On Jan. 22, a small aircraft piloted by cartoonist Berke Breathed spun wildly out of control toward the red clay earth of the Sandia Indian Pueblo just north of Albuquerque. Struggling with the controls, Breathed was barely able to steer the plane away from a crowded schoolyard full of innocent tykes before it crashed in a fiery maelstrom of dust and debris near an earthen dam. After pulling his dazed passenger from the blazing inferno, the young cartoonist collapsed in exhaustion and pain . . . critically wounded with a broken spine.
It's only now, two months later, that Berke Breathed, 28, can talk easily about the events and repercussions of that terrible day, as he slowly gets back into the daily routine of creating the comic strip "Bloom County," which returns to the nation's daily comic pages today (and to Sunday pages on April 20). In order to update and clarify these recent dramatic events, special correspondent Opus was dispatched here to interview the convalescing artist in his comfortable, upper-semi-middle-class fake adobe home.
Opus: I guess folks would like to know how you're feeling.
Breathed: Fine. I've got three pounds of steel rods in my back, which makes airport metal detectors go bananas. Sometimes I'll wear an "I love Qaddafi" button, which makes the security guards go bananas as well. But I'm wearing a brace now and I can do just about anything. Drive a car. Swim. Anything.
Opus: Could you, for instance, give Diane Sawyer a back rub and still reach around and lick her nose?
Breathed: No. Maybe. I don't know. Could you?
Opus: I dunno. I've often thought about it. Jumpin' Jehoshaphat! . . . Speaking of Miss Sawyer, I understand that you received quite a few letters and bouquets from a number of big American celebrities! Can you tell us who?
Breathed: I received a lot of wonderful, thoughtful mail from all around the country and from all kinds of ordinary, everyday people . . . I doubt if I could even remember those whom you call "celebrities." Everyone that wrote me is a celebrity in my book. Actually, Ted ("Nightline") Koppel sent some flowers, although I barely recall it. So did Diane Sawyer. Barry Manilow wrote a very nice note and Mario Cuomo sent his best wishes. Ronald Reagan even dropped a line.
Opus: It must have been very exciting to hear from Barry Manilow.
Breathed: The nurses were certainly thrilled. And I've always thought it was nice how I often hear from the people I regularly ridicule. It gives me a warm, happy feeling.
Opus: Do you mind if we talk about the crash now?
Breathed: Not a bit. I'm braced for it. That was a pun. Humor is my business!
Opus: Yes. So what happened Jan. 22?
Breathed: I ran out of gas at 40 feet and piled into an earthen dike.
Opus: An earthy dyke?
Breathed: No, no. A small dam. After we hit, I jumped out, ran 10 feet in panic, collapsed in pain, flapped my arms and screamed obscenities.
Opus: You didn't pull your passenger from the fiery maelstrom?
Breathed: No. He got up from the plane and walked over to me as I lay flapping and asked why the hell I had flown us into a dam. He was unhurt. The plane was unhurt. The earthy dyke -- earthen dike -- was unhurt. Only my L-1 vertebrate was hurt . . . nay, smashed. Then they took me away and peeled my back open like a banana and fixed things up and then threw me to the nurses . . . who would beat me.
For five weeks. Every time I started feeling sorry for myself, one of them would come in and beat me and tell me that, as a matter of fact, I was pretty darned lucky to still have the use of anything below my navel. Being that that was perfectly sensible, I ignored it completely. And here I am. More questions please . . . I'm really cookin'.
Opus: Do you think it's sexist for a fellow to often think about kissing the lips of, for instance, Diane Sawyer when he rarely thinks about kissing the lips of other journalists like, for instance, Morley Safer?
Breathed: Probably not. What's this got to do with cartooning?
Opus: I'm getting to that!
Breathed: No you're not. You're dreaming about Sawyer and her big red lips and if you were smart you'd stop it, since everyone knows that there have been more than a few poor guys who've tried to kiss those lipsticked lips of heartbreak and slid right off on their noses. Wise up. Now go back to your notes and ask me a pertinent question.
Opus: Many good writers --
Breathed: I'm not a good writer. And I'm a stinky artist. Which is why I am on the comics page . . . the last refuge for mediocrity that pays well. Really well. If Imelda Marcos was really smart, she would have dumped Ferd and snuggled up to Jim ("Garfield") Davis. Word on the comics grapevine has it that Jim's annual take is over 6 mil. I often feel like snuggling up to Jim myself.
Opus: Speaking of greed, do you have any plans to mass-merchandise Bill the Cat?
Breathed: Oh God, we've been trying. We recently had deals pending with nearly a hundred different merchandisers, including, may I say, a very reputable manufacturer of celebrity toilet seats -- but they all backed out after Bill was found to be a communist. I would have been a millionaire by Christmas. We're all pretty upset.
Opus: So there's no "Bloom County" byproducts available?
Breathed: A Bill the Cat liquor decanter is still on the market. You pull his tongue and he spits vermouth in your face. Yuppies love this stuff.
Opus: You interrupted me earlier when I was going to point out that many good writers will work recent personal traumas into their writing. Will we see any "Bloom County" characters with a broken back soon?
Breathed: Steve Dallas. But that's all I'm saying.
Opus: Good heavens. What will happen to Steve?
Breathed: I stand moot.
Opus: I'll guess. He tries to take a picture of Sean Penn and Penn pounds the hell out of him. Is that right?
Breathed: I hate you. You peeked at the script. Ya know, I've always thought that I should have hired a talking koala bear instead of a big-mouthed flightless seabird for this job. They're more marketable, ya know. Actually it's not too late . . .
Opus: I apologize. Really. I'll move on. I understand there's some hot news in your personal snugglebunnies department.
Breathed: Yes, Mr. Big Mouth. I'm getting married in May to a wonderful large-footed photographer named Jody. Maria Shriver proposed last year but, always one to buck a trend, I turned her down. And now just look who she's mixed up with now.
Opus: What are we to make of this cartoonist/morning show host love connection? I understand Charles Schulz has been seeing Connie Chung.
Breathed: Yes, but Connie doesn't do morning shows anymore so it doesn't count. However, Jim ("Garfield") Davis has been reliably reported to be tight with Joan Lunden, who is expecting quadruplets in June. That counts.
Opus: But there's no truth to the rumor that Bryant Gumbel is romantically linked with the guy that draws "Inky Dinky the Mouse"?
Opus: So why are you in this business, Berke? Besides the dough, why do you cartoon? Why a "stripper," so to speak?
Breathed: Well, besides being the refuge for the mediocre, the comic page is the stronghold of the lazy and the strange. None of us have ever had to grow up emotionally. This is a very dangerous situation. We work when we want. We play when we want. We have sex in places besides the bed -- for instance on top of the refrigerator -- and yet we don't feel particularly nonconformist. We don't dress for success and we're still successful. In fact, we often go the whole day without a pair of shoes. God forbid, if there's a funeral to go to, I have to have my basset hound tie my necktie, 'cause, Lord, it's sure a mystery to me.
Yes, I knew . . . I knew at age 6 . . . when I was arrested for shaving all the neighborhood cats smooth, that this was the life style I was born to pursue. Plus I get letters from Mario Cuomo and Barry Manilow . . . which, by itself, is worth having sex on refrigerators. I tell you, this job is a scandal.
Opus: Yes, but do you like herring burgers?
Breathed: Not on religious holidays.
Opus: This interview is degenerating. I'll end it now.
Breathed: Right. I'm outta here.
Opus: I'm going back to the personals desk. Good day.