not to let them slip by. So that night I found the blank four frames of "Bloom County" from years before in my files, and I sat down to draw the first one in 30 years. And I posted it on Facebook in sort of a what-the-hell moment, and that's exactly how much careful reason sober forethought went into the whole thing. And then it exploded after that.
BRIGER: Is it strange to return to "Bloom County" after 25 years? What comes easier or harder for you now writing the strip?
BREATHED: Well, no. It's a reverse question. It's why does it come so easy rather than why did it come so hard before, which is what it did. I never met any of my deadlines for 5,000 comic strips in the 10 years that I did "Bloom County," not a single one, and it was because I was miserable. I was driven, but every single deadline was ripped out of my backend. I don't know why. I've long examined why that was so difficult and why the strip turned out even readable. But it's such a reverse now that I'm still - it's all so new. I'm still trying to figure out and decipher what it is that's happened in the ensuing 25 years that has turned that around into something that I can't wait to get up in the morning to do.
BRIGER: You've written that you would drive yourself really early in the morning to the airport to drop off the week's worth of comic strips to get to the Washington Post where you were syndicated.
BREATHED: Yes. And that was - I was driving material whose ink was still wet because I hadn't started that week's strips until only about 9 o'clock that night. And by 4 o'clock in the morning, I had to get them to the airport and put them on an airplane to Washington, D.C. It didn't matter if there was a blizzard or an ice storm, and I - several times I ended up spinning on I-70 on the way down from my home in Evergreen, Colo. But in Iowa, the weather was so terrible that by the time I got to the airport, often the strips had not been finished. And I had to get on an airplane with the strips, buy a ticket right there and fly to Washington, D.C., while I finished the last couple of strips on the plane, usually deferring interested parties who were watching me who desperately want to talk about cartooning with me on the plane. And I'd get there and give it to a cab driver and give him 50 bucks and hope - hope - that he did what he promised to do and get them to the Washington Post Offices. And I'd get - turn around and get back on the plane and fly back to Iowa.
BRIGER: So for those of our listeners who didn't read "Bloom County," can you just briefly describe the strip for us?
BREATHED: Actually probably not.
BRIGER: (Laughter) OK.
BREATHED: You can give it a try (laughter).
BRIGER: Well, I'll try.
BREATHED: Try to describe it.
BRIGER: I'll give a little bit. There's some famous characters that people might know. It's Opus the penguin, who is a earnest and innocent penguin, Bill the cat, who seemed to be, in part, a parody of a popular comic at the time, "Garfield," Cutter John, who was a paraplegic Vietnam vet who liked to ride down hills, imitating - having Star Trek fantasies. There was Steve Dallas, a former frat boy who was a defense lawyer who often could be pretty sleazy. I think those are some of the main characters.
BREATHED: Sure. Nicely done.
BRIGER: OK. You'll accept that (laughter). All right, well, maybe let's look at a couple comics and that will give people a bit of a feeling for it. You actually have in one of the earliest new strips you have Opus, who seems to have woken up from a sleep after 25 years, who's worried that his friends are going to put him back into hibernation. And he says (reading), no, no. I'm not going back to sleep. And the horror of 25 years ago - a world of Clinton versus Bush, a world where Arnold Schwarzenegger still acts in movies and Donald Trump runs around spouting poo poo sauce in Lhasa Apso hair extensions. Good riddance to the - that old nightmare.
So it seems like - it's like you never left.
BREATHED: Oh, exactly right, which is the whole point. Hearing my comic strips read as a transcript is a horrifying thing.
BRIGER: Sorry about that. Yeah, I'll try not to do that again.
BREATHED: Sam you - you're going to go to cartoon hell for that.
BRIGER: I apologize.
BREATHED: It's unfortunately something we have to live with, but they have pictures for a reason, let me tell you.
BRIGER: I'll just finish out the interview, just reading some more of my favorites.
BREATHED: You'll see me out the door.
BRIGER: Let's look at another one of your recent comics. And this one features Binkley, who's a neurotic 10-year-old who has an anxiety closet in his bedroom. And when he's going to sleep at night, various anxieties pop out of his closet to torment him, and usually they're pretty a idiosyncratic. So the most recent one has been George Lucas. Why is George Lucas one of his anxieties?
BREATHED: He's back. We're all anticipating the return of "Star Wars." And this is a little inside baseball for some of my fans, but they know what I'm talking about - is that George Lucas who - well he has a complex relationship, let's say, with his own fans. And they love him and they revere him and they probably bow to him like Binkley does, but they all desperately want him to stay back in retirement in their anxiety closets where he's safe from possibly doing any rewrites - any future movies. It brings up one point - is in the old days, I would never of hesitated in taking great joy and going after someone like George Lucas. A personality is largely George Lucas. And I pause now, and that's come with age. It doesn't matter how big he is or how - that he's a king and he's sitting on top of the hill. He's still an artist like I am. And we may tear our hair out over what he's done with his art or where he's taken it, but we forget that he probably has an ego that can be hurt as much as the rest of us. And when I was 23, I would never have paused at - and I certainly spent more time with celebrities than I would now as far as satirical targets. I think I'd approach it with a bit more compassion now - in fact, I know I do. I don't like hurting people's feelings.
I remember walking - I was in Santa Barbara maybe 18 months ago. I was scootering with my little boy down State Street, and I pass a fellow and zip right around his feet and keep going, and I realized who it was. And I stopped, and I told my kid to follow me, and I came back, and confronted him, which I would never normally do. And it was Barry Manilow.
BRIGER: Who appeared in your strip.
BREATHED: Who appeared many times in my comic strip and probably not in the most flattering ways in 1985. In fact, I was probably fairly merciless with him, as well, people like Michael Jackson and others. All artists - nobody was hurting anybody. They were just doing their art, and I was going after them, which I thought at the time was part of my job description. And I walked up to him and introduced myself, and he remembered who I was. We both remembered that he sent me a bouquet of flowers when I had broken my back in 1987 in a flying accident. The target of my meanest cartoons sent me a massive bouquet of flowers to my hospital. And we both remembered that, and we laughed about it, and he turned to my son and said, this is one of the greatest cartoonists of our generation. And I turned to my boy, and I said, this is one of the greatest and most famous singers of our generation. And I realized I would - I don't have it in me now to do that again. It's under the category of things that I do differently now. I'm not the same guy I was in 1985. Fortunately, my sense of humor hasn't completely been defeated, but other than that, there's a few changes.
GROSS: Were listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Berkeley Breathed, who has restarted his comic strip, "Bloom County." We'll hear more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Berkeley Breathed, who has revived his popular comic strip "Bloom County" after having stopped doing it over 25 years ago. The new "Bloom County" isn't in newspapers. It lives on Facebook.
BRIGER: You won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for editorial cartooning even though "Bloom County" is not an editorial cartoon. And that created a lot of controversy. What was the issue there?
BREATHED: The issue was that the editorial cartoonist - the conventional ones, the ones that were on the political pages of the newspapers - were incensed. They were mad enough that Trudeau had won it 10 years before. But he was arguably, really, just a walking, talking editorial cartoon on the comic pages. Mine clearly was not to wit. It was populated with a penguin and a dead cat. So the idea that I had infringed on their territory was not taken very well. And they let Columbia University know. They let the newspapers know. They released press releases. They spoke out rather vociferously to have my Pulitzer revoked - unsuccessfully. And it was - it ended up a very funny scene because Columbia was so embarrassed by this time that they could barely give it to me before kind of ushering me off the stage and telling me to get the hell out of town, which I was happy to do (laughter). I never looked back.
BRIGER: You'd said that you would be at a convention, and an editorial cartoonist would be at the next table and would leave when they realized who you were.
BREATHED: It was something right out of "Bloom County." I was signing autographs next to Pat Oliphant, who was a - I think a double Pulitzer Prize winner at the time
BRIGER: Who you've said is someone who you admire.
BREATHED: Oh, he was a huge influence. He's one of the best - he was the funniest guy on the editorial pages in the '80s and '90s, and in any other time would have been my hero - he was my hero at the time. So I'm sitting next to my editorial cartoonist hero, and as a counterpoint to Harper Lee, he looks over to me and realizes he's sitting next to me. (Laughter) He gets up, takes all of his materials and leaves the room. (Laughter) It was putting a point on the attitude that the rest of them had, and when I spoke at the editorial cartoonists convention, they - every one of them boycotted it so all I had in the audience were mostly college cartoonists.
BREATHED: Those were fun days. (Laughter).
BRIGER: He actually said at one point - there's a quote when The Washington Post wrote about this - that "Bloom County" was guilty of, quote, "passing off shrill potty jokes and grade school sight gags as social commentary."
BREATHED: Guilty. As it should be.
BREATHED: He was missing the point.
BRIGER: Back in the '80s, when you were syndicated, you were - your strip appeared in over 1,200 newspapers. And I guess each of those papers had an editor for the funny pages. What was your relationship with those people? Would you hear from them if there was something that was too irreverent for the readers or what was that situation like?
BREATHED: It's relevant because I'm doing the same comic strip now without any editing whatsoever. And I would say that in 1985, I had 1,200 editors, each of them having a different agenda, each of them having a different audience, every single one of them feeling that they had the right to edit and to - I wouldn't say censor - but manipulate the material. You know, the editor of The Salt Lake City Tribune had a different agenda than the editor of the Boston Herald. And they would be perfectly happy and editing and rewriting each strip as they felt necessary, which left some very funny strips out there. There needs to be a book of the various versions of my comic - of each comic - the more controversial ones as it appeared in papers around the country.
There used to be, famously, an editor at the LA Times whose primary responsibility - he did other things in the newspaper, but for the comics, he did one thing - that was to remove the butt cracks from various comic strips who kept including them as their characters bent over. I think there were a couple with "The Katzenjammer Kids" or something.
I hope you can say butt crack on FRESH AIR, Sam.
BRIGER: You can.
BREATHED: I might be able to, all right.
BRIGER: You can say it.
BREATHED: But he would have to take his bottle of Wite-Out and actually white out the butt cracks of the comic strips each day before they posted in the LA Times in the '40s and '50s. So that was the reality of comic strips, is that you were dealing with a medium that had no patience for controversy whatsoever.
BRIGER: Well, I'm so glad that "Bloom County" is back, but I've seen these characters come and go in the past. Can I be cautiously optimistic that they're going to be around for a while?
BREATHED: I should be careful not to make any promises. How can I say no when I'm having so much fun? I mean, it would have been a hard question to answer in 1988 because I was miserable. But I appreciate that, and I'm certainly hearing that from these remarkable people that are writing to me and to each other every day on Facebook.
In the past couple of months, it's been stunning. The digital world has allowed me a connection with my reader that I'd never had before. I wrote every single cartoon strip in isolation in a dining room in an Iowa City farmhouse. I didn't meet the people who read my material. The fan letters were mostly answered by professional people that'd done them for a living. And I didn't have any daily connection with their response to my work. So the cartooning was just an abstraction. It was an income. It was making me famous. It was allowing me to go and do other things that I'd wanted to do. But I didn't have a relationship with my audience. And every artist should have it. And I'd like to be able to tell them that no, I'm not setting themselves up for a quick fall. You're stuck with me for a while.
BRIGER: Well, Berkeley Breathed, thanks so much for appearing on FRESH AIR.
BREATHED: It was my great pleasure, Sam.
GROSS: Berkley Breathed spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. The revived version of "Bloom County" lives on Facebook. A collection of the new strips will be published in book form this summer by IDW Publishing, which brought out Breathed's earlier collections.
After we take a short break David Bianculli will review tonight's second season premiere of the FX series "Fargo." This is FRESH AIR.
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