IDW
IDW

Thbbft! Talking with Bloom County's Berkeley Breathed

IDW
IDW

For 26 years, Berkeley Breathed rejected the notion of ever resurrecting Bloom County, his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip that ran from 1980 to 1989. The targets of his satire—1980s excess, Reaganomics, and Garfield—had run their course. Breathed moved on to illustrated books, feature films, and two spin-off Sunday strips. There would be no more mention of adolescent political journalist Milo Bloom, the neurotic Opus, or the seemingly lobotomized Bill the Cat.

It was a fan named Harper Lee, who just happened to be the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who made him reconsider. In 2015, Breathed was dismayed to see an earlier draft of Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book published under the title Go Set a Watchman. It drew controversy for depicting Lee's protagonist, Atticus Finch, as a segregationist. To Breathed, it felt as though Lee—who passed away on February 19, 2016—had lost control of her character.

To clear his mind, Breathed pulled out the letters he had received from Lee over the years complimenting his work and begging him never to “kill” Opus. He found some old art boards he used for Bloom County, and he considered whether it had been an error to neglect his small-town cast for the past 25 years.

Days later, the first new Bloom County strip since the ‘80s was posted on his Facebook page. “I deliberated for five minutes,” Breathed tells mental_floss. “After 26 years of ridiculing the notion of doing it again. I’ll confess that I love the ridiculousness of that process. As it should have been.”

Berkeley Breathed

Beginning in 1985, it was possible to open a newspaper and see Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury, The Far Side, and Bloom County running simultaneously. All of the strips lent a subversive and skewed perspective to a page overrun by empty fare like Blondie and Ziggy. Of the five, only Doonesbury and Bloom County were attempting topical references with popular political and cultural figures. Both were a kind of penciled-in Daily Show for the times, questioning popular rhetoric and lampooning the names that dominated the decade. Donald Trump, best known at the time as an outspoken real estate magnate, once had his brain implanted into the body of drug burnout Bill the Cat.

“He called me a poor man’s Doonesbury in the '80s,” Breathed says. “And more. I love that some things don’t change.”

In what was arguably the strip’s most potent story, Opus breaks into a Mary Kay Cosmetics animal testing facility to liberate his penguin mother. Played for laughs, it was also a sharp commentary on the controversy regarding the company and its treatment of animals. The ensuing public outcry led Mary Kay to eliminate most of the testing practices that were alleged to be cruel.

“A rare foray into satirical advocacy, if that might be a term,” Breathed says. “Not good to make a habit of it. We did provide the final nail into the rabbit testing coffin of Mary Kay … but it’s hard to repeat. She made it easy.”

More than any other strip of the era, Breathed enjoyed poking the biggest bears he could find. His Mortimer Mouse, “brother” of Mickey and a prolific alcoholic, drew the ire of Disney’s legal department; Bill, an orange tabby who rarely manages any commentary beyond drooling, began as a spoof of the ubiquitous Garfield. Jim Davis was not amused.

“If there are two humans on the planet with less in common, it would be Jim and myself, honestly. He was opposite me at Comic-Con and I thought for a few seconds whether I could muster up even a few seconds of polite conversation. I came up empty.”    

Breathed collected a Pulitzer in 1987 for editorial cartooning, an odd distinction considering Bloom County never appeared on editorial pages. It was disguised as a funny-animal strip, passing along Breathed’s skewering of politics as smoothly as Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes dissected childhood. Saying that a quality feature “is no more eternal than a ripe melon,” he ended the daily strip in 1989 but continued with the Sunday-only Outland featuring some of the same characters.  

Breathed, Watterson, and The Far Side’s Gary Larson all decided to wrap up their strips in 1995. It was the last gasp of relevance for comics as a whole, which were about to be set adrift by the internet’s demolition of newspaper subscriptions. Aside from the Sunday strip Opus, which ran from 2003 to 2008, Breathed considered that chapter in his creative life closed. Then Lee opened it up again.

Berkeley Breathed

On his Facebook page, Breathed posts new strips daily—or near-daily—even though he’s under no obligation from a syndicate to do so. He draws four conventional panels even though he has free rein to draw nine, or one, or 20. The constraints of the comics page are still welcome.

“The only rule I give myself now is that regularity and a roughly dependable publishing schedule are essential to the DNA of comic strips and their weird appeal,” he says. “My goal is to publish five times a week. Habit is the mother’s milk of reading comics. The characters become partners with one’s morning coffee cup.”

Breathed’s fans “Like” and comment on his strip in real time, offering a running commentary that appears on the right margin of the strip; it's an immediacy that newspapers could never provide. “It’s the engine of my creative enthusiasm. We have a community now on Facebook. We have to strive to keep it clean and positive, but they love it and it provides me a mental picture of who I’m creating for. It was only a vague blur during the '80s.”

Penguin Books

Breathed’s sabbatical from comics led to a number of richly illustrated story books, including Flawed Dogs and Mars Needs Moms!, which was adapted by Disney, his former nemesis, in 2011. The airbrushed work in those titles is also featured in The Bill the Cat Story, a recently-released hardcover that elaborates on how the addled cat came into the possession of his owner, Milo. Despite Bill’s proclivities for illicit substances, it’s an all-ages story.

“It was the challenge my publisher threw me when he asked for a Bill the Cat book for children,” Breathed says. “We’d done it with Opus in A Wish For Wings That Work, albeit an easier hill to climb. Bill’s book would be far more subversive. That’s red meat thrown to my inner demons. I pounced.”

A new Bloom collection that tabulates the Facebook entries, Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope, is also on shelves. It’s part of the overall Bloom County renaissance, although Breathed is not optimistic the characters will be seen in animation anytime soon. The possibility was discussed, but Lee’s death and subsequent publication of her abandoned novel led Breathed to reconsider ownership of his work.

“A year ago, I was in talks to bring Bloom County to primetime TV animation when I realized I would lose control,” he says, “and the legacy would be beyond my ability to protect. Five minutes after I decided to cancel the deal, I went back and drew the first strip after 26 years.”

Some of Breathed's targets, like Trump, are the same. Some—Google, Twitter—are new. But his comic sensibility is still there and still very much his own. It’s the distinctive voice of the only man to win a Pulitzer for drawings of a cat hacking up hairballs. Unlike the Facebook commentary, it's an acknowledgment that Breathed prefers to keep out of view.

“It’s on a shelf, behind a stuffed Bill the Cat."

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5-Year-Old Boy Hugs, Then Destroys, a $132,000 Sculpture When His Parents Aren't Looking
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A 5-year-old boy's playful mistake may end up costing his parents a small fortune. As ABC News reports, the boy knocked over and destroyed a valuable piece of art on display in the lobby of the Tomahawk Ridge Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. Now, the city's insurance company is asking them to pay for it.

The parents were preparing to leave a wedding reception as their son was filmed running around the building's lobby. At one point in the security footage, he can be seen stopping to embrace a sculpture, titled Aphrodite di Kansas City, which causes it to fall towards him and onto the ground.

According to Overland Park's insurance company, the piece was damaged irreparably by the fall. It had been listed at a price of $132,000, and a few days after the incident, the parents received a claim asking them to cover the entire cost.

“You’re responsible for the supervision of a minor child […] your failure to monitor could be considered negligent,” the letter read.

The couple disputed the accusation, instead blaming the community center for not better securing the sculpture. As for the chances of the Aphrodite di Kansas City being repaired or rebuilt, local artist Bill Lyons said it isn't likely. He spent two years creating the original piece, and after declaring it permanently destroyed, he told ABC News he doesn't have the drive or capacity to make a new one.

It isn't just rambunctious 5-year-olds who have been known to ruin expensive art. Grown-up museum visitors, whether they're tripping over untied shoelaces or getting in position for the perfect selfie, can be just as destructive.

[h/t ABC News]

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8 Things You Might Not Know About The Wizard of Id
Titan Books
Titan Books

Debuting in 1964, Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s The Wizard of Id took a page from the macabre humor of cartoonist Charles Addams. Ruling the kingdom of Id, a pint-sized tyrant uses humor to disarm a medieval cast made up of a jester, an executioner, a thief, and the titular magician, whose spells don’t usually impress. Although Hart and Parker both passed away in 2007, their black humor lives on. Take a look at some facts behind the throne, including the time Jim Henson almost brought it to television.

1. THE IDEA FOR THE STRIP CAME FROM A DECK OF PLAYING CARDS.

Johnny Hart was already a successful syndicated cartoonist (the Stone Age comedy B.C.) before he and former Disney animator Brant Parker decided to collaborate on a different project. Hart was flipping through a deck of playing cards in 1964 when he came across a peculiar illustration used for the king. Drawing on it to create his own diminutive despot, Hart wrote most of the jokes for Id while Parker illustrated it.

2. THE SYNDICATE THOUGHT THE TWO ARTISTS WERE DISGUSTING.

Although Id would eventually be syndicated to over 1000 strips across the country, Hart and Parker first had to get past the gatekeepers of cartoon distribution operating out of New York. Traveling to the city to show them samples, the two worked late into the night and called to tell executives they were ready. They didn’t know the syndicate would be coming to their hotel room, which was a mess of papers, food, and beer bottles. Caught off-guard, the men looked like transients. “We think you guys are disgusting,” one executive said, “but we love the strip. We’ll take it.”

3. THE SHORT JOKES WERE BASED ON JOHNNY HART.

In a visual juxtaposition, the king of Id’s height is inversely proportional to his power. Parker said the character’s stature was based partly on Hart, who used to fend off jokes about his own height. "The king became short because we used to kid John about being short and a lot of the short gags began to slide over into the strip," Parker said. "He just kept getting smaller, and as he shrunk, the nose got bigger and bigger."

4. A LITTLE GIRL GOT THEM TO DROP A CHARACTER.

Most of the humor in Id is centered around the morbid dynamics of Middle Ages politics, which is not normally an opportunity to offend current sensibilities. But early on, Parker and Hart created a karate teacher from Japan who was perceived by some as a stereotype. When Parker received a letter from a young Japanese-American girl who was being teased at school as a result of the character, the creators decided to drop him from the strip.

5. JIM HENSON WAS GOING TO PUT IT ON TELEVISION.

An avowed fan of comic strips and of The Wizard of Id in particular, Muppets creator Jim Henson met with Hart in 1968 to discuss a possible collaboration. Henson wanted to create an Id television show that would use puppets against an animated backdrop. Hart agreed, and in 1969, Henson was able to shoot test footage featuring himself as the voice of the Wizard. But executives at Publishers-Hall, which had taken over syndication of the strip, were having trouble enticing networks into producing a series. By the time ABC showed interest, Henson had moved on to Sesame Street and other projects. Wizard of Id got translated into animation in 1970 as part of a Chuck Jones variety series titled Curiosity Shop.

6. HART TURNED DOWN FEATURE FILM OFFERS.

Possibly disappointed in the outcome of the Henson project, Hart wasn’t very receptive to offers to adapt Id into other mediums. He reportedly shunned Steven Spielberg and Norman Lear when they called about adaptations. Producer Andrew Gaty managed to interest Hart in 1987, though his plans for a live-action feature—possibly starring Danny DeVito as the king—never came to fruition.

7. IT WAS A (STRANGE) VIDEO GAME.

In 1984, users of the ColecoVision home computer system were able to pick up a software program with an unwieldy title: The Wizard of Id’s Wiz Math. The edutainment program allowed players to brush up on math skills by solving problems faced by Spookingdorf, the tortured and jailed cast member of the strip. By solving math problems, players could navigate Spookingdorf out of his dungeon. The game was produced by Sierra, which later became known for its King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry franchises. A typing game, WizType, was also released.

8. BLONDIE AND BEETLE BAILEY CELEBRATED THE STRIP'S 50TH ANNIVERSARY.

When The Wizard of Id passed the half-century milestone in 2014, the entire comics page came out to celebrate. Hi and Lois featured a portrait of the Wizard in a panel, while Blondie and Family Circus made subtle references to the anniversary. (As modern-day strips, it would be difficult to regard a medieval strip with more overt acknowledgment.) In Beetle Bailey, the perennial screw-up shared a cell with the eternally suffering Spookingdorf.

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