While his contemporaries Bill Watterson and Gary Larson have largely stayed away from sequential art since they both retired in 1995, Berkeley Breathed surprised fans in July when he resurrected Bloom County and its full cast for his Facebook followers. For some, it was a re-introduction to the 1980-89 satirical strip that lampooned the cultural and political excesses of the decade. For others, it was something new.
Fortunately, penguins age well. Take a look at some pressing facts about Opus, Milo, and the rest of the gang:
1. It Was Inspired By To Kill a Mockingbird.
The small town featured in Bloom County was a rural, value-infused community that was home to frequent outbreaks of political hysteria. Breathed told an interviewer in 2009 that the setting was very much inspired by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and its Maycomb, Alabama. Opus, the dreamy-eyed penguin of the strip, was a reflection of Lee’s juvenile protagonist, Scout. “I will say that Opus is really Scout from Mockingbird in many ways,” Breathed said. “He’s a motherless innocent, adrift and wandering about in an adult world of confusion, betrayal, and incivility.”
2. Opus Was Meant to be a Throwaway Character.
Despite his literary pedigree, Opus wasn’t intended to become a fixture. At the time Breathed created the penguin—who would go on to become the breakout star of the strip—he thought he’d be good for an appearance or two and then shuffle off. But readers reacted strongly, and Breathed decided to keep him on.
3. Bill the Cat Started as a Parody of Garfield.
Breathed didn't read comics growing up and knew little about them. He was especially perplexed by the popularity of Garfield, the lasagna-snorting cat that some critics perceived as overly commercial. Breathed developed the hairball-spewing, gasoline-drinking Bill the Cat as a way to mock the character, believing he would be too repulsive to merchandise. Instead, he became a popular (if slightly ratty) plush collectible.
4. It Won the Pulitzer Prize.
After years of sharply skewering public officials and social issues, Breathed was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1987. With the exception of Doonesbury, few syndicated strips ever receive the honor. The recognition was opposed by Pat Oliphant, a political cartoonist who found the strip to be full of ”shrill potty jokes."
5. You Probably Haven’t Read Most of the Strips.
Collected comic strips in trade paperback became bestsellers in the 1980s, but Breathed was forced by the publishers to cut most of his strips from the collections, and he once estimated two-thirds of his output never left the comics pages. It wasn’t until IDW began offering a five-volume set in 2009 that the entire run of the series was offered. (To make sure it was complete, the publisher checked their compilation against the personal collection of a fan that had taken the strips and pasted them into binders as they were originally printed.)
6. It Got Mary Kay to Stop Animal Testing.
Breathed ran a series of strips in the late 1980s that featured Opus trying to rescue his long-lost mother from an animal testing facility owned by Mary Kay Cosmetics. "When I drew a rabbit with clips pulling its eyelids open, it was effective precisely because of its accuracy," Breathed later told Time. Mary Kay sales representatives grew alarmed at the practice, which prompted the company to issue a moratorium on the testing.
7. One of the Book Collections Came with a Record.
Eager to lampoon the rock-star lifestyle, Breathed placed Bill the Cat as a frontman for a heavy metal band named Deathtöngue (later renamed Billy and the Boingers). When the strips were collected as part of the Billy and the Boingers Bootleg paperback in 1987, Little, Brown and Company inserted a flexible record into the book that featured two singles from bands that had answered an open call for tracks. Each won a prize of $1000, with Mucky Pup’s “U Stink But I Love You” taking the B side of the record.
8. Opus Was Sued Over Flying Toasters.
The winged, flying toasters of After Dark’s screen savers were ubiquitous in the 1980s—so much so that when the Delrina software company asked Breathed to design a screen saver of his own, he depicted Opus firing a rifle at the airborne appliances. After a lawsuit and 1993 court ruling, Delrina switched out the wings on the toasters for propellers.
9. Bill Watterson Sent Breathed Original (Nude) Art.
At the time both of their strips were in newspapers, Breathed was in regular correspondence with Bill Watterson, the press-averse creator of Calvin and Hobbes. The two had disparate opinions on merchandising—Watterson had no regard for it, while Breathed was happy to profit from t-shirt sales—and their opposing views would sometimes be expressed in cartoons the two circulated privately. At a 2010 Comic Con appearance, Breathed briefly flashed some of Watterson’s unseen art, including a wall-mounted Opus and a bare-bottomed Ronald Reagan. (In return, Breathed once sent Watterson a drawing of Bill the Cat, Hobbes, and Blondie in a not-safe-for-work position.)
10. The Strip Upset the National Federation for Decency.
When Breathed introduced a fundamentalist character named Edith Dreck in 1987, he wasn’t up to speed on his Yiddish translations—“dreck” is derived from ”excrement.” At least, that was according to Rev. Donald Wildmon, Chairman of the National Federation for Decency. Wildmon called for Breathed to be fired for “religious hatred and bias.” In a lesson why you should never pick fights with cartoonists, Wildmon's likeness ended up in the strip for a week.
11. Opus Starred In His Own Animated Special.
Though not precisely based on Bloom County, A Wish for Wings That Work was a 1991 animated special that aired on CBS. (It was an adaptation of a book Breathed had published that featured Opus asking Santa for a pair of operational wings.) Breathed disliked the end result and hoped to mount an Opus feature film, which went through several years of development without materializing.
12. Harper Lee Wrote Breathed a Fan Letter.
When Breathed ended his second spin-off strip, Opus, in 2008, he claims he received a letter of protest from an early inspiration: Harper Lee. Lee had written to him over the years expressing admiration for the strip and asked him to continue. “I should have begged her to bring Scout back,” he said. (She eventually did.)