As a tail-end Gen-Xer, I cut my political teeth on the comic strip “Bloom County.” So the recent news that creator Berkeley Breathed is bringing back the strip’s star–Opus the penguin–is welcome news. Since Opus, The Far Side, and Calvin & Hobbes all retired, there hasn’t been much reason at all to read the comics page.
Bloom County, you may remember, featured a hodgepodge cast of prairie critters (one of them was actually named “Hodgepodge”), pre-adolescent boys (about my age when I started reading), and adults (whose role was mostly to play the fool). It began as something of a cross between Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Walt Kelly’s Pogo. Trudeau in fact sent Breathed several “pointed notes” early in Bloom County’s run to point out just how similar the two strips were.
But Bloom County quickly developed an identity of its own, and proved much more playful, charming, insightful than Doonesbury ever was–or has been since. Bloom County agitated its targets with a feather, Doonesbury with sledgehammer. Opus, Milo, Binkley, and the gang always came off as sweet, detached observers, rather than the puppets of a polemicist.
And while Bloom County’s early years were every bit as left-leaning as Doonesbury, the strip’s attraction was so overwhelming, it quickly earned a following from across the political spectrum.
In his book and collection One Last Little Peek, Breathed describes how he won over one of his earliest and most unlikely fans, the then-U.S. Secretary of Defense. In a strip Breathed drew in March of 1983, Opus and Milo Bloom are sitting on grassy hill, and Opus begins to recite some poetry:
How I love to watch the morn
with golden sun that shines,
up above to nicely warm
these frosty toes of mine
The wind doth taste of bittersweet,
Like jasper wine and sugar.
I bet it’s blown through others’ feet,
like those of…
(Struggles to think of a rhyme…)
At which point Milo, who was enjoying the verse, shouts, “Start over!”
The strip elicited the following response on official stationery from the Department of Defense:
Dear Mr. Breathed,
Many a morn I’ve longed to see
A comic strip be kind to me.
On 30 March, before my eyes
A penguin watched a warm sunrise.
In this land of so much bouty
Could I have that great Bloom County?
In the same book, Breathed writes of another encounter Bloom County brought his way, this time with the president himself. Breathed had written a strip which included–merely for decoration–a photocopied portrait of Nancy Reagan. President Reagan was so delighted to see a flattering portrait of his wife on the comics page, he called to thank Breathed personally, and eventually invited him to the White House for dinner. Breathed later described the night as “an argument with Mrs. Reagan about the general usefulness of comic strips, a pickled Joe Namath, and Secretary of State George Schultz nuzzling the earlobe of a former Charlie’s Angel on the dance floor.”
Perhaps the most telling sign of Bloom County’s charm was Bill the Cat, a drug-addicted, saliva-dripping, hairball-spewing, roadkill-looking kitten-ish thing Breathed created at a time when Garfield plush toys clung to the passenger-side window of every minivan. Breathed set out to create the one comic-strip character incapable of mass-market appeal. After his introduction, Bloom County story lines pitted Bill in steamy love affairs with, among others, former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Princess Diana, and Socks, First Feline of the Clinton administration. One strip had him smoking catnip with Sylvester the Cat, Garfield and Hobbes alongside a swanky Beverly Hills pool.
Of course, despite Breathed’s intentions, Bill the Cat plush toys, t-shirts, and keychains flew off the shelves in short order.
When Breathed retired Bloom County and began the Sunday-only strip Outland, a subtle change in his politics emerged. Gone was the reflexive leftism of Bloom County, and in its place grew a general skepticism for power and political patronage. Breathed mercilessly ridiculed politicians, interest groups, and corporate icons from across the political spectrum. In one particularly telling monologue, Opus opines about the state of American politics, but his audience is distracted by a piece of his posterior that seems to have fallen off, and lays at his feet. Fed up, he screams “I’m trying to explain the wholesale failure of our political system recently!” Noticing what’s distracting everyone, he stops, pulls out a handkerchief and says, “First, I better cover my butt.” A fortuitous summary of the Clinton administration if ever there was one.
In another strip, Opus and Milquetoast (a cross-dressing cockroach–don’t ask) are in the dandelion patch kvetching about Congress.
“I say throw the budget-busting bums out!!” Opus declares, “Replace ‘em with bums who’ll spend the taxpayer’s dough responsibly!”
“Like on price supports for tub scum!” replies Milquetoast.
At this, Opus loses some of his fervor.
“Actually, you probably meant to say “National Breath Insurance for Herring-Chewers,” he says, himself a penguin who regularly munches on herring.
“Or of course, ‘The Squashed and Flattened Floor Lickers of America,’” Milquetoast replies.
By the end of the strip, everyone’s made his case for a handout, including Bill the Cat, whose presence calls for “Tax Credits for Hairball Recycling.”
“We have met the special interests,” Opus concludes, invoking Pogo, “And they is us!”
But Breathed saved most of his invective for political correctness. In one strip, Opus and his brethren protest the movie Batman for its unflattering portrayal of penguins. “Redford, Not Devito!” reads one sign. “Pro Penguin Life,” reads another.
In another storyline, our flightless fowl friend is jailed for sexually harassing Milquetoast. At his parole hearing, the feminist-looking officer tells him, “I think you’re in good shape.”
“Thanks!” he says, admiring her figure, “So’s yours!” The next panel shows him chained to a wall in solitary confinement.
Feminists, environmentalists, corporate interests, Bill Gates, Michael Eisner, and trial lawyers all suffered at Breathed’s pen during the Outland years.
What’s clear is that over the course of his cartooning career, Breathed’s politics drifted from conventional liberalism toward a pronounced respect for individual rights, individual responsibility, and distrust for power–be it state, corporate, or otherwise. What’s wonderful is that he continued to deliver this message with a healthy dose of wit, humanity, and innocence. The message from Outland was always pointed, but subtle–more of a tap on the shoulder than a punch to the stomach.
Indeed, in a 2001 interview with The Onion A.V. Club, Breathed said of his politics, “What remains the same as now, however, is the frustration at the continuing path the world seems to be on in avoiding lessons about accountability. It’s a constant line on the graph, this avoidance of blame and penalty for one’s actions.” He goes on, “If you’ll read the subtext for many of those old strips, you’ll find the heart of an old-fashioned libertarian.”
So I say “Welcome Back, Opus.” You’ve been missed. Since you left, all sorts of things that were never supposed to happen…well….they happened.
Michael Jackson got interested in girls (he has two kids now). One of our presidents got himself impeached. We had an election that ended in a tie. Someone even broke the homerun record–several times. And–oh yes–the United States was invaded and attacked by terrorists.
In general, nothing seems implausible anymore. As you might say, the world has degenerated into a wholesale state of higgledy piggledy.
We need the wisdom and perspective that can only come from a flightless, motherless, twice-failed vice-presidential-candidate Antarctic bird with a weakness for 1-900 lines. We await your return.
By the way, if you could, bring Calvin and Hobbes with you.