Bloom County

Wil Forbis
July 16, 2003


I remember my reaction, at the age of ten, when I first saw Berkeley Breathed's "Bloom County."

"This shit looks like 'Doonesbury'!" I said while scooping down that morning's Cheerios and gazing at the comic page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. "Do you believe this shit, it looks like fucking 'Doonesbury'?!"

"Yes, dear," my mother replied. "What are your plans today, are you going to."

"Woman!" I abruptly shouted. "I've told you never to look me directly in the eyes. Carry me to my bedroom and I shall commence re-reading my entire collection of Spider-Man comic books. You may busy yourself by tidying the house."

But still.. throughout the rest of the day, I found my mind wandering back to this new comic strip I had seen. Yes, it seemed derivative of other artists, but there was something unique about it as well. Something that was calling me. calling.

And so, a day later I gave "Bloom County" another chance. It definitely got a chuckle. And over the years those chuckles grew to laughter, and that laughter grew to guffaws, and those guffaws grew to the sound that everyone knows to be at the top of the hierarchy of funny sounds, the SNORZZLST$ETRGUFF!!!

"Bloom County" arrived in 1980, to a comics page of stiff competition. The old standby's were there: Dagwood Bumstead glared at the young upstart, silently cursing yet another reminder of his continuing impotence. (Would Blondie have a secret liaison with "Bloom County's" resident skirt chaser, Steve Dallas? That whore!) "Peanuts" still actually made sense. "Doonesbury" was going strong. And the early 80's saw several new strips introduced to the comics page with a modern sensibility. "The Far Sign" came out of left field to blow people away with its tangentialism. "Calvin and Hobbes" cast mature and hilarious eye on the trials of childhood.

Yet, Bloom Country survived, and even thrived. Why? Certainly because it was funny, certainly because it had a cast of characters you came to love as your own family, but mostly because it was unique. Breathed was both subverting the augmenting the role of the American comic strip to do things that had not been done before.

This is not to say that "Bloom County" wasn't heavily indebted to comic creations of the past. Gerry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" was big influence, both in characters and style. Breathed appropriated the flat side view that "Doonesbury" used (up until Trudeau took a breather and then reintroduced the strip, with new fruity angles, in the late 80's.) The aforementioned Steve Dallas was clearly a stand in for "Doonesbury's" Duke, himself a comic version of gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. The geography of "Bloom County" could be traced back to "Doonesbury's" Walden Pond. Breathed's influences could also be found in the underground comix of the 70's. "Bloom County's" communist cockroaches were plainly borrowed from Gilbert Shelton's "Fat Freddy's Cat" comix. 

But for every penny borrowed, Breathed minted up a few of his own. Opus the Penguin, a harried flightless waterfowl who grew into the strip's definitive character, was a singular concoction of the Breathed brain. Milo Bloom, the young, muckraking protagonist of the strip was a mutated "Peanuts" character jaded by the cynicism of Watergate. Who could forget neurotic pre-teen Binkley and his closet of living anxieties? Or Bill the Cat, a half mad feline subjected to Mickey Mouse merchandization. In later years, nature girl Lola Granola showed up to suffer through and ill-conceived courtship with Opus. "Bloom County's" "minority" characters - Cutter John, a Breathed stand-in confined to a wheelchair, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a young, black mad scientist - defied tokenism and were fleshed out personalities.

Also like "Doonesbury", Bloom Country was a political, socially conscious strip. Unlike "Peanuts" or "Garfield," the characters of "Bloom County" lived in our world and dealt with the same issues we did.  Breathed was clearly liberal*, but would not bow to the church of political correctness that demanded all humor be stamped out lest it offend some tiny minority of transsexual Eskimos. Breathed did offend - he offended folks of all stripes and colors - that's how you knew he was good. Politicians were likely targets of his wit; as were televangelists, rock musicians, feminists and British Royalty.

(* Though, to my satisfaction, Breathed said in an Onion interview, "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.")

One of Breathed's great bits of political commentary lampooned Tipper Gore's Parent Music Resource Center, an organization dedicated to confronting pornographic rock lyrics. In 1985, the PMRC was in high gear and had prompted a series of Senate hearings examining the dangers of rock music. Not long after, "Bloom County" introduced DeathTongue, a heavy metal group comprised of several strip regulars, including Bill the Cat (Lead tongue) and Opus (Bass Tuba.) The group showcased the most extreme aspects of heavy metal: Bill leap about in spandex, Opus waddled around in fishnet stockings, and the group's set list featured tunes like "Skateboarding for Satan" and "Guillotine Your Parents." After their initially successfully debut, the band was dragged before a PMRC committee denunciating porn rock, and DeathTongue was forced to tone down their act, rechristening themselves, Billy and the Boingers (a reference to the now forgotten 80's group, Billy Vera and the Beaters.) The group's material was softened - "Pimples from Hell" an early favorite, was redone as "Pimples from Heck." Shortly into their first world tour (sponsored by Doctor Scholl's) the band floundered, and Bill the Cat was discovered reading Bible passages with a nun - the worst fate that can befall a rock group.

But the death of the Boingers may have been necessary, as Bill and Opus had bigger things ahead of them. In 1988 Presidential election, as the first George Bush looked predestined to take the White House, and the Democratic Party offered limp opposition on the form of Michael Dukakis, Breathed offered his characters up as potential candidates. Bill the Cat was nominated for President ("A desperate choice for desperate times.") and Opus became the candidate for Veep. They were a tempting pair and after the election, it was not unusual to see discontented Americans wearing t-shirts that stated, "Don't blame me, I voted for Bill and Opus." (Though too young to vote, I was one such American.)

More info about "Bloom County"
Amusing Pics
The official Berkeley Breathed web site - very nicely done.

Recent Salon Interview with Breathed. He talks of the return of BC.

A look at Billy and the Boingers, and DeathTongue

The music of Billy and the Boingers copped off a record insert.

Interesting Onion Interview with Berkeley Breathed

But perhaps "Bloom County's" greatest success at tackling political issue was the series of strips Breathed ran on the predilection the Mary Kay Cosmetics Company had for testing their chemicals on animals. The strips were something then unseen on the comics page - provocative and more than a little discomforting, showcasing talking animals like Opus and Bill pondering the hideous fate of their real life, mute counterparts. The pursuit of social justice was something the public expected out of rock musicians and activist actors, but cartoonists? Breathed knew he was on thin ice, and years later commented, "I couldn't 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." Additionally, Breathed got the recognition of a 1987 Pulitzer award for Editorial Cartooning. (He was the second "non-op/ed" cartoonist to do so, Gerry Trudeau had come before him, in 1975.)

In 1989, Breathed retired "Bloom County," but kept things going for several more years with "Outland," a Sunday only strip that featured many of the same characters and sensibilities. Then that too came to a close, with Breathed explaining, "A good comic strip is no more eternal than a ripe melon. Bloom County is retiring before the stretch marks show." While Breathed's "Bloom County" creations still show up from time to the series of children's books he's been doing since the mid-90's, there's no doubt that the comic page looks significantly bleaker without the strip. (And, for the matter, without "The Far Side," and "Calvin and Hobbes." At least we still have "Cathy.")

And it's a damn shame too, because we need a "Bloom County" more than ever. Breathed's characters were a perfect foil to Reagan era conservatism (Indeed, the advent of the liberal 90's may be what killed them off.) but now that things have swung back around, the left seems to have forgotten its most powerful weapon: humor. (Tom Tomorrow is the only one holding the fort, since Ted Rall is about as funny as a herpes infection.) In the 80's, the liberals were witty hipsters, while conservatives were the dowdy old geezers fuming in eternal outrage. Now the cards are switched, as wink-and-a-smile Fox broadcasters tell jokes about the pursed-lip bleating of Susan Sarandon. What happened people? Today's liberals would do well to pick up a "Bloom County" compilation and learn from one of the masters. Because Breathed long ago realized a fundamental truth: No one wants to be told how to live by a screeching, placard-waving  madman, but we'll all give up some time for a talking penguin.

Wil Forbis
is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at

View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!


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