I can’t really overemphasize the role Berke Breathed’s Pulitzer-winning ’80s comic strip Bloom County played in my life. Its prepubescent hero, Milo Bloom, was a budding journalist of dubious ethics. He had a best friend named Binkley who was fond of wearing tutus (much to the chagrin of his football-loving dad). And they palled around with an endearing penguin named Opus. The fact that I turned out to be a gay, penguin-fancying journalist with an offbeat sense of humor? It ain’t pure coincidence.
So imagine my delight to reacquaint myself with the origins of Breathed’s pre-Opus opus, the first of a planned five-volume compendium of the strip’s nearly nine-year, Pulitzer-winning run. Bloom County The Complete Collection, Volume One includes several pages of The Academia Waltz, the strip that Breathed drew for the student newspaper at the University of Texas, Austin in 1978-79. It was very much a Doonesbury homage, as I suspect most college comics were in those days – though it did introduce an early version of both the preppie cad Steve Dallas and the wheelchaired Vietnam vet Cutter John, who would become regulars in Bloom County.
The book helpfully provides marginal notes, many offering glosses on Reagan-era figures like Alexander Haig and James Watt who might be unfamiliar to younger readers. (The footnoting can go a little overboard: Did the book have to spell out that a “plastics” punchline “alludes to career advice Dustin Hoffman’s character received in the 1967 film, The Graduate”?) The best notes, though, reveal details of Breathed’s creative process and his progress as a nascent professional cartoonist (four months into the gig, he introduced a character named Limekiller who was, Breathed admits, such a “sloppy retread of Doonesbury’s Duke” that Garry Trudeau himself sent him several “spicy letters”).
But as Breathed settled into the job, his handwriting became more legible and the jokes hit their target with greater frequency. Certainly, Bloom County was not quite like anything else that had appeared on the comics pages up until then. (In the strip’s third week, a child sitting on Santa’s lap requests a mother for Christmas – then adds, acidly, “Naturally you’ll have to haul off the one I have now.”) There were parodic versions of public figures, from the British royal family to media mogul Ted Turner, renamed Ashley Dashley. There were send-ups of Reagan administration high jinks and ’80s cultural trends (preppies do not come off very well). There was the introduction of a completely unmarketable hairball of an animal named Bill the Cat to send up the tendency of comics to churn out merchandise of cute-animal characters (ironically, there ultimately were Bill the Cat plush toys).
Breathed developed a knack for addressing current events at an angle, and delivering comic strips with not only wit but heart: In one of a series of strips about the 1982 war between Argentina and the U.K. over the desolate Falkland Islands, a sheep and a penguin look down from a cliff on humans who’ve killed each other. “You don’t suppose we evolved from them?” the sheep asks. The penguin replies: “I, myself, am physically repulsed by the idea.” That’s Bloom County in a nutshell. In its topical but absurdist humor, Bloom County now seems like a bridge between Doonesbury and The Simpsons – with The Daily Show as a clear successor.
Are there any other fans of Bloom County out there? And which of Breathed’s many characters is your fave?