Stand-up comics

Special to The Times

BERKELEY BREATHED is clutching a piece of paper and talking fast. The 46-year-old cartoonist has just arrived for lunch at a high-end Mexican restaurant in Montecito called CaVa. "Have you seen this?" he asks, passing the paper across the table, mouth curving into a grin beneath his mustache, eyes hidden behind a pair of wraparound shades. "Look carefully. What do you see?"

The paper, as it happens, is a printout of a recent "B.C." comic strip by Johnny Hart. It's a simple gag, three panels, in which, beneath a nighttime sky, a caveman walks toward an outhouse, enters and mutters, "Is it just me or does it stink in here?"

On the surface, the strip appears to have nothing to it, but Breathed thinks there's more to the picture than meets the eye. First, he points out, are the crescent moons, six of them, three in the sky and three on the outhouse door. Then, there's the word "SLAM," interjected in capital letters between two panels, a sound effect to mark the closing of the outhouse door.

"Johnny Hart," he says, "is a born-again Christian, and the crescent moon is a symbol of Islam. So you see six separate images of a crescent moon, and he makes a joke about is it just him or does it stink in here. And Johnny has written "SLAM" vertically. Slam/Islam. Basically, he's calling Islam [excrement]." In the Washington Post on Friday, Hart rejected such a reading, saying the comic was just a "silly" bathroom joke. While Breathed remains skeptical, he is most interested in what this says about comics as an art.

"Putting his sentiments aside," he says, "the operative point is that it's a breath of fresh air to see the soul of the creator come through in his work. Because what's happened on the comics page is that strips have been taken over by distant relatives of the original creators, or by corporations that continue them long after their creators are dead.

"It represents not an art form but a gag machine that turns the page into a soulless exercise. And this is a terrific example of what a writer is supposed to do. Johnny's exposed himself wide open here. What you're seeing is a guy's personal passion laid out on the page. That's how comics started; there was a single voice. 'Garfield' is going to be 'Garfield' forever because it's written by a small corporate entity the author long ago hired to do it for him. The whole idea is to keep the strip so benign that no one can tell there's a human behind it."

For Breathed (pronounced breth-ed), this exegesis on the state of comics is more than a matter of aesthetic speculation; it's an issue of his livelihood. On Sunday, after eight years of writing children's books and working in Hollywood, he will return to the comics page with a new feature called "Opus," featuring the iconic penguin of his Pulitzer Prize-winning strip "Bloom County," which from its 1981 debut until Breathed voluntarily ended it in 1989 was unlike anything else in the daily newspaper, an idiosyncratic mix of "Doonesbury," "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Peanuts," all refracted through its creator's anarchic mind.

In one installment, a boy named Milo goes to the Lost and Found at Sears, claiming to have lost his youthful idealism; as the strip progresses, he realizes that he's also lost his sense of optimism, his patience and his temper, until finally the beleaguered Lost and Found employee wonders, "P-Please! Hasn't anybody lost anything tangible?!"

In another, Milo accompanies Opus to a clothing store, where the penguin says he dislikes dressing rooms because you never know when a strange woman (Margaret Thatcher, he conjectures) might walk in. As Milo rolls his eyes, a clutch of beauties crowds into the dressing room, proclaiming, "Hi! We're the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders ... Peekaboo!"

Whether "Opus" will share this lighthearted surrealism, this fluid interplay of reality and invention, Breathed will not say. In fact, he won't talk about the content of the strip at all, not even to many of the 150 or so newspapers that have signed up to carry it, including The Times. About all he'll reveal is that he felt he'd left Opus unfinished, even though he continued the character's adventures in a spinoff strip called "Outland" that ran until 1995.

"If someone asks about Opus," he says, "I don't think I could answer enough questions. So Opus is coming back. It'll still be Opus, although it will look different, and it won't have the other characters. But I'm terribly curious about my own character, who I don't think I explored fully enough, and I want to have some fun."

Of course, the unspoken question is why, given his curiosity about Opus, Breathed shut down "Bloom County" in the first place. Other strips, "Doonesbury" included, have carved out long lives by weaving current events into an invented universe. When it first appeared, in fact, "Bloom County" was among the few comics to rely on contemporary culture -- what Breathed calls "the unceasing drumbeat of pop references" -- as part of its repertoire.

Still, Breathed insists, there has to be an organic reason to keep on drawing. "Why did I stop?" he asks. "A better question is why a cartoonist would do the same thing for 50 years until he dies. Fifteen years doing these characters, that seemed like a good time. These things have a natural life progression, and to assume they don't is a bit of arrogance that I think needs more justification than ending them appropriately. I quit because 'Bloom County' was done."

As an example of a strip that went the opposite direction, Breathed cites "Peanuts," whose creator, Charles M. Schulz, he once compared to Elvis. "He was the king," he says, "and he showed us how to do it. Why didn't he stop and leave us with those memories, rather than, in the last 10 years of his life, drawing Woodstock falling off the doghouse over and over?"

That's a question Breathed first posed last year during a speech at the cartoonists' convention, suggesting that by not retiring sooner, Schulz had demeaned his legacy.

"After the speech," he grimaces, "someone brought up Jean Schulz, his widow, who was in the audience. She took my arm and said, 'Don't worry about it. You have to understand that Sparky lived to do this. He would have died if he had stopped.' And he did die, almost literally the day he stopped. It's interesting, because on a personal level I understand that, but it's not relevant to the issue. He was still doing a disservice to his fantastic art."

It's with "Peanuts" in mind, perhaps -- or "Garfield," which he repeatedly singles out as emblematic of everything that's wrong with comics -- that Breathed has opted to do "Opus" as a Sunday-only, to avoid the burnout, the overload of a daily grind. But there's another reason too, an aesthetic reason, which in the end has everything to do with space.

"Bill Watterson," he notes, invoking the legendary creator of "Calvin and Hobbes," "said that space on a comic page is time, and he was exactly right. He would have panels stretched out, a character walking away from another character, and he would use those spaces to stop you in the strip, a psychological pause that lets you breathe and absorb what he just said. You don't have that space, you just can't do it. A limited amount of space turns you into a structured gag system, which explains why a lot of strips look like they do. You get two panels to set up your gag, and then a punch line.

"But a good comic strip is much more than a punch line. It's making you believe in a completely invented fictional character who absolutely does not exist. That's what Sunday strips are especially good for."

The comics are art, he is saying, a visual medium, in which storytelling is not so much a matter of what we read as what we see. And "Opus," he suggests, will be constructed to reflect this point of view.

"I spent the last eight years painting children's books," Breathed explains. "I learned how to paint, so you're going to see 'Opus' painted almost in 3D, in the way my children's books are. I can't help but move that direction in the strip." It's a natural progression, he believes, and one that more comics ought to pursue.

"When was the last time," Breathed asks, "anyone went to the comics page, anticipating it, looking forward to what they would see? Right now, it's largely talking heads. There's not much movement, no dynamic; the layout is almost the same day to day. So why bother to come back if I'm not going to give the page something that at the moment it doesn't get a lot of, which is some energy put into the drawings?"

The more Breathed talks, the more he sounds as if he's espousing a manifesto, as if he'd like to see a revolution start. Yet even as he gleefully admits this, he acknowledges that he'd be happy simply with a new direction, a turning toward the future of the form.

"Look," he says, "the comics page is dying. So let's say, yes, we probably have a couple of strips that can be wiped off to make room for new talent. There's no excuse for strips drawn by dead people. There's no excuse for strips drawn by corporations, like 'Garfield.' Why people can't live without 'Garfield' at this point, I can't figure out. God knows, dead wood is lying all over the place. If these are the same jokes we were reading 30 years ago, you're out."

As to what strips he likes, which ones stand tall among the dead wood, he won't say exactly. "I like them all equally and universally," he equivocates. "I'm much better at talking about the strips that I publicly call for execution of. Not to harp on the negative, but it's more fun."

Still, he has a pretty good idea of how things ought to go. "What I would like to see," he imagines, "are some artists who are willing to show up for work -- which a lot of these guys aren't willing to do anymore -- and think about the page as a real showcase for artistic expression, a place to draw.

"I'm desperately hoping that maybe the new 'Opus' and a few other well-drawn strips that are out there might encourage some artists to come back to the page and demand that we reinvigorate what was once a great American tableau."

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