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Strip That Split the Cartoonists

Since his comic strip, “Bloom County,” debuted in 1980, Berke Breathed has consistently infuriated Christian fundamentalists, political conservatives and even his fellow artists. In the process, ironically, he’s become one of the nation’s most popular and successful newspaper cartoonists.

When the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded Breathed the 1987 prize for cartooning, members of the Assn. of American Editorial Cartoonists attacked the decision with unprecedented anger and bitterness. (When Garry Trudeau became the first strip cartoonist to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, for “Doonesbury,” the group merely passed a resolution protesting the award.)

Oliphant Led Way

Former Pulitzer winner Pat Oliphant led the way by denouncing “Bloom County” as “a highly derivative comic strip . . . that makes the pretense of passing off shrill potty jokes and grade school sight gags as social commentary.”

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Yet “Bloom County” appears in more than 1,200 newspapers with an estimated daily audience of more than 40 million. If Breathed sometimes seems to alienate most everybody, that doesn’t seem to bother most of his readers.

Based on “The Academia Waltz,” a strip he drew as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, “Bloom County” premiered in the Washington Post, replacing “DuPont Circle” (a topical strip designed to fill the gap left when the Post lost “Doonesbury” to the rival Washington Star).

Breathed’s early strips bore a marked resemblance to “Doonesbury,” and the artist was widely accused of cloning Trudeau’s cartoons. (Trudeau usually declines to comment on Breathed, but he told the Post: “There’s a point where imitation ceases to be flattering.”)

“I’ve never been a comics fan,” Breathed explains. “ ‘Doonesbury’ was the first strip I ever paid attention to and followed regularly--which may explain the obvious roots of ‘Bloom County.’ ”

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During the seven years he’s been drawing the strip, Breathed has gradually found his own voice, although Trudeau’s influence can still be seen in the way he structures and paces many of his gags.

He’s developed a repertory company of oddball characters, which includes the jaded Milo Bloom; Michael Binkley, a timorous connoisseur of celebrity gossip; Bill the Cat, a scuzzy feline; Rosebud, the last remaining “Basselope” (a basset hound with antlers, vaguely akin to a Jackalope) and the sleaze-bag lawyer, Steve Dallas. Rounding out the cast are paraplegic Vietnam veteran Cutter John; diminutive black hacker Oliver Wendell Jones, and Breathed’s most popular creation, Opus the penguin, the perpetually befuddled observer of the world’s descent into madness.

Over the years, “Bloom County” has become wilder, louder (the characters tend to shout the punch lines) and, often, sillier. Its freewheeling shenanigans contrast with Trudeau’s sharply focused political satire. Breathed pokes fun at the gossip column elite more often than politicians.

“I’m very interested in politics, but I’ve made an effort to keep pure politics out of the strip,” he says. “Day-to-day political events are talked about so much that we fool ourselves into thinking they’re significant. I’m more interested in longer, more subtle trends in society.” Other episodes of “Bloom County” have included a scandalous romance between Bill the Cat and then-U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and a proposal by Opus and Oliver Jones to build an adjunct to the “Star Wars” by sewing 500 billion dollar bills into an orbiting net for enemy missiles. During the brouhaha over Vanessa Williams appearing in Penthouse, photos of Mr. America/Mr. Bloom County Steve Dallas turned up in “Dog World” (“Arf! He’s nude!”).

“I really am a schizophrenic cartoonist,” Breathed states. “The two cartoonist I admire most are Walt Disney and Pat Oliphant (and I’m aware of the irony in the latter choice). There’s a side of me that reads the New Republic and wants to spill out on paper all the anger I might have on a particular issue. But I can also really lose myself in a fantasy like the work of Walt Disney or “Winnie the Pooh.” So I have those two sides tugging me in opposite directions. I may read the morning paper and get riled up, but by 4 in the afternoon, I’m wishing I was living in the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh. ‘Bloom County’ should be seen as a hybrid: It’ll never satisfy purists on either side.”

Breathed’s irreverent stance helps to explain the bitter, personal anger many editorial cartoonists expressed at his winning the Pulitzer.

“My first objection is to the general uselessness of the Pulitzers: I wish it could be upgraded to a worthy professional award people could feel good about winning,” Pat Oliphant said in a telephone interview. “I object to my profession being impinged upon by people like Breathed, who see themselves as rock stars, rather than cartoonists. It’s negatively affecting what I would like to have taken as a serious form of commentary.”

“A Pulitzer Prize is not a license for on-the-job training,” says Los Angeles Times’ Paul Conrad, who has won the award three times. “This is one of the few examples I know in the history of cartooning and the award itself that it’s been given to encourage young artists. I don’t think strip cartoons generally belong in the same category as editorial cartoons: They’re entertainment, and that’s about it. They aren’t journalism.”

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“My attitude upset the editorial cartoonists,” Breathed replies. “They find each political happening monumental, as is their job. A comic strip is more permanent; it’s a waste of time to use one to comment on the political trivialities of the day. ‘Bloom County’ is not a political strip for that reason. I won the Pulitzer for editorializing, which is a whole different matter. God knows, society needs its hard-bitten political commentators, but I’ve never seen that as my role.”

Some of the criticism the editorial cartoonists have aimed at Breathed seems to be deflected anger at the ‘80s mentality his strip reflects. “Doonesbury” embodies the strongly committed liberal politics of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. The tone of “Bloom County” is closer to the smart-aleck, frat-house hipness of “Saturday Night Live” and “The David Letterman Show,” where a good put-down line counts for more than the correct political stance.

And although the Pulitzer has traditionally been given to editorial cartoonists, “political” and “editorial” don’t appear in the official description of the category. The award is given “for a distinguished example of a cartoonist’s work, the determining qualities being that the cartoons shall embody an idea made clearly apparent, shall show good drawing and striking pictorial effect, and shall be intended to be helpful to some commendable cause of public importance.”

“Breathed is much more of an anarchist than some political cartoonists,” comments Matt Groening, who draws the often outrageous strip, “Life in Hell.” “I think his message comes through clearly, but it’s based on excitement and contempt for what’s going on in our culture. More traditional political cartoonists are engaged in scoring points, like a tennis game; Breathed levels a cannon that shoots custard pies. He has to couch his point of view in silly garb, otherwise they’d string him up.”

Even couched in silly garb, Breathed’s views often provoke angry responses.

In June, he introduced a fundamentalist woman named Edith Dreck: “Dreck” means “trash” in American slang, but the Rev. Donald Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., chairman of the National Federation for Decency, discovered the word means “excrement” in the original Yiddish. He wrote to the syndicate that distributes “Bloom County,” asking that Breathed be fired because “there is no room in our society for religious hatred and bias.”

Wildmon’s charges annoyed Breathed, who says he heard the word growing up in Encino in a Jewish neighborhood, but didn’t know its Yiddish meaning: “I couldn’t convince them I wasn’t playing the adolescent and trying to sneak something by.”

A bigger controversy erupted earlier this month when Breathed spoofed the recent National Football League strike by having his characters stage a walkout, demanding more room in newspapers for comics strips. As a “scab replacement” for Opus, Steve Dallas brought in Punk, Oliphant’s signature penguin, who declared, “Reagan sucks!” Nineteen small Southern papers in the Donrey Media Chain dropped “Bloom County” because the editors deemed the language objectionable.

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When the Pueblo, Colo., Chieftain declined to print the strips, a reporter at a local radio station urged listeners to protest the suspension. The paper received more than 1,000 calls.

Even Breathed’s most vehement detractors can’t deny his success. His work is wildly popular with young readers, especially college students, who buy millions of “Bloom County” T-shirts, calendars and stuffed Opus dolls each year. The latest collection of his work, “Billy and the Boingers Bootleg,” remains on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times trade-paperback best-seller list (more than 850,000 copies sold), and total sales for the five “Bloom County” books have passed the 4 million mark.

The 30-year-old cartoonist (who “never expected to make a dime off the strip”) and his wife, photographer Joy Boyman, divide their time between a home in Colorado and a 54-foot Italian cruiser (The Penguin Lust) they keep in Florida. Unlike the stereotypical quiet, reclusive cartoonist, Breathed owns an assortment of speed boats, motorcycles and fast cars.

Breathed says he doesn’t try to analyze what factors have made the strip so popular. When asked about the future of “Bloom County,” he replies frankly: “I haven’t the faintest idea: Two years ago, I wouldn’t have had any idea of what I’d be doing now. I edit myself on a daily basis to keep the strip from looking the same. I like to draw and I like to tell stories, but I’m only beginning to learn what should go into a classic comic strip. . . .”

what determines how a two-dimensional character drawn on paper can take on a life of its own.”

His desire to create a “classic” strip was inspired by some ‘60s anthologies of “Peanuts” he bought a few years ago:

“I was bowled over by the depth of Schulz’s simplicity,” he says. “It wasn’t until I really studied those old strips, with their underlying themes and symbolic approach to dealing with life’s problems, that I began to realize the inner dynamics of a comic strip are not immediately apparent. It’s not just a matter of getting a political point across or squeezing out a giggle from somebody: It’s about creating your own universe, which is a real challenge. Few cartoonists succeed in doing it, but it’s become my goal.”


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