Berkeley Breathed, drawn back to ‘Bloom County’ but looking forward

Oct. 03, 2009 | 3:38 p.m.

Berekeley breathed bike

TODAY: Berkeley Breathed is appearing at the Long Beach Comic Con.

Berkeley Breathed, the creator of the comic strips “Bloom County,” “Outland” and “Opus,” lives on a high hilltop in Santa Barbara — yes, the money from all those Bill the Cat T-shirts has added up nicely — but on a recent afternoon when he looked down at the churn of the blue-gray ocean, he seemed to feel the undertow of nagging regret.

“When you’re young, you miss things, you just don’t see them,” said the 52-year-old Breathed, who walked away from comic strips last year because the Digital Age had eroded his newsprint audience and, worse, his artistic vigor and sense of whimsy. There are other pursuits now: Breathed has written and illustrated an entire shelf of bestselling children’s books, including last month’s “Flawed Dogs: The Novel,” and he has some promising Hollywood ventures in play. But a lavish new collection of his past work, “Bloom County: The Complete Library,” stirred up some bittersweet reflection as he gave a tour of his home studio.

“Not to sound like someone swinging their cane, but in the 1980s there weren’t a thousand other voices screaming to be heard at the same time,” Breathed said of the decade when his “Bloom County” was featured in more than 1,200 newspapers and he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. “There was a quiet in the room that made being a commentator very exciting. There was no Web, there was barely any cable TV. If you were looking for humorous topical commentary, you would go to the Johnny Carson monologue, ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Doonesbury.’ That was it. After you have the silence of that room, you get really weary with the screaming it takes today. There’s also this bitterness in the public square now that is difficult to avoid. I never did an angry strip, but in recent years I saw that sneaking in.”

In the 1980s, Breathed was a sensation fresh from the college campus and, both brash and insecure, he didn’t always handle the spotlight well. He was viewed as a lone wolf in the quirky and stodgy community of comic-strip artists, and he didn’t build any bridges by announcing to the world that he had no knowledge of the field’s history, craft or conventions. That led to some indelicate decisions, such as his choice not to follow up on a kind gesture that arrived in the mail one morning not long after Breathed was injured in a 1986 ultra-light plane crash.

Opus

“The major regret in my cartooning life is I didn’t get to know him,” Breathed said, pointing up to the framed art from a “Peanuts” strip signed by the late Charles Schulz. “He sent me that as a get-well gift when I broke my back. This was a time when I was a pariah to the comics old guard. It was an opening, and I let the opportunity pass. Just a few months ago, I went up and visited with his wife, Jeannie, and I was tearful leaving. I would have loved to have been able to call him my friend.”

Then there’s the schism between Breathed and Garry Trudeau, the satirical mind behind “Doonesbury.” The two artists’ work appeared in papers side by side for years, but they have never shaken hands. There’s a reason. The younger cartoonist, searching for a style, borrowed plenty from “Doonesbury” and then chafed when the elder artist pointed that fact out in public.

“He came as close to a hero for me as I was going to have in the comics world,” Breathed said. “But I earned his spite by doing a lot of things wrong, and then when he called me on it, and did so relatively benignly, I was a smartass. I was, what, 21? I didn’t handle it well. After that, he had no interest in having a beer with me.”

Breathed also wishes he could connect with Bill Watterson, the “Calvin and Hobbes” artist who was Breathed’s fan, friend and rival but who now does everything he can to stay off the grid. “There are people searching for him, reporters, documentary-makers and fans, but he doesn’t want to be found,” Breathed said, sounding like the last member of a dysfunctional tribe. “I have a box of letters from him. You should see the drawings on them. He is a once-in-a-century talent.”

Berekely Breathed

Breathed speaks of his own work with far less enthusiasm. He never aspired to be a cartoonist — “It was an accidental career,” he said with a smirk, “to say the least” — and it pains him a bit to see the rough edges of his early work, which is now seeing the light of day in the five-volume series “Bloom County: The Complete Library” (IDW Publishing, $39.99 each, the 285-page Vol. 1 is now on sale).

“It’s embarrassing. I should have worked out all that stuff before I got in the public sphere,” he said. When asked about the vivid, color-rich art today, he shrugged. “It’s airbrush, which is for cheaters. It’s the perfect medium for people that don’t know what they’re doing.”

Perhaps, but even the earliest work shows the snap and rhythm of Breathed’s humor and the flow of a natural storyteller. Now, his children’s books are stirring interest in Hollywood, and one of his most successful titles, “Mars Needs Moms!,” is slated to hit theaters next year in a Robert Zemeckis production starring Seth Green and Joan Cusack.

Interestingly, it was film that seized Breathed’s imagination as a kid. He walked out of “Star Wars” in 1977 vowing that cinema would be his career pursuit.

But Breathed also had a passion for newspapers, and when he arrived at the University of Texas in 1978, he gravitated to the campus newsroom. He was hired as a news photographer, but the reckless dreamer had a problem with was the assignments: boring campus speeches and dry student meetings. So he used darkroom gear to, um, goose the photos — he would burn in a faint halo above the head of a local preacher or make the background sky in his pictures look like an alien vista. (He still gets a kick out of pumping up a photograph, as the illustration accompanying this story shows.) There were other similar stunts and a disastrous stint as a reporter.

“My basic problem was that my imagination was never going to allow me to work with the facts and, at a newspaper, the only safe place to put a person like that is in cartooning,” he said.
Breathed could draw, but he had no affinity for comic strips and really no knowledge of them beyond “Doonesbury,” which was in those days the dominant compass point for just about every college kid with a desire to draw pictures in panels.

Bloom county complete library

“That’s all I had to go on, so I did a ‘Doonesbury’-like cartoon and put it out there. For someone who needed their hubris slapped down a bit, it would have been good if people called me on the copying. Just the opposite happened: People on campus loved it. I was even able to self-publish a book.”

The college strips are “embarrassing, offensive and juvenile,” Breathed said with a pained expression, so he keeps them in a vault locked away from all eyes, including his own. He did agree to put a few of the least objectionable strips into the new book for the sake of posterity.

The ethos of a journalism informed by a fanciful brand of subversive satire eventually made Breathed’s “Bloom County” a signature corner of 1980s pop culture. Cerebral, topical, daft and proudly sentimental, it gave the world an earnest dreamer in Opus the penguin, the strange and scabby Bill the Cat and a memorable scoundrel in Steve Dallas, who may or may not resemble a certain comic-strip creator. Breathed worries that the strips may be too topical in hindsight.

“There was humor that relied on headlines from just a few days before,” Breathed said. “I found it deeply annoying to look back on Michael Dukakis cartoons.”

Flawed Dogs

“Bloom County” began in late 1980, and Breathed pulled the plug in 1989, making it a fully contained 1980s phenomena. He launched a Sunday-only strip called “Outland” that ran from 1989 through 1995 and featured Opus and other “Bloom” refugees. Next came “Opus,” a Sunday fixture from 2003 to 2008. When Breathed ended that one, he announced in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times that he was “destroying the village to save it.”

Now, he says it’s time to stick to books and try film. “I wasn’t interested in comic strips growing up because the level of narrative was too small in it,” he said. “They’re really art gags. And ultimately cartooning was always unsatisfying for me because I couldn’t explore storytelling in the fashion I wanted…and once you recognize you’re in a declining art form, it’s really hard to keep that energy up.”

Breathed, a father of two young children, is a bit of a daredevil. He has a passion for motorcycles and power-boating, even though he came close to losing his arm in a boating accident a few years after the ultralight plane crash. That extrovert spirit may be another reason why Breathed never felt at home with his peers or many of his fans, who he says “speak a different language than me and always made me nervous because I thought I’d be found out as a fraud.”

Breathed’s home studio is modeled after the interior of the Nautilus — the submarine from his favorite film, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” from 1954 — and the walls are lined by books about World War II, Hollywood history and the Old West. He says he finds the history of the western frontier and the war with the Nazis deeply compelling because they are, in essence, three-act stories. The screewriter terminology is revealing; Breathed adores the structure of film, not cartoon panels, and he is hugry to make a mark in Hollywood. It’s not a new obsession, just a delayed one, and he tells of a summer in his youth where he “stalked Steven Spielberg” around Southern California with a desperate eagerness to work with him.

This idea that cartooning was a practice career that prepared Breathed his real calling will not sit well with the purists who study and celebrate the heritage of American pop-culture illustration. Breathed isn’t even informed enough about that history to understand his perceived offense. For instance: There are some handsome volumes of classic cartoons too, such as Terry and the Pirates” by Milton Caniff. Asked about that one, the accidental cartoonist looked embarrassed. “The publisher sent it to me, but I never opened it. I bet it’s good. It’s just not my thing.”

He looked down at “Bloom County: The Complete Library” with the same expression of disinterest. “This is an amazing book, amazing to see,” Breathed said, sounding anything but amazed. Then he delivered the droll punch line. “When you write about it you should say, ‘This guy is a fraud and a cheat.’ There’s your headline.”

– Geoff Boucher

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Los Angeles Times photo illustrations of Berkeley Breathed shot by Mark Boster, embellished by Breathed. All artwork courtesy of Breathed, except for “La Cucaracha” panel by Lalo Alcaraz.
 

More in: Comic strips, Movies

Comments


34 Responses to Berkeley Breathed, drawn back to ‘Bloom County’ but looking forward

  1. lizutu says:

    You are a d….. lucky guy, Mr. Breathed. As an illustrator with a lesser talent (it worked for a while) you offend me with your behavior. I would have given my "eye teeth" for all the opportunittes you have had. I am glad that you see the error of your ways but it makes me mad that you succeeded in make gobs of money anyway. It's also proof that Illustration is a chovanistic field. Women have to make nice pictures of butterflies or something, men can be obnoctious and crudde and everyone excuses them. Oh, he's an artist…I know you know all this and you are contrite, so maybe flawed dogs can learn new tricks after all.

    • Seags says:

      Wow Lizutu, you are one mean-spirited spinster! If you don't recognise what Breathed has as talent…maybe you should become a nun. A very miserable nun.

  2. HDK says:

    At the age of 67, every morning I walk into my study to check my email and say good morning to my one foot tall stuffed OPUS. (Brother of the other one, with a Minnie Pearl Hat) He's kept me company for at least two dozen years.
    I miss him Berkeley. Bring him back, one day. We need a dreamer!

  3. BradK says:

    Breathed's persistent self-effacement coupled with his unique perspectives and ability to convey both without a hint of personal or political agenda is what makes for a true artist. A breath of fresh air, if you'll forgive the pun.
    I see him as the real thing and many others as frauds.

  4. porkypine says:

    The man is a genius.
    Somebody needs to dress him, though. Those jeans are embarrassing.

  5. Another flambes for the old Charles Bukowski Tribe, the quote about knowing when to stop reading and stop writing and time to take that bloated art and throw it out the door. This guy is so LA you just want to send em back to Texas.

  6. hwhappel says:

    Thought you might like this. Let me know that you got it.

  7. Holly Noel, Universi says:

    I read with interest your article on Berkely, or as I remember we called him at UT "Berke." (I think he was friends with my friend Barbara Rittenhouse.)
    I was a reader of Bloom County in the Daily Texan student newspaper and I continued to read it with pride as Berke became syndicated and hit the big time! My mother was a freak for the column and has several of his books and a stuffed Opus to boot.
    Please let Berke know that if he thinks he's hidden the old strips from college, several of us still have originals in boxes in the garage!
    Thanks Berke for the great columns and Geoff, thanks for the great article.

  8. MotherLodeBeth says:

    Have always admired men and women who marched to their own drummer and owned their own drums.
    Mr. Breathed has given our family years of smiles and we even had a cat named Bill who actually looked like a wet cat who had stepped on an electrical wire, or was on a weird acid trip.
    Am sure most of us have had moments when years later we realized we behaved badly years earlier. Its the ones who refuse to see these mistakes I worry about.

  9. David_U says:

    Before Doonesbury, Bloom County, and Opus, there was Pogo.
    Pogo was the ultimate subversive strip taking on the establishment.
    Li'l Abner made fun of politicians and society in general and there has been nothing like them since.

  10. Lloyd says:

    Nice article, I love Opus; Berkeley Breathed is awesome; I am happy for his success.

  11. mickey f. says:

    "declining art form" ? Strips, maybe, cartooning / graphic novels in general? Hardly. There are plenty of people who are unaware or uninterested in the rich history and fascinating present of the world of cartooning, including myself until a few years back. The irony is that one of the handful of greats of the second half of the last century is among those.
    I wouldn't feel too bad about Doonesbury. Everyone starts out copying, and Bloom County found its own voice quickly enough.

  12. Al says:

    Opus was one of my all time favorite characters and I miss him. Luck guy got to date Linda Ronstadt. I reread the books of old strips from time to time and always am rewarded with laughter.

  13. Megan says:

    Great piece. Thank you for letting us get to know, at least a little bit, this interesting man, who seems unafraid to admit mistakes yet continues to move forward. I have been a fan of his work since the early days of Bloom County and incredibly sad when Opus ended. His children's books make us laugh as we see a little bit of ourselves in the wonderfully quirky characters.
    I look forward to adding the newest books to our library.

  14. Jasmine Boyd says:

    The false modesty is really transparent.

  15. Thank you for the confession, Mr. Breathed. How you fare over the next thirty years if you don't follow up the confession with further atonement is up to God, not me.

  16. Fred Ut says:

    Mr. Breathed might not have started out as a brilliant illustrator, but from the moment Opus and Bill appeared his truly original voice as a storyteller has made the universe a little bit better. And the old strips do work, even for someone who had never heard about Glen Iacocca when he first read them in the mid-nineties.
    And by the time he got to Outland his genius was long established.

  17. Scott Welch says:

    Mr. Breathed, You are my hero. You always will be. Opus, Steve, Milo and Binkley kept me sane in the 80's, and still do. Senator Bedfellow, as you well know, is alive and well and living in virtually every office in Washington DC. I am 2 years older than you, and like yourself, will never grow up, hence never grow old. I am anxiously looking forward to Mars Needs Moms. (Bet you never imagined being involved with Disney!)You emailed me a couple of years ago to tell me that you couldn't start doing Bloom County again because "…the public couldn't handle it." Thank you for allowing the release of The Complete Collection. Who says you can never go back?

  18. SKR says:

    Mr. Breathed,
    Perhaps the reason why Gary Trudeau wouldn't drink a beer with you is that deep down he knew that your work was better than his. I have most of your books with Opus which I started collecting in the 80's while living in the dorms at an engineering college. Most of the other guys at the college enjoyed bloom county as well. Calvin and Hobbes was also a favorite during that time. These days however, Scott Adam's Dilbert series occupies a large portion of the book shelf (next to Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes). I have actually reread the Bloom County series recently…kind of like talking to an old friend that you've missed dearly. BTW – that's a nice BMW R1200 GS in the photo. I have an 04 R1150 GS.

  19. Mary Ellen says:

    I was at UT then. I loved The Academia Waltz. Why is he embarrassed? I have the self-published books, signed by the author.
    I also have Berke's high school's Senior Boys T-Shirt. He didn't have one as he was in his cheerleader uniform 1974-75 at his Houston high school, but my older brother did. As my brother's artwork is on the front of the shirt, I saved it from the Goodwill bag. Years later I remember the artist of the back – the cheerleader – and stopped wearing it as my sleep shirt since I admired his college cartoons and thought he'd do well.
    Showed it to Mr. Breathed at booksigning in 2006 and he recognized his handiwork and said it was "his first cartoon". Now signed in Sharpie by Mr. Breathed on back and my brother on front, I treasure it.

  20. Michelle Elliott says:

    Hey B,
    Watching cable at 3:00 am and "Second Hand Lions" was on………how cool is it to have Jim Carey play you in a film?……….only got a short clip at the end of the film, but I was paying attention…..
    Years ago, I was inspired by you and wrote to you after the ultra-lite crash near ABQ after this really cool article showed up in the Journal about you there…….I was so very touched that you actually wrote back to me……I think from an old Underwood typewriter……..you joked about the nurses at the hospital……(was it Lovelace or UNM, can't remember)…….You may still remember me when you were on vacation at Lake Powell (circa 1986)……….. you showed up late one night at the airport where I was working to send a Fed Ex to the Washington Post…..(had to meet a deadline)……you gave me a $10 tip……….I have loved Opus all these years for his "fragility"……….and his big heart………(and yes, I was a groupie there for a while in the '80's and had a "stuffed Opus")……….I wonder if you made decent commercial marketing cash for that?…………Where are you these days, Berkeley?……..It would be cool to correspond…not a stalker, just someone who has admired you "from afar."………………….
    Michelle

  21. […] Breathed: Charles Schulz and my great regret More in: Books, Comic strips, comic strips, Krazy Kat, Liesel Bradner […]

  22. precious says:

    I have been @ the start of Bloom County from from day one…..Mr. B and I r the same age. I ran across my copy of Bill the Cat sitting in his litter box reading the newspaper with an appro headline about "Newt"…. Bill where r u now. Even 20yrs later we need u!! BILL THE CAT FOR PRESIDENT!!!!
    Kudos Mr. B
    A fan<3

  23. Tom says:

    I used to sit in Taco Bell, reading the newspaper i bought just to keep up with Bloom County. It was not uncommon for me to have to struggle to keep a lid on the laughter so I didn't make a scene. I loved how it would pick up story lines that seemed to end a few days prior. I loved the election season nonsense, Milo's futile attempts at normalcy, the Tess Turbo video shoot, Portnoy's curmudgeonly disposition, and Binkley's pop culture obsessions, and Steve Dallas enlisting Opus to help him give up smoking. Truly the funniest stuff I've ever read.

    I still miss it.

    Tom

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