How Harper Lee (and Donald Trump) Brought Back Bloom County
In the ’80s, it was nearly impossible to pick up a newspaper and not read—or read about—Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County, the Pulitzer-winning, audience-provoking comic strip about a naive penguin named Opus; a brain-dead, Skittles-addicted, Ack!-spouting cat named Bill; and their collection of politically astute and philosophically curious friends (some human, some animal, all of ’em weirdos). In the Reagan era, Bloom County was one of a handful of daily strips (along with Gary Larson’s The Far Side and Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes) that could be found tacked up on both college-dorm walls and suburban refrigerators; all three were mass-audience strips with subversive wit, but Bloom County was the noisiest of them all, taking aim at everyone from Michael Jackson to George Bush to, uh, Caspar Weinberger (look it up, kiddos).
In 1989, Breathed walked away from the strip, citing fatigue. But last year, he surprised comics fans—and even himself—by reviving Bloom County, writing new strips that now appear regularly on the strip’s official Facebook page. At a Friday appearance at Comic-Con International, where he’d just released a new collection of Bloom Country strips, the 59-year-old artist and illustrator noted that he’d only recently started figuring out what prompted him to return to the series after more than a quarter-century away.
“It’s still a stunner for me,” Breathed told the crowd. “It took all of five minutes for me to decide, after 28 years … to do another Bloom County.” The change of heart, he explained, was due to a series of personal and creative experiences. One of them was his long-distance mutually appreciative relationship with the late Harper Lee: After the controversial publication of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman last summer, Breathed began thinking about how much the idyllic small-town setting of the book (and especially its 1962 film adaptation) had influenced the creation of Bloom County in the early ’80s. That prompted him to dig up a fan letter Lee had sent to him as Bloom County was winding down, in which she wrote, “This is a plea from a dotty old lady, and from others not dotty at all. Please don’t shut down Opus. Can’t you at least give him a reprieve?”
“I remembered her connection to my stuff, and how I might have taken her—and maybe all of you—for granted when I stopped doing it,” Breathed told the crowd. “I didn’t want to not take advantage of this extraordinary gift that artists get to develop an audience and a readership, and people who believe in stuff that they make up. That was Harper Lee’s perspective.”
Breathed said he was further spurred on to return to Bloom County by the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, a frequent target of the strip in the late ’80s—though Breathed noted that he’d been inspired less by Trump himself, and more by the changes in America’s political and cultural climates he feels Trump represents. “He is the reverse canary in America’s gilded gold mine: When Donald Trump gets up from the dead and starts singing, you know you’ve reached toxic air,” Breathed told the crowd. “He signifies something that I didn’t want to be left out of … we are on the cusp of a sea change, and we’re all gonna synthesizing and filtering and making it somehow make sense to us.” (Still, don’t look for too many more Trump jokes in the weeks and months to follow: “I think he’ll be gone fairly soon. He’ll be gone within a week or two of getting into the White House, because he has no interest in working that hard.”)
Also playing a big role in the strip’s revival: The failure of 2011’s Mars Needs Moms, an overpriced adaptation of one of Breathed’s post-Bloom County hit books. The film version, produced by Robert Zemeckis—”one of my favorite filmmakers,” Breathed said—was a disaster that cost Disney almost $200 million. “It nearly shut down the entire studio,” Breathed said, noting the movie was supposed to be a comic adventure, not a serious science-fiction film.”[There] was disappointment in having people you believed in make fundamentally ridiculous mistakes that you had no control of.”
By last year, all of these elements were prompting Breathed to think about returning to Bloom County, a desire he hadn’t experienced in decades; it was as though he’d spent the last quarter-century on an extended dandelion break. “I realized that during the years that I spent away from comic-stripping, something had left from my creative life,” he told the crowd. “In The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis, he discovered the fifth element was love. And in the creative world, there’s a fifth element that I had forgotten about until I lost it … I was missing joy. I wanted to get back and see if I could ever make myself laugh again.”
It was exactly what Bloom County fans needed. The strips and stories in Breathed’s latest collection prove that his anarchic satirical instincts, which had felt somewhat buffed-down in the final years of the strip, have been revived and re-energized: The Bloom County characters may be facing obstacles new obstacles (iPhones, Twitter, etc.), but their curiosities and insecurities remain intact, and the strip is still full of the same moments of accidental wisdom that made it so beloved in the ’80s. And, as fun is it is to read the modern-day Bloom County online every morning, plowing through one strip after another in a book—and, hey, how weird/great is it that there’s a new Bloom County book!?—is infinitely more pleasurable: A daily strip might distract you from the world for a few seconds, but reading a few hundred of those strips together, at once, creates an entirely new world of its own. Breathed and his Bloom County creations have been away way too long, but it feels nice to finally welcome them Ack.
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