Sunday, October 4, 2009

Berkeley Breathed, drawn back to 'Bloom County' but looking forward

TODAY: Berkeley Breathed is appearing at the Long Beach Comic Con.

Berkeley Breathed, the creator of the comic strips “Bloom County,” "Outland" and “Opus,” lives on a high hilltop in Santa Barbara — yes, the money from all those Bill the Cat T-shirts has added up nicely — but on a recent afternoon when he looked down at the churn of the blue-gray ocean, he seemed to feel the undertow of nagging regret.

“When you’re young, you miss things, you just don’t see them,” said the 52-year-old Breathed, who walked away from comic strips last year because the Digital Age had eroded his newsprint audience and, worse, his artistic vigor and sense of whimsy. There are other pursuits now: Breathed has written and illustrated an entire shelf of bestselling children’s books, including last month’s “Flawed Dogs: The Novel,” and he has some promising Hollywood ventures in play. But a lavish new collection of his past work, “Bloom County: The Complete Library,” stirred up some bittersweet reflection as he gave a tour of his home studio.

“Not to sound like someone swinging their cane, but in the 1980s there weren’t a thousand other voices screaming to be heard at the same time,” Breathed said of the decade when his “Bloom County” was featured in more than 1,200 newspapers and he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. “There was a quiet in the room that made being a commentator very exciting. There was no Web, there was barely any cable TV. If you were looking for humorous topical commentary, you would go to the Johnny Carson monologue, ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Doonesbury.’ That was it. After you have the silence of that room, you get really weary with the screaming it takes today. There’s also this bitterness in the public square now that is difficult to avoid. I never did an angry strip, but in recent years I saw that sneaking in.”

In the 1980s, Breathed was a sensation fresh from the college campus and, both brash and insecure, he didn’t always handle the spotlight well. He was viewed as a lone wolf in the quirky and stodgy community of comic-strip artists, and he didn’t build any bridges by announcing to the world that he had no knowledge of the field’s history, craft or conventions. That led to some indelicate decisions, such as his choice not to follow up on a kind gesture that arrived in the mail one morning not long after Breathed was injured in a 1986 ultra-light plane crash.

“The major regret in my cartooning life is I didn’t get to know him,” Breathed said, pointing up to the framed art from a “Peanuts” strip signed by the late Charles Schulz. “He sent me that as a get-well gift when I broke my back. This was a time when I was a pariah to the comics old guard. It was an opening, and I let the opportunity pass. Just a few months ago, I went up and visited with his wife, Jeannie, and I was tearful leaving. I would have loved to have been able to call him my friend.”

Then there’s the schism between Breathed and Garry Trudeau, the satirical mind behind “Doonesbury.” The two artists’ work appeared in papers side by side for years, but they have never shaken hands. There’s a reason. The younger cartoonist, searching for a style, borrowed plenty from “Doonesbury” and then chafed when the elder artist pointed that fact out in public.

“He came as close to a hero for me as I was going to have in the comics world,” Breathed said. “But I earned his spite by doing a lot of things wrong, and then when he called me on it, and did so relatively benignly, I was a smartass. I was, what, 21? I didn’t handle it well. After that, he had no interest in having a beer with me.”

Breathed also wishes he could connect with Bill Watterson, the “Calvin and Hobbes” artist who was Breathed’s fan, friend and rival but who now does everything he can to stay off the grid. “There are people searching for him, reporters, documentary-makers and fans, but he doesn’t want to be found,” Breathed said, sounding like the last member of a dysfunctional tribe. “I have a box of letters from him. You should see the drawings on them. He is a once-in-a-century talent.”

Breathed speaks of his own work with far less enthusiasm. He never aspired to be a cartoonist — “It was an accidental career,” he said with a smirk, “to say the least” — and it pains him a bit to see the rough edges of his early work, which is now seeing the light of day in the five-volume series “Bloom County: The Complete Library” (IDW Publishing, $39.99 each, the 285-page Vol. 1 is now on sale).

“It’s embarrassing. I should have worked out all that stuff before I got in the public sphere,” he said. When asked about the vivid, color-rich art today, he shrugged. “It’s airbrush, which is for cheaters. It’s the perfect medium for people that don’t know what they’re doing.”

Perhaps, but even the earliest work shows the snap and rhythm of Breathed’s humor and the flow of a natural storyteller. Now, his children’s books are stirring interest in Hollywood, and one of his most successful titles, “Mars Needs Moms!,” is slated to hit theaters next year in a Robert Zemeckis production starring Seth Green and Joan Cusack.

Interestingly, it was film that seized Breathed’s imagination as a kid. He walked out of “Star Wars” in 1977 vowing that cinema would be his career pursuit.

But Breathed also had a passion for newspapers, and when he arrived at the University of Texas in 1978, he gravitated to the campus newsroom. He was hired as a news photographer, but the reckless dreamer had a problem with was the assignments: boring campus speeches and dry student meetings. So he used darkroom gear to, um, goose the photos — he would burn in a faint halo above the head of a local preacher or make the background sky in his pictures look like an alien vista. (He still gets a kick out of pumping up a photograph, as the illustration accompanying this story shows.) There were other similar stunts and a disastrous stint as a reporter.

“My basic problem was that my imagination was never going to allow me to work with the facts and, at a newspaper, the only safe place to put a person like that is in cartooning,” he said.
Breathed could draw, but he had no affinity for comic strips and really no knowledge of them beyond “Doonesbury,” which was in those days the dominant compass point for just about every college kid with a desire to draw pictures in panels.

“That’s all I had to go on, so I did a ‘Doonesbury’-like cartoon and put it out there. For someone who needed their hubris slapped down a bit, it would have been good if people called me on the copying. Just the opposite happened: People on campus loved it. I was even able to self-publish a book.”

The college strips are “embarrassing, offensive and juvenile,” Breathed said with a pained expression, so he keeps them in a vault locked away from all eyes, including his own. He did agree to put a few of the least objectionable strips into the new book for the sake of posterity.

The ethos of a journalism informed by a fanciful brand of subversive satire eventually made Breathed’s “Bloom County” a signature corner of 1980s pop culture. Cerebral, topical, daft and proudly sentimental, it gave the world an earnest dreamer in Opus the penguin, the strange and scabby Bill the Cat and a memorable scoundrel in Steve Dallas, who may or may not resemble a certain comic-strip creator. Breathed worries that the strips may be too topical in hindsight.

“There was humor that relied on headlines from just a few days before,” Breathed said. “I found it deeply annoying to look back on Michael Dukakis cartoons.”

“Bloom County” began in late 1980, and Breathed pulled the plug in 1989, making it a fully contained 1980s phenomena. He launched a Sunday-only strip called “Outland” that ran from 1989 through 1995 and featured Opus and other “Bloom” refugees. Next came “Opus,” a Sunday fixture from 2003 to 2008. When Breathed ended that one, he announced in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times that he was “destroying the village to save it.”

Now, he says it’s time to stick to books and try film. “I wasn’t interested in comic strips growing up because the level of narrative was too small in it,” he said. “They’re really art gags. And ultimately cartooning was always unsatisfying for me because I couldn’t explore storytelling in the fashion I wanted...and once you recognize you’re in a declining art form, it’s really hard to keep that energy up.”

Breathed, a father of two young children, is a bit of a daredevil. He has a passion for motorcycles and power-boating, even though he came close to losing his arm in a boating accident a few years after the ultralight plane crash. That extrovert spirit may be another reason why Breathed never felt at home with his peers or many of his fans, who he says “speak a different language than me and always made me nervous because I thought I’d be found out as a fraud.”

Breathed’s home studio is modeled after the interior of the Nautilus — the submarine from his favorite film, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” from 1954 — and the walls are lined by books about World War II, Hollywood history and the Old West. He says he finds the history of the western frontier and the war with the Nazis deeply compelling because they are, in essence, three-act stories. The screewriter terminology is revealing; Breathed adores the structure of film, not cartoon panels, and he is hugry to make a mark in Hollywood. It's not a new obsession, just a delayed one, and he tells of a summer in his youth where he "stalked Steven Spielberg" around Southern California with a desperate eagerness to work with him.

This idea that cartooning was a practice career that prepared Breathed his real calling will not sit well with the purists who study and celebrate the heritage of American pop-culture illustration. Breathed isn't even informed enough about that history to understand his perceived offense. For instance: There are some handsome volumes of classic cartoons too, such as “Terry and the Pirates” by Milton Caniff. Asked about that one, the accidental cartoonist looked embarrassed. “The publisher sent it to me, but I never opened it. I bet it’s good. It’s just not my thing.”

He looked down at “Bloom County: The Complete Library” with the same expression of disinterest. “This is an amazing book, amazing to see,” Breathed said, sounding anything but amazed. Then he delivered the droll punch line. “When you write about it you should say, ‘This guy is a fraud and a cheat.’ There’s your headline.”

-- Geoff Boucher


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