Breathed in Bloom
It’s been 20 years since Berkeley Breathed left the world of Bloom County behind. Since then, he’s kept busy with such strips as Outland and Opus and writing prose works, but his defining work remains the one he began on December 8, 1980. He’s now, after all these years and multiple requests from fans and publishers alike, agreed to collect his Bloom County work in five oversized volumes. Each of the Bloom County: The Complete Library editions will feature not only the strips themselves, carefully reproduced, but also running commentary from Breathed himself as he looks back on the characters and settings he once inhabited daily. We talked to Breathed about what he thought of his work now that he’s looking back on it from the distance of the 21st century.
Bloom County spanned the decade of the ’80s and had a significant role in shaping a generation. How does it feel to revisit it now?
Stepping into a time machine. One that somebody else had made, as I simply can’t remember doing much of it. It was done in a state of exhaustion and sleeplessness that left it sliding off of my brain as if [it were] Teflon. A very odd disconnected feeling. But it also allows me to laugh at these gags. I caught myself saying, “Hey, that was funny; what idiot drew this?”
Why did you decide to do this retrospective now?
Because the folks at IDW publishing agreed to do all the work. I was too busy writing new material and the strips—the ones left in my possession—were rotting in boxes in my attic. Few even had dates. That’s 3,500 that needed organizing.
Not me. Scott Dunbier at IDW showed up one day and loaded them all into his car, and I figured I wouldn’t see him again until after he’d shot himself about a third of the way through.
Do any of the strips stand out to you now as particularly prescient or noteworthy?
A few stand out as actually funny, to my astonishment. I’m quite hard on my own work and I tend to dismiss it pretty quickly. Then I catch myself giggling. Again, I want to look around and find the guy who just made me laugh, because I’m not an easy laugh.
Opus first appears earlier, but his real debut comes in late January 1982. In your comments in the book, you write, “Center found.” How did Opus help you find the center of the Bloom County series?
He became the point of view. One always needs this, no matter the art form. It’s what most strips lack, of course. The good ones always have it. No guessing as to where the POV of Calvin and Hobbes is.
Besides the introduction of Opus, this first volume sees the strip coming into its own and finding its footing in many different ways. Do you remember how you felt when you were working on the strip back then? Did you always know you would eventually find the center, or did you wonder if you possibly wouldn’t?
I was meandering around just trying to figure out the business I suddenly found myself in. I didn’t even know what the strip lacked. I just knew that I needed to keep looking for a groove. When Opus arrived, my readers told me in about 24 hours that I’d found it.
Do you miss writing and drawing these characters on a daily basis?
I would if the audience was still there. They are gone, left for greener pastures. Adieu. Missing the comic page now would be like an actor missing the stage at a perpetually emptying theatre.
When Bloom County ended and you switched over to Outland, one of the specifics you made for any newspaper carrying the new strip was that Outland had to be kept a certain size—it couldn’t be shrunk the way so many newspaper comic strips are. How did that go over with the papers? Considering that newspapers have continued to shrink the size of comics, do you think the comics art form is given the proper respect?
We lost half our clients because of size demands with both Outland and Opus. Maybe more. It was very simple: I needed a certain number of boxes to build and tell a decent gag and those minimum boxes needed a defined space or else I just couldn’t do it. Of course, it comes across as an ego grab. T’wasn’t. It was structural. [Bill] Watterson [creator of Calvin and Hobbes] needed space for that reason as well…but also because his art was so beautiful. He knew it. And he knew that papers would not see that they were cutting off their own legs by shrinking comics.
On the other hand, most comics look so awful, you COULD shrink them. The artists did themselves in just as well.
Was there any resistance to the political topics and themes you covered because you were doing it in a comic strip?
Not like in Doonesbury. A penguin gives one cover. Opus did that for me, bless his heart.
Did any of your strips ever get you into trouble?
Oh, we’d lose papers. We’d get ’em back usually. I lost plenty with Opus and friends in Outland peeking into their shorts.
The only trouble that meant anything to me was getting hit by my own publisher when I had a character don a veil when she became a Muslim. You’d have thought that I’d depicted an abortion on the comic page. It was this moment—about two years ago, when I knew it was time to go. Things had gotten deeply off kilter with newspapers and their fear had become a chain.
Have you enjoyed revisiting Bloom County and writing the notes that accompany the strips in this edition?
At first, to be honest, it was a chore. Now, as we edit the second volume, I can’t wait to write more annotations about more of the strips and dive into the past a bit more. It awoke a lot of memories that I was more fond of than I’d remembered. An odd thing to say…but true. I tend to remember only the deadline pain. But there was far more to it.
So you’ll be writing extensive notes and recollections for all the volumes of the Bloom County: Complete Library editions?
Even more. It’s the best part. I think the readers will agree. There are stories that need to be shared about some of these babies.