The Renegade Cartoonist

Breathed with the eccentric stars of his new young-adult novel, Flawed Dogs: The Shocking Raid on Westminster.
Illustration by Berkeley Breathed
Photo: Jody Boyman

Berkeley Breathed is sifting through old reader mail. In the past three decades, since he started his Pulitzer Prize–winning comic strip “Bloom County,” he’s received a lot, not all of it cordial. Garry Trudeau once admonished Breathed for copping some of the stylistic tics of “Doonesbury”; some lambasted him for his strip’s depiction of holier-than-thou hypocrites; and then, of course, there were the run-of-the-mill crazies. “For some reason,” says Breathed, “ ‘Bloom County’ ’s oddness reached out to a lot of disturbed minds, in a way that ‘Beetle Bailey’ probably didn’t.”

From a drawer, he produces fan mail from two notable hermits: There’s a typewritten letter from To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee and about a dozen pages from “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson, all of them illustrated. “What’s with these people?” he asks with mock outrage. “They were powerful and affecting the culture. Then to say, ‘I don’t want it’?” But, of course, Breathed knows about abandoning success. In 1989, he walked away from “Bloom County” at the height of its popularity, and just nine years after it was launched.

The funny pages in 1980 were, aside from “Doonesbury,” populated with kiddie fare like “Garfield” and moribund franchises (“Blondie,” “The Family Circus”). To readers of those strips, Breathed’s mix of political satire, pop-culture riffing, and interspecies existential crises—articulated through a band of small-town eccentrics, human and otherwise (most notable, a sensitive, infomercial-loving penguin named Opus)—was anachronistic to the point of anarchy.

The comic’s formative years are enshrined in the just-released The Bloom County Library: Volume One: 1980–1982, the first in a five-volume reprint series that will eventually archive the entire strip—even the stuff that makes its creator wince. “Who the hell remembers who Cap Weinberger was?” he asks. “It was shocking to see how much time I’d spent writing those names. The timeliness of the humor is definitely limiting.”

Breathed’s earliest strips are arguably too reliant on throwaway pop-cultural references (you can safely skip Volume One’s Charles-and-Di escapades), but the artist’s satirical worldview quickly sharpened, his characters became less cartoonish, and his celeb references more off-the-wall (characters were punched out by Sean Penn, propositioned by Elvis, or fired by Donald Trump). Years before South Park, “Bloom County” existed in an oddball inter- dimension between the cartoon world and the real world. But what seems spectacularly fresh now is Breathed’s complete absence of snark. His weird whimsy and lack of cruelty are positively quaint today.

Breathed was just 32 when “Bloom County” was laid to rest. Now 52, he lives outside Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and two kids. He shows off his home office, notable for its lack of natural light; this is where he draws (he writes on his boat, listening to film scores). On one shelf sits an original “Peanuts” strip, which Charles Schulz sent as a get-well card after Breathed injured his back in the eighties. “One of the biggest regrets of my career is that I didn’t develop a relationship with Schulz,” he says. “He lived right up the coast. He was an odd guy—we all are—but he had a big heart.”

That’s as sentimental as Breathed gets about a business he entered more out of necessity than devotion. A journalism student at the University of Texas, he couldn’t hold down a steady newspaper gig, mostly because of his fondness for writing phony stories, like the one about baby alligators being dumped into a local lake. “So I cartooned,” he says. “It was the only safe place for a complete fabricator to go.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Breathed was largely indifferent to the funny pages, which may be why “Bloom County” seemed so radical at the time. He didn’t know, for example, that characters didn’t talk to readers, go to rehab, lust after U.S. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, discuss affirmative action and aids, or quote Emily Dickinson. And unlike the political cartoonists’ strident opinions, Breathed’s views were tough to divine. “Bloom County” was set in Reagan’s America, with sixties idealism grinding against the political and economic realities of the eighties. Was Breathed relating to Steve Dallas, the boorish, frat-expat conservative, or Opus, the lovelorn poetry fan with a crush on Diane Sawyer? Probably both. “I was right down the middle on a lot of stuff,” he says. “I took umbrage when I was accused of being a classic lefty cartoonist, like Trudeau. I thought I was more nuanced.”

Speaking of Trudeau, that earlier spat is still unresolved. Breathed, in fact, has few comic-strip pals. His ribbing of fellow cartoonists like “Garfield” ’s Jim Davis in interviews turned him into something of a comics-world enfant terrible. When “Bloom” won the 1987 Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, Pat Oliphant condemned the strip as nothing more than “shrill potty jokes, crotch jokes, and grade-school sight gags [passing] as social commentary.” Breathed found his outsider status trying, even if it was of his own making. “Anyone who knew comics could see I was not one of them,” he says. “I was an interloper, and it made me uncomfortable.”

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.”

See Also
Q&A With Berkeley Breathed on Going Back to Bloom County

The Renegade Cartoonist