Interview: Berkeley Breathed (2009)

opusIf you’re crossing the street in Austin at 24th and Guadalupe, tread carefully: You may be stepping on a Pulitzer Prize-winner’s autograph. Back in the 1970s, while cutting his artistic teeth at The Daily Texan with his college-based comic strip Academia Waltz, a young Berkeley Breathed (kinda rhymes with “method”) carved his name into some concrete in front of the United University Methodist Church. Hired straight out of college by The Washington Post, his Bloom County daily strip became an internationally syndicated phenomenon that combined the charm of Walt Kelly’s Pogo with the political edge of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. It also gave the world a new Everybird in the sweet-natured and perpetually flustered Opus the penguin. Over the course of nearly three decades, and through successor Sunday strips Outland and Opus, he was a pet, a suspected terrorist, a vice presidential candidate, a fill-in for Santa’s reindeer, and a tuba player with punks Billy and the Boingers.

In 2008, Breathed drew what he has sworn is his final panel containing his most famous creation. (It ended with Opus shown sleeping peacefully in the bed from the beloved children’s book Goodnight Moon.) With his Opus opus now complete, he’s concentrating on his illustrated kids’ books, and this year jumped into the world of young adult literature with Flawed Dogs: The Novel: The Shocking Raid on Westminster. While his name in the Drag’s sidewalk is starting to fade, rubbed away by decades of students’ shoes, comics firm IDW Publishing is preserving Breathed’s complete Bloom County as part of its Library of American Comics imprint (placing him in the esteemed company of Dick Tracy and The Family Circus). The first volume of a planned five-book set takes readers back to the opening days of the 1980s, when America’s idea of an incompetent president was Ronald Reagan and nothing in the world couldn’t be solved with a trip to the dandelion patch.

Richard Whittaker: The strip was a landmark influence on a lot of cartoonists, adding a political punch to the genre of animal funnies that had been lacking before. What was the response of your peers at the time?

Berkeley Breathed: The comic page Old Guard were flummoxed by Bloom County. I went to one gala for the National Cartooning Society and was treated somewhat like those two yahoos who crashed the White House State Dinner the other night.After I won the Pulitzer in 1987, the big-time editorial cartoon stars actually tried to boycott Columbia University [where the Pulitzers are awarded annually]. Pretty funny now that I think back. It didn’t matter a wit to me as cartoons simply weren’t my gig. I’m not trying to be provocatively ironic, honest. Just provocatively honest, ironically.

RW: There are a lot of pops at the newspaper industry and sensationalist journalism in Bloom County. Did you get much flak from papers at the time?

BB: Naw.They were still fat and sassy. Uh, not so much now. I wouldn’t have the heart to nail their foibles these days.

RW: For a strip that some critics pigeonholed as straight-ahead liberal, you were an equal-opportunity satirist, taking potshots at televangelists and warmongering Republicans as much as you did horny Democrats and the Unshorn Sisters of the Apocalypse. Who got maddest at you?

BB: Nobody. That’s the magic of the cartoon page. Even Mary Kay wrote a pleasant, passive-aggressive letter to me after my series on her bunny testing habits made her cosmetic company change their policies. You just can’t get angry at a big-nosed, wide-eyed penguin. That was the fun part. Angry isn’t fun. Nor effective satire.

RW: Last year, you sent Opus to his final resting place. What exactly was the motivation to place him out of reach?

BB: I like closure. Notice how Cher or the Judds keep coming back after Final Tours? Gad. I feel the same pull so [I] decided to actually make it so I couldn’t.

The Penguin With the Pulitzer

RW: After almost three decades, was it tough to let Opus go?

BB: Choked up drawing him the last time in bed with his bunny, in Goodnight Moon.Please don’t tell anyone.

RW: With all the attention on Opus, it’s been a little overlooked that this is the end of (sexist lawyer) Steve Dallas, who’s been a part of your work since The Academia Waltz, when he was a satire on frat boys. Why did Steve remain such a constant part of your work?

BB: Opus’ soulful counterpoint. Yin and Yang.Calvin and Hobbes. Harold and Maude.

RW: Dethklok, the fake metal band from Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse cartoon show, have become hugely successful recording artists with two charting albums. Any chance of a Billy and the Boingers reunion?

BB: I fully suspect the fanatical zealots at IDW Publishing are trying to figure out how to do this as I type.Bastards. They’ll talk me into it, too.

RW: You’ve moved to illustrated kids’ books (although, again, that began with Opus with A Wish for Wings That Work) and now your first novel. What motivated that sideways shift?

BB: The question is:What motivated my becoming a cartoonist for 30 years, instead of doing what I really needed to always do and write stories. The answer is “naked opportunism.” Somebody foolish at The Washington Post offered me a contract and forever delayed my becoming a writer for half my life. Then they paid me.Then people started writing and said things like “I couldn’t have gotten through the death of my father without Opus.”Then they stumbled and gave me a Pulitzer and I was cooked like a Christmas ham.

RW: Personal note: My niece demands that my sister read her Pete & Pickles every night – a kids’ book with a plot about drowning. Your kids’ books often have some serious peril involved, which never really seems to affect the intended audience but can upset some adults. Have your publishers ever had any problems with the darker content?

BB: I was published by Little, Brown for 25 years.We sold almost 7 million books together.They insisted on toning down the near-death scene of the kid’s mother in Mars Needs Moms! so she would have appeared merely ill. I fired them. I’m now with Penguin, just to be cute. Mars Needs Moms! will be released as a film in 2011 by Disney. If you don’t let the kids go dark, it’s no fun to get back into the light. And every story should do this.

RW: Any hope for Outland and Opus collections?

BB: Oh, don’t say that. The IDW folks are reading this.

(A version of this interview previously appeared in the Austin Chronicle)

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