Berkeley Breathed

 

Berkeley Breathed's wildly successful newspaper comic strip Bloom County was like no strip before or since. From its 1980 inception, Breathed changed hats on a regular basis: He was intermittently a political cartoonist, calling attention to feminist issues, SDI, cosmetic testing on animals, and pork-barrel politics. At other times, he was a social critic, making fun of artistic trends and celebrity foibles. Sometimes he was just plain whimsical, as his characters took dandelion breaks, explored closets full of anxieties, or created Star Trek fantasies to inhabit. Whatever mode he was in, Breathed was a success: Bloom County collections consistently hit bestseller lists, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for editorial cartooning. In 1989, Breathed made national news when he announced he was ending Bloom County--a virtually unheard-of career move in an industry where successful cartoonists, once safely ensconced with a syndicate, typically kept doggedly producing the same strip until their deaths. For the next six years, Breathed wrote and drew a Sunday-only strip called Outland, a Bloom County spin-off that gradually morphed back into its predecessor, as the Bloom County stars re-emerged one by one. In 1995, Breathed retired Outland, as well, citing a desire to quit while the strip was still fresh, and to pursue a career in writing and directing for Hollywood. He continued to create picture books for children, including the Bloom County stories The Last Basselope, Goodnight Opus, and A Wish For Wings That Work (adapted into a half-hour TV special in 1991, with Breathed writing and producing), a stand-alone book called Red Ranger Came Calling, and, most recently, the tall tale Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big. Breathed recently finished his directorial debut, an eight-minute animated adaptation of Edwurd Fudwupper, produced by Nickelodeon; it was completed too late to be screened with Rugrats In Paris: The Movie, as Nickelodeon intended, and its fate has yet to be decided. Via e-mail, Breathed recently discussed his "shmiberal" politics, his cartooning career, his new daughter, and Tom Cruise with The Onion A.V. Club.

 

The Onion: Tracking down background information on your career was a little difficult: Even your book-jacket bios were just strings of jokes. Was this out of a desire for privacy?

Berkeley Breathed: It was out of a desire not to bore anybody. I happen to think nearly everybody—especially those one might find in the odd issue of People magazine, including me—is frightfully boring, Especially me. And Tom Cruise. Tom and I are alike in only this way. I remember in 1987, a freelance writer for Rolling Stone came out and spent a week with me, then returned to his loft in SoHo, only to find that after he typed in the words, "Big-beaked Berkeley Breathed lives in Iowa with a flatulent mixed-breed lab and has trouble with deadlines," he couldn't find anything else to say. Years later, he tried to sell the piece to Penthouse—I'm not making this up—and their fact-checker called to confirm that the writer had watched me get seduced by a woman and her twin teenage daughters in the laundry room of the apartment complex. I'd driven the poor chap over the edge of biographical desperation with my stark boringness. I'm still working on becoming more interesting. This year, I started listening to Celtic music and collecting vintage ray guns. If you don't think that's more interesting, well, then, you agree with my wife.

O: Has privacy been an issue for you throughout your career?

BB: Having an extra free can of aerosol canola oil thrown into one's grocery bag by a giggling grocery clerk who recognized my name on a check is a bonus, I won't argue. Being recognized in a Starbucks by a gaggle of college kids—as I was in 1991—after I had been to the dentist... They waved as I sat there holding a mocha grande, with hot coffee dribbling down my deadened chin, shirt, pants, shoes, across the floor, and under the pastry counter. Those experiences I'll leave to, well, Tom Cruise.

O: Did you originally intend to be a professional cartoonist all your life, or was it something you fell into in and after college?

BB: I started as a news photographer at the University Of Texas' Daily Texan. They failed to see the marketing advantage in manipulating news photos (this is pre-digital, remember) to enhance the drama. I recall a dandy front-page photo of a community street preacher, in which I burned a halo floating above his head. I got fired and started writing stories for the campus magazine. I wrote about an unnamed student who secretly released hundreds of baby alligators into nearby Lake Travis, which would have been compelling if I hadn't made it up. Property values around the lake plummeted over $70,000,000 the next week, which brought federal game agents into town. I was arrested, eventually—you think I'm lying again, but I'm not, check the records—and then the death threats and getting kicked out of my apartment complex and I won't bore you with the rest, except to add that some wise sage finally suggested that the cartooning desk might be where I belonged, as I could let my little imagination soar wherever it wanted, and federal agents wouldn't be needed. So I started copying Doonesbury, and you know the rest.

O: Did you start out hoping to change the world, or just tease it?

BB: When pretty, fragrant paths of opportunity open before you—with teenage twins and their mother waiting in the Laundromat at the end—chances are, you just trot on down without really asking too much about where they lead. I had never read the comics before, so I looked at the American comic page. It needed a little kick in the ass, and nobody was doing it. (Doonesbury was on a two-year vacation in 1980.) The most daring humor that could be found was Garfield screaming for lasagna... as he still does today, that funny little consistent bastard. An envelope that needs stretching is a red flag to the little bull in me, so I charged.

O: You always strongly resisted being moved to the editorial page, even though that might have protected you from the shrinking-comics phenomenon and some of the outcry about the stances you took on political issues. Why was staying on the comics page so important?

BB: Same reason it was for Garry Trudeau. Here, let me put it vulgarly and in caps: NOBODY THE FUCK READS THE OPINION PAGES. Well, except for all those intellectuals sitting around the fire on Survivor,
of course.

O: Do you miss that daily public forum where you could address political and social topics that bothered you?

BB: Oh, to hell with that, I miss the money. If I could have drawn a cat yelling for lasagna every day for 15 years and have them pay me $30 million to do so, I would have. But for a guy with physically, a rather small mouth, I just have too big a mouth. I can't help myself. The truth: The blander you are, the richer you'll be. I tried, truly I did.

O: How do you react when you read the news these days?

BB: I'm like you. Shocked, hurt, betrayed. How's Nicole going to go it alone without Tom? Take off the makeup, and poof, she disappears like the Cheshire Cat. And don't talk to me about Tom being gay. Don't. Oh, if only I were still cartooning.

O: Are there still political issues that incense you?

BB: Nope. Bill Clinton just took all the fun out of this stuff. Even Trudeau, brilliant as he is, couldn't do anything much with the last eight years, really. It's like doing a parody of The National Enquirer. Can't be done. We're over-saturated with commentary and with absurdity, and we're numb because of it. Nothing shocks, so what's the fun? And irony, oh, the goddamned irony, that courses through the popular culture like a cancer. If nothing is serious anymore, then there's nothing to satirize. Look at George W. Bush. He knows the game. He knows he's a maroon, as Daffy Duck would say, and refuses to take himself seriously. He cut off our satirist balls. We're like a gaggle of eunuchs running around the palace, wishing we could hump the princess. The game's changed forever.

O: What's in your anxiety closet these days?

BB: Middle age. Mitigated by a 1-year-old little girl named Sophie sleeping in the room next to me as I type this. As she's going to sleep, I can hear over the monitor that she's saying, "da da da da da," which most experts translate as, "I'll love my dad forever, even through adolescence," in baby language. So it's a draw.

O: Are there any plans to put your Bloom County and Outland books back into print?

BB: Why bother? Do a search at Amazon. But then, they're usually a little mildewed from sitting at the base of all those toilets in all those bathrooms throughout America during the '80s. Appreciate how this sort of legacy sits with a serious writer like myself.

O: Do you think the political issues you addressed at the time have dated the strips, or are they still as relevant today?

BB: That's why it'd be silly to reprint them. They have the half-life of a flounder laying on the back porch.

O: How have your politics changed since you started Bloom County?

BB: Ah, the naive clarity that accompanies youth. Cynicism comes with age, as sure as death, and I haven't missed it. As I look back at those old strips, I see some pretty dumb simplemindedness. 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. Started at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, I figure. I thought it peaked with O.J., but then Tom Cruise comes along and won't own up to his sins. I don't feel good about this.

O: Is the liberal stance of the early strips indicative of your own personal politics?

BB: Liberal, shmiberal. That should be a new word. Shmiberal: one who is assumed liberal, just because he's a professional whiner in the newspaper. If you'll read the subtext for many of those old strips, you'll find the heart of an old-fashioned Libertarian. And I'd be a Libertarian, if they weren't all a bunch of tax-dodging professional whiners.

O: Are there any positions you took back then that you disagree with now, or that you wish you'd addressed differently?

BB: Positions, no. But many of the strips make me physically cringe in the dumb-headed way I went at them... most of which I'll lay at the feet of inexperience. One rule: The more pissed-off you are about something, the less funny you are. Never good to get involved. I couldn't, for instance, do justice to animal experimentation. Not funny strips. Effective, though: We got dear Mary Kay to stop squeezing her cold cream into the eyes of rabbits. But not funny. And if you're not funny, you're just whining, and you know what I think about whiners.

O: You seemed to make a conscious effort to keep Bloom County racially balanced, but you rarely engaged racial issues. By contrast, you discussed gender issues a lot, but seemed to have problems keeping female characters in the strip. Any theories as to why?

BB: I did some strips about this... and I want everybody to stop dribbling their mochas down their shirts for one second, while I mention it again: Throughout cartoon history, there aren't any—repeat, ANY—primary animal cartoon characters that are females. If one was female, she was primarily a girlfriend to the main character. Minnie Mouse. Look at kids' TV. If there's a female character in a big furry suit on Barney or Sesame Street, she has long eyelashes and flits and flutters about like some nightmarish caricature from Jerry Falwell's wet dream. This isn't a conspiracy. It's just nearly impossible, and it has something to do with the metaphorical response that a talking-animal character somehow evokes in the reader. Everyone has tried. Interesting human female characters are there, of course—Doonesbury in the thick of it—but the risk is that they become an icon for their "group," and you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. I just never nailed it, not that I tried hard enough. There's a much longer discussion to be had about this, but I'm going to duck the issue, so I can explain why a white boy like myself didn't write about race: You can't. You couldn't then. You can't now. Don't touch it. Run. Hide. Smile and say you love everybody equally, and don't make any jokes as you back out of the room. Race and humor only work in a comedy club with exclusively black comedians. That's it. There isn't a shade of a chance for anything resembling a real discussion about race occurring publicly in this country for another... well, ever. Tirades, yes. Conversations that don't become tirades after the first sentence spoken? No. Clinton, the big idiot shmiberal, started tiptoeing down the path. Funny how we never heard about the big "National Discussion On Race" again. Once-bitten.

O: One of the ironies of Bloom County was that the child
characters were among the most mature, while the adult characters were prone to egregious silliness and elaborate fantasies. Did you think of yourself as a particularly mature child? Do you think of yourself as a particularly silly adult?

BB: Yes. And, yes, you shrewd little imp. Hanging on to the silly as I sail toward my mid-40s is my current project. The middle-age temptation to get serious about everything is Satan's handiwork. My child may be my aging soul's salvation at the altar of silliness. That, by the way, is why they call us writers.

O: To some degree, that playfulness became childishness as the strip developed. The humor seemed to curdle. Can you identify a point where you decided that doing the strip wasn't fun, or that the end results didn't meet your standards anymore?

BB: I see juvenile humor throughout the life of the strip. It's a flaw of my personality. It's also a result of missing deadlines. Juvenile is always the refuge of the late. Funny, as soon as a writer, cartoonist, or sitcom producer announces retirement, there is a universal assessment that suddenly emerges that the most recent work was obviously in its decline. Some of my most popular single strips were done in the last two years. But, all in all, I was getting spent, and no doubt that early erratic, chaotic bounce that my strip—or any TV show, musician, or film director—inevitably rides on, finally slows to a predictable rhythm. So you look for the new bounce again, happy that you ever found one to begin with. Most don't.

O: In a recent online interview, you said, "Most humor is cynical by its very nature." This seems odd in light of the fairly cherubic qualities of your work. Do you think humor has to be cynical to be funny?

BB: Satire is, of course. It's destructive in its essence. As is most effective humor. Somebody pays in most jokes. The funniest Monty Python shtick, silly as it is, is deeply cynical about England's culture during the '60s. When we laugh at anything, you can usually find cynicism toward something somewhere. Keep looking. It's why I'm deeply suspicious of humor as a life calling. My favorite films are deeply dramatic, not funny.

O: What are some of your favorite films?

BB: Lawrence Of Arabia. To Kill A Mockingbird. Close Encounters. Field Of Dreams. Transformative stories which leave the audience walking out of the theater looking at their lives wholly different than two hours before. Haven't found that yet in a Tom Green movie, but there's hope.

O: Around the time Outland began, you discussed the idea of starting other, unrelated Sunday features, and doing those at the same time. What happened to those ideas?

BB: Must have been taking those mushrooms that [Aaron] Sorkin got caught with.

O: Would you consider doing a newspaper strip again?

BB: Pity the poor modern comic page. Frames the size of thumbnails. It started as the first mass-market entertainment medium in a world that didn't yet know television, film, or even radio. Its comic heroes were America's first celebrities, known coast to coast. Now, it's just a page of inky blur that only a 10-year-old's eyes could focus upon. It's the buggy whips of this millennium: quaint and eclipsed, sad to say.

O: At about this time last year, the Internet freelance marketplace ants.com announced that you'd won a bid to design a mascot for them. Whatever became of that?

BB: I entered as a joke and a bet with my brother-in-law that I could name a price that a dot-com would refuse to pay. The bastards paid.

O: Did you design a character for them? The site itself looks pretty generic. No mascots in sight.

BB: Designed a great ant. But they were buying the dubious PR value of mentioning my name in their promotions—which, of course, I knew. But, then, we're discussing their company in a magazine at this moment, aren't we? So, maybe not so dubious. When they go public, I'll be fabulously rich, by the way. Exactly like Shatner and priceline.com at 23 cents a share.

O: In the October 1988 issue of The Comics Journal, you went into detail about what you thought newspaper comic-strip syndicates were really looking for: a situational strip drawn by a disaffected office worker who saw funny things going on around him, and who had no artistic experience and could only draw a little, which wouldn't matter, because of the shrinking size of the comics pages. A year later, Dilbert made its debut. Coincidence? Do you have a future ahead of you as the new Edgar Cayce?

BB: You're kind. Art via marketing ain't exactly rocket science. This is how they green-light movies now. This is how they greenlight everything. I could never get Bloom County started today, because it wouldn't make any sense as a marketing platform. And there you have the State Of The World. When they can figure out how to make a profitable marketing franchise out of the long-awaited "National Discussion On Race," we'll finally have one. We'll put Bill Clinton sitting there dressed and grinning like Regis, with a circle of people around him screaming at each other, and the one who sounds the most victimized goes home with the million bucks. That's the only way you could ever keep people from throttling each other long enough to have a second show. Which, as we all know, means a franchise! What's Edgar Cayce got to do with this again?

O: Care to theorize about what they're looking for now?

BB: I haven't looked at a comic page since 1989. But I can tell you, they're looking for something that's legible when reproduced smaller than the ingredients label on that teeny-tiny box of Sun-Maid Raisins. That eliminates most everything.

O: Quite a bit of your work is still available on the Internet, so barring a barrage of lawsuits, readers will probably always have access to your strips. Is that comforting, or annoying?

BB: What the hell are you talking about? My strips are there? Is this that Napster shit people keep mentioning?

O: A lot of fan sites reprint Bloom County strips and art. Have you never seen any of the web sites devoted to your work?

BB: It's a little eerie. I actually have avoided looking. It's difficult to explain, but it's as if all those 15,679 strips that were drawn were done by somebody else. I can't recall actually doing them, as most were done at 4 a.m. in a sleep-deprived fog. This must be what it's like to sober up after 20 years as an alcoholic and look back at the carnage, saying, "What numbskull did that?"

O: You have a site under construction yourself. Any idea when that'll be up and running? Do you plan to feature old strips there, or just newer work?

BB: Under construction. Right. Like my novel is under construction. Anybody want to volunteer to do this for me? If you do, I'll agree to add a page detailing Opus' sexual adventures that were too hot for the comic page. This is, after all, what web entertainment does best.

O: Your early strips often referenced Star Trek. Were you a fan of the original show? Do you still watch it?

BB: Oh, don't go there. Star Trek. It's like discussing buggy whips. Or it's been whipped to death by buggy whips. Something. I can't actually bring myself to see Star Trek again. It's like trying to discuss the culinary virtues of a loaf of bread found in King Tut's tomb. Yeck.

O: People frequently compare you to Bill Watterson, I think in part because both your strips centered on a sense of whimsy, but also because your work left them with few comparisons. Do you think there's a valid parallel?

BB: No. He was the real thing. I was just scampering nude through the aisles before anybody could kick me out. Garry Trudeau was our greatest satirist in the second half of the century. Crazy ol' Bill Watterson created the purest comic strip, after Peanuts, probably. Or before Peanuts became a shadow. Bless him for quitting at the top. It's not easy.

O: Do you think your decision to retire from comic strips affected his decision to retire, as well? Did Gary Larson's retirement in any way prompt your decision to leave?

BB: Can't say about any of that. Probably. I know that I encouraged him to win back his copyright to his characters (always owned by the syndicates) before quitting. I had to quietly, secretly threaten the comic page's first walkout in 1989 to win back mine. It had never been done before. Even Sparky Schulz never owned the Peanuts characters. Technically, they could have fired him and hired college kids to do the strip. Maybe they did, for those last 20 years. Good ol' Sparky. He was our Elvis, in his prime.

O: To some degree—and I think this is, again, because of the quality of your work and because you all retired around the same time—a lot of the readers I've talked to have a mental image of you, Gary Larson, and Bill Watterson sitting around a pool somewhere together, drinking cocktails and being hilariously funny.

BB: I'm not going to say a goddamned thing to divest anybody of that particular picture. Except to add that we are all incredibly handsome. Handsomer than, for instance, Tom Cruise.

O: You suggested, shortly after winning the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, that your win would open up the field to other types of entrants that hadn't been considered previously. Do you think that's been the case?

BB: Hardly. In the world of hardcore editorial cartoons, there's a small, unpleasant fellow with a very little penis, the result of a sneeze during circumcision, named Pat Oliphant—himself a Pulitzer winner—who threatened a boycott when my prize was announced in 1987. Those were the days.

O: Do you feel like the flak from that time period affected your career in any way?

BB: I was never asked to join the Editorial Cartoonists Of America. No fraternity would have me in college, either. I think they know something.

O: Do you ever go back and reread your old strips?

BB: Never. Painful. Neither do I look at myself in the mirror, nude, at 5 a.m., under harsh fluorescent lights.

O: Is it true you didn't ever read newspaper comics when you were drawing one? Is there an ideological reason, or is it a matter of taste?

BB: I made myself a cartoonist. I wasn't born one. Watterson was the latter. Schulz, too. That's why I departed.

O: Do you think that's a good way for other artists to work? Should novelists not read other people's books, musicians not listen to other people's music, and so forth?

BB: No, no, no. Art is a synthesis of everything that came before it. Garry Trudeau told me that in 1982, just before he asked me to stop making my characters look like his, goddammit.

O: Do you still avoid newspaper comics?

BB: Like buggy whips.

O: What do you read by choice?

BB: No fiction, oddly. I love the great stories unembellished with fiction: The second World War, for instance. The greatest story of the millennium. Its dramatic depths are bottomless, and I find myself reading everything and walking through every musty museum on the Normandy coast and weeping at the memorials like it was me who sat in a hole on Utah Beach at 20 years old instead of being a professional shmiberal on the comic page. In therapy, I always begin with that sentence, by the way.

O: Do you have any lingering personal attachment to, or fondness for, to the comics medium?

BB: Sort of a nostalgic twinge, occasionally. I may live to see Opus live in a film. Soon as they see a franchise, of course.

O: Where did Opus' name come from?

BB: Opus was named after a Kansas song. If you're too young to know who Kansas was, to hell with you.

O: Your early Outland strips included a lot of visual experimentation—in particular, backgrounds that looked like a mixture of Krazy Kat and Dr. Seuss. But that aspect of the strip faded fairly early on, along with Tim the purple otter. Why?

BB: Didn't work. I'd love to say it was more complex than that. Many artists, filmmakers, songwriters, and actors assume that their fans will follow them happily on whatever stylistic detours they choose to steer. We're always wrong. Okay, Madonna does it, but that's it.

O: Were you satisfied with the artistic aspect of the experiment? What about it didn't work for you?

BB: I loved the look. But the comic page isn't the place to experiment with success. Neither is Top 40 radio. Or prime-time TV. Your audience drives the art. This is as commercial as art gets. Learn to love it.

O: What's the status of the Edwurd Fudwupper animated short?

BB: Finished.

O: Are you happy with the finished product?

BB: A complicated production. Some wonderful animation by some very skilled and dedicated kids at those damned stupid computers. Nickelodeon was very supportive in a risky experiment to translate the style of my last children's book into 3D. We certainly did that.

O: Is there any chance of it turning up on DVD or video at some point, or on Nickelodeon itself?

BB: Good chance.

O: Did you make the decision to use computer animation rather than traditional animation, and if so, why?

BB: To match my painting style. 3D animation is glorious until a human character shows up. Then things get very, very complicated. I'll say this: Like nearly everything, less is often more in animation. A pencil line can be made to do very, very funny things.

O: Did you do the casting yourself?

BB: Yep. Actually found Jonathan Winters down at my drug store. Cornered him. He's still quite wonderfully mad, thank God. The original comic genius that begat Robin Williams, et al.

O: What sort of things would you like to direct in the future? Are you looking at more directing and producing projects now?

BB: Yep. And from past experience, I've learned to shut up about them until they're in the can.

O: What's your ideal project?

BB: Nope. Won't talk. I'll have my girl call you later.

O: How does working with studios to produce a cartoon compare with working through a syndicate to distribute a comic strip? Is it easier to get cooperation and approval from film and TV producers, or from newspaper editors?

BB: The latter are mostly octogenarians fighting off senility and wondering why a penguin would ever talk and why doesn't anybody in the strip notice that there's a talking penguin standing there talking. The former are all sex addicts and criminals. There's no difference whatsoever.

O: What's the difference, for you, between writing for kids and writing for adults?

BB: That's been a problem. Although I'm frightfully immature, I don't really know how children think. Knowing that Dr. Seuss actually was childless and could never stand being in their presence was of only slight comfort. So, purely for professional reasons, I knocked my wife up last year. Little Sophie has much to teach me. My future books will be different, no doubt. Fewer guns, probably.

O: How did you develop the three-dimensional painted look you've used in your children's books?

BB: By not knowing how to mix colors and paint like a real painter. I cheated with an airbrush. I'm very ashamed of this.

O: Do children's books need a moral?

BB: No more or less than any end of any one of our days. It just helps the universe a bit more.

O: Are there any children's authors you particularly admire?

BB: Seuss is God. We thought Clapton was, but it was grumpy, weird, wife-dumping, flawed genius Ted.

O: Some of the original innocence, or whimsy, of your early comics work carries over into your children's books. Is that a sign that you're doing what you want to do with your life?

BB: Bingo.

O: Have you decided what you want to be when you grow up?

BB: Dad. The rest is frosting.

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