“I thought it might be funny for me to ghost ‘Pearls [Before Swine]’ sometime, just to flip it all on its head. It was just a silly idea.”
— Bill Watterson to Comic Riffs, June 2014
“The times have lightened. It’s a good time for silliness.”
— Berkeley Breathed to Comic Riffs, July 2015
SEVEN YEARS AGO, Berkeley Breathed, trim and grinning, sat in the D.C. offices of his then-syndicate, the Washington Post Writers Group, and shared old stories and well-remembered personal anecdotes. I listened to him speak with a kinetic quickness; he was charismatic, a bit rushed and more than a bit restless. He recounted a nautical accident, and I couldn’t help but think: This sounds like a man ready to tack toward a new direction.
Within months that year, Breathed announced he was ending his comic strip “Opus.” The beloved penguin of three decades would apparently flap his flightless wings no more.
“I drew the last image ever of Opus at midnight while Puccini was playing and I got rather stupid,” Breathed told me at the time of the penguin’s farewell ‘toon. “Thirty years. A bit like saying goodbye to a child — which is ironic because I was never, never sentimental about him as many of his fans were. I think ‘Madama Butterfly’ pushed me over the top, though. He suddenly seemed alive, really. Rare for me.”
Then suddenly, on Sunday, Breathed teased (via Facebook) the return of Opus. I, like most all Opus fans, raised an intrigued eyebrow of hope. Then yesterday, we were rewarded: Breathed posted a full strip of an awakened Opus who had Rip Van Winkle’d his way through a quarter-century and now was freshly aroused. The slumbering waterfowl had returned … to a Milo puberty joke.
Yes, “Bloom County,” the Pulitzer-winning ’80s strip that once attracted tens of millions of daily readers on the still-mighty wings of the Reagan-era newspaper syndication model, was back. And still frisky, at that.
So just what fresh burst of creativity had hatched this little beauty?
“Opus’s [voice] came screaming back at me — true— when I faced those four empty panels that I hadn’t done since 1989,” Breathed tells me on Monday (fresh off his appearance at IDW’s Comic-Con booth to promote a new collection of his college strip, “Academia Waltz”).
At last, the bird that seemed rarely alive to its creator was making a racket so loud that he might be risen. Happy feat, indeed.
Now, speaking out of both observation and self-experience, comic-strip creators can be awfully peculiar animals. Some are creatures of habit, weathering the decades with the instinctual regularity of a migrating swallow. Other brilliant birds of a feather fly high, soaring in their creation, then end on a high note. And it’s a blow to the ecosystem to “lose” three of the latter species in sudden quick succession.
1995 was a cruel year for comics fans, tolling a certain cultural diminution of the page. Breathed retired his Sunday-only “Outland,” Gary Larson packed up “The Far Side” menagerie, and Bill Watterson let “Calvin and Hobbes” sled off into eternal white space. Three still-young men had flown high, and were now hanging it up.
Then, last year, came the latest glimmer of return: Watterson, now a father in his 50s, made his first appearance on the comics page in nearly two decades when he “ghost-drew” several strips of “Pearls Before Swine” in a guest-artist collaboration with Stephan Pastis. The Internet spasmed, and the heat of warm nostalgia was stoked.
Now, one summer later, another father in his 50s has made a highly casual, low-commitment return. Breathed, his Facebook page hinted, would be throwing a new Meadow party. And Bill the Cat was “b-ACK!”
In our happiness, though, we wonder: What spurred Berkeley to return now? Some fans insist that the left-wing-flapping Breathed — the man who once authored a “Bloom County” collection titled, ” ‘Toons for Our Times” — has long found greater inspiration when commenting during Republican administrations. (And if you subscribe to that theory, read what you will into this election-cycle return.)
I’m of the belief, though, that comic-strippers thrive and stay inspired if finding joy in their work, and it helps if the ever-shifting culture and arena remain receptive to their style of the “silly.” Because that joy can be deflated or tamped down if it for too long comes up against too much pressure.
In the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman’s prisoner character says in omniscient voiceover: “Geology is the study of pressure and time.” The same can be said of “cartoonology.” You don’t get diamonds, or “Pearls,” without the right sustained mix of Father Time and the grandfather clock.
When Watterson made his brief return within “Pearls” last year, he told Comic Riffs: “I had expected to just mess around with his characters while they did their usual things, but Stephan kept setting up these situations that required more challenging drawings . . . so I had to work a lot harder than I had planned to! It was a lot of fun.”
And when I hear from Breathed this week, he speaks of a “joy” that can become flattened — like a soda without its fizz, with no buoyancy in its (word) bubble.
There is the pressure of sustaining your popular creation, even as page space and audience both shrink for most print newspaper cartoonists. You get into this business of comics for sheer fun, and sometimes the fun is leeched by comics becoming a sheer business.
Cartoonists are usually one-person studios; if the pressure is too great and you can afford to walk away, you likely might, and do.
But what if the deadlines are removed, and you don’t worry about sustaining a massive audience, and you can pick and choose your spots to create when the spirit and digital brush are willing?
“The option of self-publishing allows for the freedom that will keep it fun, which it can’t stray from — or forget it,” Breathed tells me of posting “Bloom County” where and when he desires.
“Dead-tree media requires constancy and deadlines and guarantees,” Breathed continues. “This flattens the joy. It also presents a huge income. It’s an interesting trade-off, isn’t it?”
Yet if your long-dormant characters can still turn a side profit while you create gorgeous children’s books and explore other projects, the trade-off can well be worth it for the midlife artist.
Breathed tells Comic Riffs that “much of the past two decades [has] been fallow ground for whimsy,” then acknowledges that’s a “glib” answer. Whimsy has sprouted healthy across the Internet since “Outland” breathed its last word-balloon 20 years ago.
Times change, but sometimes it is characters who need to lie fallow for years till the terrain is fertile again, and Opus can rise anew from the daisies and lilies and daffodils, ready to satirize sweetly in his tighty-whities.
“A sign of a properly carved character is when their voice can be heard,” Breathed tells me.
And two decades later, are enough fans eager to again hear Opus’s sardine-scented yawp — a sensitive penguin demanding his return flight? Judging by the massive reaction on social media, the stoked nostalgia burns like a bonfire. Bring back the once-believed-extinct Basselope.
“Honestly, I was unprepared for it,” Breathed tells me of the public outpouring. “It calls for a bit of introspection about how characters can work with readers… and how they’re now absent as a unifying element with a society.
“There is no media that will allow a Charlie Brown or a Snoopy to become a universal and shared joy each morning at the same moment across the country,” Breathed continues. “Maybe the rather marked response to my character’s return is a reflection of that loss. A last gasp of a passing era.”
We, of course, mourn the loss of any old and dear friend, no matter the years. Hope may be the thing with feathers, but Opus always needed friends to hoist him for each fresh attempt at flight.
And yes, to keep such inspired characters around, we’ll pay even Steve Dallas’s exorbitant $#@!$ retainer.