-by Ken Plume
If you were to make a list of the most influential - and popular - comic strip cartoonists of the last 50 years, Berkeley Breathed would surely hold a place on that list alongside names like Schulz, Kelly, Ketchum, Watterson, Walker, and Larson, just to name a very small number also gracing that particular scroll.
If any one strip defined the 80’s and its socio-political pop culture zeitgeist, I’d have to put my money on Breathed’s Bloom County, which introduced us to the most famous flightless waterfowl with serious mother issues, Opus the penguin. After folding Bloom County after an incredible run, Breathed returned to the comics section with the Sunday-only Outland - which, after another lengthy run, he also brought to a close.
During this period, he began producing lushly illustrated children’s books - A Wish For Wings That Work, The Last Basselope, Edward Fudwupper Fibbed Big, Goodnight Opus, Flawed Dogs, and Red Ranger Came Calling.
The new millennium brought Breathed back to comics with a new Sunday feature, Opus, bringing the loveably angsty little big-schnozzed penguin firmly into the present day without losing any of the sensibilities that made both Bloom County and Outland so memorable.
He’s also just released a brand new children’s book, Mars Needs Moms!, that tells a tale of parental love - one boy’s lack of appreciation for it, and a red planet’s desperate desire for it.
Still on the road promoting the book, Breathed kindly took the time to do a back-and-forth cyber-interview with me… So, without further ado, here’s our conversation with Berke Breathed…
KP: Where did the initial concept for Mars Needs Moms! come from?
BREATHED: I pulled my four year old boy away from some train tracks as the train emerged around the bend. It occurred to me - in that way that things that are obvious suddenly do at the opportune moment - that I would have reflexively dove, pushed him off the tracks, and gotten whacked by the engine if the situation had called for it. This was a revelation. And I immediately mused at the fact that my kids will never really appreciate this sacrificial component to parenting… at moments that it might be helpful. Hence, the book.
KP: It seems parenting is a very consistent throughline in much of your work, from Opus’s search for his mother to the story in Mars Needs Moms!. What does being a parent represent to you?
BREATHED: Deferring self-interest. And hearing the word “poop” more than before.
KP: What is the process like when you’re actually writing a book like Mars or Red Ranger? Do you see it as a visual process, or a verbal process?
BREATHED: The story gets laid out in my head in pictures. Only when I finish the last illustration do I actually write a single word. This, by the way, is exactly opposite as to how the entire industry does its thing. But then, no surprise, given my past.
KP: Does this process only apply to the books, or do you follow the same process in your strip work? Have you ever created a book in the opposite fashion, starting with the text?
BREATHED: Never. And I often do all the art for the strips first now… since I can compose the test digitally and change the art to fit it. This is new.
KP: What do you feel is the single strongest image you had in your mind for any of the books you’ve done so far - what is the one that struck you like a thunderbolt?
BREATHED: In Goodnight Opus, our heroes sail over the China Sea in the moonlight, the boats lifting into the air below them to try fishing for the moon. A rare time that the art turned out how it originally appeared in my head when I thought of it.
KP: How would you describe the method by which you create your art? If I understand correctly, you do it largely in PhotoShop now… When did you make this transition, and what was the appeal?
BREATHED: Speed. My digital paintings are virtually indistinguishable from my airbrushed ones. But I can create 3 books in the time that I painted them previously.
KP: You originally began the Opus strip with the same kind of art style as your children’s books, but have since transitioned it back to a style more reminiscent of Bloom County and Outland. What was the reason for this move back to that more “classic” style?
BREATHED: The newspapers started running them about 6 inches square, due to various market pressures. There’s hardly much reason to spend an entire day putting that much effort in the art when it’s that small. Also, its the rare gag that can benefit from highly finished artwork. It some ways, it can distract. And the humor is king.
KP: Do you still use pen & ink on Opus, or has that moved into the digital realm as well?
BREATHED: Yep. I still like drawing by hand.
KP: You’ve spoken before about the cynical nature of the humor in Bloom County and Outland as being one of the factors that led to your eventual decision to walk away and move onto lighter fare (such as the children’s books). With your return to the strip, how has your attitude to this “negative humor” changed in the intervening years? Are you better able to cope with it, or was the desire to have the daily forum again an overriding factor?
BREATHED: Oh, its not too negative to be unpleasant. But a creative respite to the positive is redemptive. Kids books are good for this.
KP: Is cynicism always destructive?
BREATHED: Dunno about cynicism. Satire is, by its nature.
KP: Has being a father changed your worldview?
BREATHED: No. But it’s changed the emotional landscape, and that changes the imagination and the art.
KP: What do you feel is the first project that reflected the change in your emotional landscape? Do you think the pre-fatherhood you would have been capable of creating some of the projects you’ve done since becoming a father?
BREATHED: Mars Needs Moms! is the only book I’ve done, post kid. Most people could tell.
KP: Compared to the other strips that dominated the comics pages in the 80’s, what do you feel Bloom County brought to the table?
BREATHED: An “up yours” attitude, frankly. Kids were waiting for it. Ubiquitous now.
KP: How does the ubiquitous nature of that attitude affect how you approach Opus?
BREATHED: No reason to try pushing the attitude stuff. We’re awash in edgy attitude now. I want to see humor and heart at this point.
KP: At the time, how big was the financial temptation to tone down the more controversial elements in Bloom County in order expand its appeal?
BREATHED: That presumes a self awareness that I didn’t enjoy at that time. Fortunes would have been reversed if we HAD toned things down, anyway.
KP: Considering your loathing for the ever-hovering deadline, how have you dealt with that pressure with Opus?
BREATHED: Middle age took care of that. Plus leaving extended adolescence.
KP: How fine is the line between making a serious point in a funny way, and making a serious point that’s intended to be funny, but falls flat?
BREATHED: Listen, the line between funny and not funny is whisker thin. A serious point told in a serious unfunny way is a disaster. Many cartoonists think this is okay. It’s not.
KP: Are there any storylines/characters that didn’t live up to your expectations in either Bloom County or Outland?
BREATHED: You mean are there cartoons in the past that didn’t? Good God yes. It’s shocking. There’s some that make absolutely no sense, as I drew them in a near state of sleepless coma. Shocking, frankly. Amazing I wasn’t thrown out of the page every year.
KP: Is there any subject that you never felt qualified to tackle? Any you weren’t comfortable tackling?
BREATHED: There are subjects that I find hilarious that nobody else does. Cosmetic surgery is one. Because, I think, everyone secretly believes that they may indulge in it one day, so laughing at its absurdity is self defeating.
KP: Your brief flirtation with legitimate news reporting early in your career didn’t work out too well. Even then, it seems, you couldn’t resist inserting your own point of view into the pieces. Where do you think that desire to speak out came from?
BREATHED: Its not an issue of needing to speak out. My impulse was to embellish, because everything isn’t usually interesting enough for me. Imagination is a dangerous thing in journalism.
KP: What was the development process for A Wish for Wings That Work as an animated special? I remember it airing one year, then disappearing quickly. Even the VHS of Wings is out of print. I’m actually quite a fan of the special, but I know you weren’t terribly happy with the outcome. What happened, exactly?
BREATHED: Unspectacular ratings. Simple as that. My humor wasn’t meant for network television, even when the show is done right, which that one was not.
KP: What was the development process like for the special? What, in your view, were the stumbling blocks towards it falling short of what you wanted it to be?
BREATHED: In my case, lack of writing experience, as I wrote the script. And the director was way over his head.
KP: You did an animated version of Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big for Nickelodeon - what is the current status of that? I noticed you got quite a stellar cast…
BREATHED: An unmitigated technical disaster. Unfinished and unwatchable.
KP: This is a favorite book of mine, and I admit that your assessment of its abysmal execution disappoints me to no end…
BREATHED: We hired an animation company with 0 experience. But they promised much for the dollar. Classic mistake. It was simply beyond their skills and it never got finished, although for legal reasons, they delivered film. Unshowable.
KP: An Opus film had been announced awhile back - what is its current status? Are plans for it to be live action or animated?
BREATHED: Wonderfully dead. As it shall remain.
KP: Doonesbury was a musical - why not Bloom County?
BREATHED: The first part of that question is the answer.
KP: Who do you hear in your head as the “voice” of Opus?
BREATHED: I always wanted Sterling Holloway for Opus (Winnie the Pooh). He’s unavailable.
KP: Are there plans for any further animated adaptations? Here’s a hearty wish for another go at Opus, as well as Red Ranger Came Calling…
BREATHED: Mars Needs Moms! is in development at Disney with Robert Zemeckis producing. Flawed Dogs is also with Disney. Opus shall remain unsullied by another director’s vision. He’s mine.
KP: Are you looking at Moms and Flawed Dogs as traditionally animated, or as Zemeckian CG motion-capture pieces?
BREATHED: It will be Mo Cap. Just to annoy the animation community. But it’s a good candidate for that technology, which, like it or not, is going to grow.
KP: How would you describe working with Zemeckis? Are you on the same page, creatively?
BREATHED: I haven’t started working with him, as he’s finishing Beowulf. But his folks seem dedicated to preserving the look of my art. They were fanatical about this with Polar Express. We’ll see. You never know really. It’s all a gamble in Hollywood.
KP: What elements do you see as being essential to any adaptation of Opus for the big screen? How, essentially, do you define that character and his place in any world that might be created onscreen?
BREATHED: I’m not setting Opus up again. Nobody will give me the control needed to protect him. Miramax wanted to redesign him, if you can believe that. I knew at that point that it was fine that the project was doomed.
KP: How would you sum up how your philosophy towards merchandising and adapting your strip to other mediums - a philosophy that differs from Bill Watterson’s…
BREATHED: I’ve come around to Bill’s view that unless they would let me draw every frame, forget it. More precisely, unless they let me write it, forget it. They never do this. Merchandising is fine, essentially because the fans love it. To pretend that the cartoons are above the sullied ground of commercial products is… getting a bit ahead of the artform, I think. We’re deep in the thick of the pop world. Embrace, I say.
KP: Have you ever been presented with a merchandise proposal that you refused to give permission to?
BREATHED: Ha! Nearly all of them! I only approved things that I would have in my office. And I wanted a Bill The Cat doll as much as the fans!
KP: What are the odds of getting Bloom County action figures into the mix?
KP: Were you at any time ever worried about negative feedback from the syndicate, editors, or the audience to any strip you’ve done?
BREATHED: I only worry that the readers are unamused. I could care less about editors.
KP: Were you ever censored?
BREATHED: Edited. Which is part of the game. I know where the boundaries are… usually. I am occasionally surprised. And I will probably go out on my sword one day, insisting on a particular strip running despite the furor. One day.
KP: Is there any one strip you can recall that you were surprised did not cause a ruckus? Or any you were surprised that did?
BREATHED: I used a Yiddish word that means “shit” one time. I had no idea. THAT got me a boycott from Christian groups . But many surprised my syndicate when they didn’t cause problems.
KP: What motivated you to engage in winning back your copyright in the late 80’s? How difficult a struggle was it?
BREATHED: It took threats to quit. When I got the rights back, I did quit. It was an ugly game of chicken that they forced us to play. The rules have changed now… and I feel good that I lead the way in this.
KP: How would things be different if you had lost the battle? For one thing, I’m sure we’d have had a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon by now…
BREATHED: Watterson didn’t have the rights when he stopped the merchandising. It was a huge risk for him. But they blinked, as they should have.
KP: Speaking of an animated Calvin & Hobbes, I was wondering if you had seen this student film piece, which just hit the web…
BREATHED: Oh my God. That’s my only reaction. And this: Bill is going to have a cow when he sees this. Not that it isn’t terrific. I think it’s like how we’d feel finding our wives naked on YouTube… no matter how hot they look.
KP: What creative muscles do you utilize while writing your children’s books that you were unable to use during your “stripping” days?
BREATHED: Emotion. Drama. Tears. Good storytelling. I love this far more than evoking a laugh, to tell you the truth.
KP: Which emotional “beat” in your children’s books thus far is the most resonant to you, personally?
BREATHED: Sacrifice. The same in movies. Because people rarely do it, truly, in life. We’re largely selfish machines.
KP: How big of an influence was Dr. Seuss on the tone of your children’s books? They often remind me of Seuss stories without the rhymes…
BREATHED: None, I’m afraid. My influences in the books are more from film I think.
KP: Which films have had the most influence on you?
BREATHED: Lawrence of Arabia. Close Encounters. To Kill a Mockingbird. Gladiator. Field of Dreams. Porky’s 1 and 2… Okay, not the last ones.
KP: Are there currently any plans to bring the Bloom County and Outland books - here’s a vote for Academia Waltz, as well - back into print? Even Watterson hasn’t let his books go out of print… What were the factors that led you to let them lapse from view?
BREATHED: It’s the publishers decision. If they sell, they come to print. My readers are middle aged… and somewhat past the cartoon book stage… for the most part.
KP: Have there been any discussions of doing a massive omnibus edition, such as those for Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes?
BREATHED: Wouldn’t sell. Nada. Zip. My fans are middle aged now… and they don’t buy cartoon books. Bloom County books were meant for dorm rooms and reading while sobering up at 3 am.
KP: What is your relationship to your fans? I know you’ve had issues with privacy in the past, but is there a positive to the continuing fame of both yourself and your characters?
BREATHED: I love the fans, even more now. Their heartfelt expressions of love for the work is deeply moving. It took a few years out of the game to really appreciate it.
KP: You were once quoted as saying that you had a “boring life”. Do you still feel that?
BREATHED: Did I ever say that? Must’ve been drunk.
KP: Where is your Pulitzer right now?
BREATHED: It’s on a bookshelf behind a picture of me meeting Ronald Reagan, but in front of my Bill the Cat doll. You can draw the significance in this.
KP: Do you ever take photos of it and have a mysterious courier leave them on Pat Oliphant’s doorstep?
BREATHED: Pat’s a broken man. Is he alive? Nobody’s killed him yet?
KP: As an aside, I noticed in Mars Needs Moms! that in one panel you have a mother holding bags of groceries that contain two name brands - Trix and Lucky Charms - which seems an odd bit of product placement (one would think you would go with something generic, just for clearance issues). What led to the choice to use real brands?
BREATHED: My children’s choice. Come to think of it, Kelloggs or whoever it is owes me a check.
KP: I know you’re a big collector - what is your most prized vintage ray gun?
BREATHED: That would be like choosing the favorite of my children. But you just can’t improve on the Buck Rogers Classic Disintegrator with the sparking window and genuine pop sound. When toys were really toys. Did I mention that I’d left my extended adolescence? A lie, like everything else.
KP: Have you been able to “hang on to the silly” in your life?
BREATHED: I’m friends with John Cleese. This makes it easier.
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