As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with what my dad called “the funnies” in the daily newspaper and especially in the Sunday supplemental section. The Sunday comics of that section were always special, especially if the comic ran during the week as a four-to-five panel black and white daily dose. The Sunday comic was always in COLOR. And in the 1980s no newspaper comic was better at it, weekday or on Sunday, than Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County.
For the entire decade of the 1980’, Breathed’s fictional place was somewhere (and yes, I know, Doonesbury, but that was a whole other group of folks) one could find that right blend of serious, insightful, opinionated and most importantly silly. Such silly was often executed in role reversals. For example one of the child characters, Milo, worked at the newspaper interacting with an adult editor, answering phone calls from adults or often calling politicians in the news who had misbehaved. This was something that to me as a child seemed extremely silly, because why would we want to work with adults? That role reversal seemed daring to me, as the kids acting in those adult roles sometimes would begin shaming adults, yelling at them, and then ruminating on the moment of the way they reacted as adults to things just said or implied. In such moments I would secretly be a little nervous (I was raised in the southeast after all) because who would ever dare do such a thing? Breathed also used role reversal to cast his adults in situations that had them acting not in the rational role of adult, but instead choosing to engage in silly mud slinging (verbally and whatnot) that suits children when they are chastising or reacting to a person or a situation. While Schulz’s Peanuts often had momentary dances with adulthood, he never showed the adults. Breathed, however, did show those adults, and he made a point to often make them the butt of the joke. In fact, in reviewing and reflecting on Bloom County, its Sunday only follow up Outland, and Opus, I find that he often boiled down adults involved in everyday life and politics as acting overly childish about everything.
Bloom County never seemed to be playing down to any demographic; rather, it seemed to be designed to hold some appeal for everyone, or even perhaps bring folks together. At my house Bloom County was a connection, as my dad and I would comb the Sunday funnies together, he finding humor that I might have missed, separately each of us laughing about something completely different within the same panel or panels. For example, let’s say a joke about Ronald Reagan was made. No, I didn’t get the political humor like my dad, but I was laughing at the well-timed “Ack” of Bill the Cat or one of the generous double takes, or emotional expressions, or gesticulations by one of the other company. My best friend, who also read the strip growing up, and I would always make a point to have our folks buy us the collected editions of the strip as they came out. That way we could discuss them just as much as we discussed the superheroes that flickered in the other parts of our imaginations on a more regular basis. Superman, Batman, Cap & the Avengers, they were all pretty boss, but Opus, Bill, Milo, Michael Binkley, and the gang were something magical in a different way—in a funny and expressive way I couldn’t quite wrap my young head around, but I liked it, I wanted to read it and follow it. Can there be fanboys for this type of thing? If so, my friend and I (and my dad) were definitely in that unique category.
As I entered my adolescence, Bloom County came to a close, but Opus and Bill the Cat lived on in Outland, a Sunday only comic. Outland was big, colorful, but familiar. In recently thinking back on it and reading some, I noticed a change occurring, an allowance by Breathed for his voice to be more focused, to stretch artistically in color, form. And then, as I prepared to graduate High School, Outland ended too. So did a time period for media in modern history. As the 1990s were moving along, especially in the middle-to-later half, the internet was slowly starting to unfold in more homes, the next century was knocking on the door, and the ways media were created, ingested, and interpreted were changing, and fast. The newspaper strip (really the newspaper itself) and its readers became antiquated quickly. The good and bad thing about getting older I will opine is that one realizes that the things that were once held dear don’t get old with one; rather, they are either going to end before them or live on after them as the exact same age, like a perfect time capsule.
In studying literature and art (and yes, comics, good comics, do belong in that category, period) I have found this is as true for the fictions that make life livable as much as any more tangible human experiences and interactions. Fictions give us the contextual reflection to make sense of things, and with such sensibilities realize that the things that mean the most to us have a terminal point as we have a terminal point. So it seemed, at that critical point in the middle of the last decade of the 20th century, that for my generation the things of our youth were going into the drawer, Berkley Breathed was ready to put away those things too, and the end of the line had been reached. And he did. And then one day, a Sunday in 2003, a rather familiar penguin showed up again in the Sunday funnies like a ghost. An old friend had returned, for one last victory lap, and it was going to be a doozy.
Opus is the type of ambitious project you want to see your favorite artist make, no matter what the medium. Breathed was only going to give himself, according to the introduction in this collection, five years to do the comic, somewhere in the area of 260 more Sunday adventures for his beloved Opus the penguin and company. And it is in Opus that Breathed continued to pour out his thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The reproduction of the art, the color and paper quality of this collection by IDW is gorgeous. I forgot how much Breathed had really begun to play with his style. Some pages are layed out mixing the abstract fantasy rolling hills, vistas and forests (especially his trees!), while others with the Hubble telescope-like quality of the universe spread out on the page for the reader with the night sky, stars, planets, and nebulae vibrant, making the characters and the reader feel alive. As I read this collection, it was almost like there was an invisible soundtrack in the background of so many of the pages, a dance that sometimes halted progress thankfully to fall back towards the silly, but every now and then it would push on and give up a nugget of beautiful experience on the page before me. That is why it took me weeks to read this collection, and I mean this in a positive way—I was often overwhelmed.
The social commentary, the political was there just like before, but added to the mix was a new more urgent feeling of a focus upon the personal, the search for identity. The culture had changed, and it seems Breathed is very aware of the distance between himself and the culture, and in true grumpy old man fashion his work communicated that he didn’t like it. He railed against the ever changing face of technology and mass communication (although the work eventually went online during the run), openly criticizing non-fact-checked blogging as news; he saw the ridiculous nature of the airport security scans of citizens in a post 9-11 world; the anxiety closets returned for his characters, holding a host of our inner demons that now were a tad more sinister; he continued to question how we sell image to children, especially little girls; he gave politics its place as always; and he continued to deeply explore, in the art and in the thoughts of some of his characters what our place in the universe may be—what does it mean, what are we here to do, and what seemed to be the most important thought coming out of this collection, at least for me at thirty-five, what does it mean to get old? Breathed aged his characters this time, primarily through making Steve Dallas the middle aged man he would be, but decided against aging his beloved children from the original strip. Perhaps it was too painful. Maybe that was Breathed’s way of saying that we have to get old but damn it not everything else does to have to make sense. But we must get old to a point, and with such age that means that it is time for us to make an exit in one form or another. Thus Breathed decided to create an exit he felt was suitable.
As the end of production on the comic approached, Breathed attempted a meta-fictional treatment of the material, as Opus became self aware that he was running out of time. The actual end of the comics, the final weeks worth of work leading up to it, is one of beauty, and I will not spoil it; rather, if you read all of the installments in sequence, the satisfaction of it is quite impressive, even more so if you had been along for the ride since those wild days in Bloom County. The overwhelming emotion that I suddenly felt myself having as I finished the collection, as I said good-bye again to some old, old friends, did not make me grieve sadly, rather I felt relief. It’s the relief knowing that this was the best work by Breathed, that it will stand up for all time, long after I am gone, still giving a chuckle to a new generation, because that is what good art does—it transcends. To paraphrase the poet Ben Jonson’s Epigrams: On my First Son–Here doth lie Berkeley Breathed his best piece of poetry.