Before there was The Daily Show or South Park, there was Bloom County, Berkeley Breathed’s satirical eighties comic strip that centered around a sensitive penguin named Opus, and ribbed such cultural cartoons as Donald Trump, Al Sharpton, and George H.W. Bush. (Read the feature in this week's magazine.) This month sees the arrival of The Bloom County Library: Volume One: 1980-1982, the first in a five-volume reprint series. Brian Raftery spoke to Breathed (pronounced Breath-ed) about fabulism, fake Uzis, and the life of an accidental cartoonist.
You’ve always been hesitant to revisit Bloom County. So why go back now?
One of my points for not doing it was that the strips were so damn timely. Who the hell remembers who Cap Weinberger is? Or Michael friggin’ Dukakis? But my fans have been asking about it for years. It was a nostalgic blast.
What was it like looking back at nine years’ worth of strips?
One thing any discerning comic reader could tell is that I had almost no experience with comic strips. I didn’t grow up on them. You could see me struggling; I had no idea what Bloom County was supposed to be about, who the main character was going to be. I was moving to Iowa, so I just shoved everything into a rural landscape, and started cartooning totally by the seat of my pants. There was always this constant tension: I don’t even know what this strip is. Sometimes, it was this vicious satire on Michael Jackson, sometimes it was political, and sometimes it was Opus, lying in a dandelion field, musing about life. They didn’t fit easily together, and not always happily, but they fit for a while.
How’d you wind up in a section of the paper you hardly even read?
I’d been fired from all the other positions at the University of Texas’s Daily Texan. Because, though I love newspapers, I had no concept of appreciation of facts or reporting. So I made everything up. As a photographer, I couldn’t hand in a straight news photo of someone at a podium. I had to figure out some screwy way to make it more interesting. I got fired after burning in a halo over a street preacher’s head.
I was also behind a fraudulent story [at a campus magazine] that got me arrested. I wrote that a student had released hundreds of baby alligators into a local swimming lake, as a conservation measure. This made Lake Travis’s property values plummet, and that brought the federal game agents in, looking for this guy; he didn’t exist, but they did find two baby alligators in my apartment. I was arrested for that, but I couldn’t admit that the story was made up, as it would have sacrificed the last tiny shred of credibility that I had left. So I cartooned instead. It was the only safe place for a complete fabulist to go in a newspaper.
When Bloom County launched in 1980, the funny pages were in a creative slog: lots of old franchises like Blondie, and too few new strips.
The only other strips that were being read were Doonesbury and Garfield. And, more importantly, there was no satire happening in pop culture, besides Johnny Carson’s monologue and Saturday Night Live. The topical satire in Doonesbury [was] limited to hardcore fans, and most of the time, he was appearing on the editorial page. So there was no one on the standard comics page that was shaking it up. And I did so not by design, but because I didn’t know any better. I had no idea that, when I drew a fake ad for an Uzi, that it wasn’t what everybody did. Bloom County found the zeitgeist that it was perfectly appropriate for. It wouldn’t work today, and it wouldn’t have worked ten years before.
Speaking of Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau wasn’t known for being a huge Bloom fan.
He understandably took umbrage at my borrowing character details and gags from him, before I realized how to better sift my creative mind from its history. I was unknowingly borrowing way too much from him the first year. He let me know, and he was quite decent about it, and my response was not the most graceful. There’s a regret, because he and I have never actually talked, and it’s too bad.
You announced your retirement in 1989, and within the next few years, both Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Gary Larson (The Far Side) were gone, as well.
You get a license to print money if you get in, which is why syndicates couldn’t believe I was doing that. But Bloom County was definitely a creature of the eighties. The humor was very specific, and it was going to get jaded and, I think, musty very quickly. There were too many raw edges to it, and you just can’t keep raw forever. The fact that other guys followed afterward was a wake-up call to the industry that something is amiss, and change is afoot, and maybe the glory days are never going to return.
And they never really did. With the exception of Dilbert and The Boondocks, there hasn’t been a culture-conquering newspaper strip in years.
When the three of us quit, it coincided with bad things happening in newspapers in general, and then the culture was suddenly awash in competitive humor. It siphoned a lot of the talent away. The future great cartoonists aren't sending their stuff anymore. They rightfully are working in graphic novels, or doing something else. It’s funny, you never hear anybody talking about it. People loved the comics over the last 100 years. They were hugely influential in popular culture, and they’re dying. They’re going fast. And nobody talks about it — it’s like they’re not even noticing. Along with newspapers, it’s this huge creative institution just disappearing into the ether behind us.
Related: The Renegade Cartoonist [NYM]