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The Renegade Cartoonist

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A 1982 “Bloom County” strip.
Illustrations © Berkeley Breathed  

By 1989, “Bloom County” was appearing in 1,200 newspapers, and trade-paperback compilations sales were in the millions. Shortly after negotiating for the rights to his characters, Breathed called it quits. Part of it was the daily grind, but he was also suffering from cultural-commentary fatigue. When he’d started out, pop satire had been mostly limited to Saturday Night Live, Mad magazine, and the occasional talk-show sketch. Suddenly, sniping commentators were popping up everywhere; he foresaw that he would eventually be drowned out: “When you’ve had the entire world follow your exploits, it diminishes your energy to see it getting peeled away.”

He kept his hand in with the hallucinatory, Sunday-only strip “Outland” until 1995, then the gentler “Opus,” until last year, when he left the comics pages for good. “It used to be quiet enough to have your voice heard,” says Breathed. “Now you’ve gotta scream so loud in tone and attitude and vehemence that, as a satirist, it was a self-defeating path.”

The artist has turned to writing children’s books and screenplays (Robert Zemeckis is producing an adaptation of his 2007 book, Mars Needs Moms!). In his office, he displays the lush paintings of his new illustrated young-adult novel, Flawed Dogs. As if in exile, a Bill the Cat doll sits on a shelf, a reminder of a time when he, Trudeau, Watterson, and Gary Larson (“The Far Side”) transformed the newspaper comic strip into a pop-culture superpower. “It will never happen again. The future great cartoonists aren’t sending their stuff to newspapers anymore. They are rightfully working on graphic novels or doing something else,” says Breathed. “People loved comics the last 100 years, and they’re dying. Nobody talks about it. They’re not even noticing.”


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