Berkeley Breathed is one of two cartoonists to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning for a multi-panel daily strip (the other is Garry Trudeau, about whom more in a minute). But unlike Trudeau's Doonesbury, Breathed's three strips—the daily Bloom County and later weeklies Outland and Opus - are only just now being reprinted in their entirety, with new introductions, classy binding, and a completist mania that, Breathed says, belongs entirely to IDW publisher Scott Dunbier. The first volume came out last fall and the second volume, collecting strips from 1982-1984 has just been released.. PW spoke with Breathed about the strip's history, its future, and why he wishes he’d punched Pat Oliphant.
PWCW: So pretty much all of the previous Bloom County collections were just selected cartoons, right?
Berkeley Breathed: Well, 80% of them never got reproduced - I was never terribly confident in my work, to tell you the truth, and we always edited it down to the best-of every year.
PWCW: What made you go, "Yeah, okay" when [IDW editor] Scott Dunbier came to you asking if you wanted to do the complete Bloom County?
BB: I told him repeatedly that it was a bad idea. I've never had an editor so dogged to chase a project. When you're in a business where you have to face rejection so often, you learn not to take that for granted. I've had editors I've virtually never talked to on a book, and he’s the most responsive editor I've ever had.
PWCW: What was it like digging up your old work?
BB: These cartoons aren't sitting nicely in a drawer like people think; they're under beds and in drawers and the year dates have fallen off of a lot of them—we used to glue those on. [IDW] came to the house, packed up all these boxes, and drove off. They found lost cartoons from fans—which is the only reason we have all these cartoons in order at all. In 1992 I was doing a signing, and this fanboy kid came up to the table and dropped a box on the table and said, "Here, I made this for you." And it was ten binders of pages of cartoons—everything I'd ever done for the last ten years." And that was the reference we used.
PWCW: Wow. Do you know who he was?
BB: He was a classic fanboy, kind of an overweight fella, probably been clipping too many cartoons. I couldn't tell how he'd done it—maybe he'd taken them from mimeograph machines. It was good to see, because you always feel like you're just sending things out into the ether. That's changed because of the internet, mostly for ill, because the most vocal receivers are the most twisted and the most cruel. It reminded me that I needed to take it more seriously, which is really why I did signings. This kid said he got sick for six weeks and these cartoons got him through.
PWCW: So you won the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning, but there was some controversy over it. Do you mind to talk about that?
BB: It was really spearheaded by this guy Pat Oliphant. He did not like me, he was sure that I had stolen the penguin from him—that little character down by his signature is a penguin, apparently. It was a cover story in the Washington Journalism Review. I took it lightly, but I should have gone over and punched him in the face. In their minds, you don't win a Pulitzer unless you're cutting heads off. Now it's no longer called editorial cartooning—it's called cartooning, which is what it should be called.
PWCW: So how did you get started doing this?
BB: I tried everything I could. I discovered newspapers as a freshman in college, and I just fell in love with the notion of disseminating one's—I'll be charitable—one's output on a daily basis and having people read it. I tried every job in the paper, all sort of ending in disastrous consequences. I got fired from the staff photographer job—I was quite a good photographer, but I got fired because I never thought anything was dramatic enough and would always try to alter it somehow.
PWCW: So I've always had trouble separating the facts in your jacket bios and promotional material from the jokes—did you actually get fired from the editorial board for making up stories about—I think it was alligators in the sewers?
BB: I got thrown out of school for perpetrating a massive hoax. I planted a story about a kid who put 300 baby alligators in the local lake. In the end the game wardens came in.
PWCW: That's hilarious.
BB: It was funny until a few years later and I saw the Jayson Blairs of the world getting caught, and then I felt really bad. If I was going to be at a newspaper, it was going to be as a cartoonist where at the very least I wouldn't get arrested.
PWCW: What's it like seeing your work laid out in these elaborate bookshelf editions?
BB: It was a mixed blessing. The books are beautiful, but being confronted with cartoons that I haven't seen for 25 years—most of them seem like someone else had drawn them. I had completely forgotten that they existed. They're not the strongest work, and there's some sloppy writing, and I was still looking for a focus to the strip in those first couple years. The least I would do, I would say, is I would do it differently. The most is that I would run away and hide forever. I was shocked at how timely they were, and how untimely they are now.
PWCW: Will you be doing annotations for all the books?
BB: I'm gonna be doing more of it in future volumes, because I think the real appeal of it for hardcore fans is to hear my commentary. Not only historical, but also personal—it was done in reaction to stuff that was happening in my own life.
PWCW: You spend a lot of the introduction to the first book (and the notes) apologizing to Garry Trudeau; do you guys have any kind of relationship?
BB: We exchanged some tough letters the first few years of the strip and I was not as respectful as I should have been. A few years later when I'd hoped we could meet and I could apologize, he desperately avoided me. If I was speaking somewhere he'd go hoofing it out of the room.
I had not been a massive student of his, but his was the only comic strip I had ever read. I went searching for things later—Krazy Kat came in during Outland.
PWCW: So what are you up to now?
BB: I've got Flawed Dogs: the Novel out now and Mars Needs Moms is a picture book that came out a few years ago, and Disney will have that out as a movie next year. I'm selling stuff to the movies right now, and that's what's keeping me busy. But no more cartooning.
PWCW: So you never considered doing more strips?
BB: Where would you put them?
PWCW: Well, a lot of folks do webcomics.
BB: Yeah, but imagine you're a veteran of newspaper comic pages. You were in a thousand papers, multiplied by millions of readers. You had a potential audience of a hundred million readers. If you just had to draw every day and you didn't mind not being paid, I suppose you could go back into it. There's no paradigm I've seen that compares to it. It's atomization personified. There's going to be millions of people doing millions of things for very few readers. And I guess that's democratic, sort of.
PWCW: Do you still hear from fans?
BB: I haven't received a paper letter in 10 years. I'd really like to hear if TV stars and movie stars ever get letters. I said I've had none. I've probably received a dozen in the past five years, and I used to receive a hundred a week in the 1980's.
PWCW: You've got an 8-minute film of one of your books that's been finished recently—do you have plans to do more animation?
BB: No, not at all. We tried for five years with the Weinstein brothers to make an Opus movie, and their confidence collapsed predictably. There might be a movie still, but the rights situation will be very complicated.
I made it quite clear that Opus was not coming back. I just did those Sunday-only strips to kind of keep a hand in it and have fun.
PWCW: So is the current state of political cartooning discouraging to you?
BB: Well, It's very time-consuming to do anymore, especially as readership has plummeted over the years. And the other side of it was that I felt like the politics and the tone of the times has gotten so much worse than they had before. The rancor is at a level that sucked me into it, too.
The difference now—when I was employing satire in 1985, there was nothing else around me. There was Doonesbury, there was Johnny Carson and there was Saturday Night Live. Now there's a vomitous cavalcade of snarky commentary that just doesn't need more. The tenor of the times was making me mad, and cartooning always suffers when the cartoonist is mad. When I was doing Bloom County, I never got mad about anything.