Mike Russell Talks BLOOM COUNTY And More With Pulitzer-Prize Winning Humorist Berkeley Breathed!
Published at: Nov. 4, 2010, 5:11 p.m. CST by headgeek
THE AICN Q&A:
Berkeley Breathed spent years saying in interviews that no one would want to buy an omnibus collection of his rude, rash and much-loved 1980s newspaper comic "Bloom County." So how the hell did editor Scott Dunbier finally talk Breathed into allowing IDW to publish the five-volume "Bloom County: The Complete Library"?
"By getting Scott to agree to do it himself," wrote Breathed in an e-mail. "It's really 'Bloom County by Scott Dunbier' now. A jaw-droppingly monumental job, compiling all that stuff. Most of the originals looked like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The difference being that my material actually did prove that Jesus existed."
For newspaper-comics fans of a certain age, Breathed was sort of the Chuck Jones of the funny pages -- a storyteller with ridiculously sharp comic timing who worked with a cast of talking animals and screwed-up humans. He could make you laugh with tiny facial expressions and anarchic bits of slapstick, much of the latter involving a diseased cat. Drawn in feverish, last-minute all-nighters, the strip was so reckless and awesomely crass that finding it on the same page as "Marmaduke" and "Garfield" almost felt like getting away with something. Breathed tends to play his gifts down in interviews: He told me he was "destined to be an outsider" in the cartooning community -- despite winning a Pulitzer prize for it in 1987, at age 29 -- "because cartooning was a means to an end: humorous expression and storytelling in whatever medium would have me. Cartooning happened to lay in my path and I rode it." He's selling himself wildly short. If Bill Watterson was Disney Studios, Breathed was Termite Terrace -- and part of the last truly comedically badass trio of newspaper cartoonists, along with Watterson and "The Far Side"'s Gary Larson.
Breathed ended his second "Bloom County" sequel strip, "Opus," in 2008, and seems to have quit the business for good this time (his third attempt, after retiring "Bloom County" in 1989 and "Outland" in 1995). These days, he develops TV projects and makes children's books, including "Mars Needs Moms!" -- which is being made into a film by Disney and Robert Zemeckis' production company. (A teaser trailer should debut any day now.) He's also become something of an elder-statesman cartoonist, which probably gives him hives: He enjoyed a blockbuster appearance at his first San Diego Comic-Con this year, and starting in February 2011, he'll have his first-ever retrospective exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. "The show is scheduled to run February to June, and will be split between Berkeley's children's-book work and 'Bloom County,'" said Dunbier. "There will be a reception at some point with Berkeley in attendance."
Almost exactly one year ago, I interviewed Dunbier about his mad scavenger hunt to assemble "Bloom County: The Complete Library." Now Dunbier's paved the way for an interview with Breathed himself -- in support of the just-released "Complete Library" Vol. 3. Breathed agreed to be interviewed by e-mail, as is his wont. He answered over 40 questions -- talking about deadlines, copyrights, Watterson, Schulz, Trudeau, college, editors, newspapers, disrespect, IDW, "Opus," the Internet and Hollywood triumphs and horrors. (God, the stuff about the Weinsteins.) An edited transcript follows.
-- Mike Russell, CulturePulp.com
'BLOOM COUNTY' MEMORIES
MIKE RUSSELL: I'm told that Scott Dunbier is constantly egging you to let IDW reprint more of your pre-"Bloom" college comic strip "The Academia Waltz" than makes you comfortable.
BERKELEY BREATHED: Much of it is embarrassing. Not from the lack of professionalism -- that's sorta cute -- but from the idiot callousness of the humor. Nineteen-year-olds should not have access to a newspaper page.
RUSSELL: For me, the biggest revelation of the IDW's first "Bloom County" collection was watching you learn how to make a comic strip in public. Almost the entire cast from the first six months of "Bloom County" was jettisoned. Was the syndicate cool about giving you time to figure it out?
BREATHED: The Washington Post syndicate had little option, as they hadn't a clue what I should do. They were smart about the fact that they were only slightly dumber than me vis a vis what a comic strip is supposed to be.
They'd tried to make a strip by committee just before they stumbled on my work: "Dupont Circle." A magnificent failure, of course. By the time they got to me, they were flummoxed and just threw me a bottle of Vermouth and the keys to the Ferrari.
Yep -- you can see me learning to drive and destroying the neighborhood in the process. All in the books now, alas.
BREATHED: Indeed -- you start with the image, idea or gag you want to finish with, and then work backwards to find the simplest, most efficient way to get to it.
Not that I did this well during much of "Bloom County." I see it now as shockingly overwritten. Today, I'd edit the dialogue down nearly 50% with half the strips. Becoming a screen- and TV writer teaches you much about word discipline.
RUSSELL: One thing that distinguished "Bloom County" from other strips was that it wasn't just a single type of comic -- it had political and cultural satire, but also continuity, lyrical moments, deep characterization, slapstick. Was there a conscious sense of juggling these tones?
BREATHED: I wouldn't use the word "conscious sense" in any context regarding my approach to work. Honestly, one tempts the gods with that.
Nothing in the history of creativity was done with less calculation than "Bloom County." The good ol' days. And, I might add, lovely irony, as it followed the aforementioned "Dupont Circle," which was cobbled together each week by a committee of editors from the Washington Post. I use this story now to steer away nosy producers as we put together a kids' TV show right now -- which, by the way, is EXACTLY like producing a comic strip, from a creating point of view. I'm back home.
RUSSELL: Re-reading "Bloom County" now, the sheer rudeness of some of these comics is still sort of breathtaking. What sort of editorial gauntlet did you have to run at the time to preserve what you've called the comic's "up yours" attitude?
BREATHED: Few fights then. Almost none. Interestingly ... probably impossible now. Fear rules in the pages today. Shivering, pee-in-your-pants fear that another subscriber will cancel. So the editors edit everything and anything out that could possibly offend. Or be vaguely interesting. A brilliant, sad strategy to speed up the inevitable collapse.
RUSSELL: Could "Bloom County" even exist in syndication today?
BREATHED: "No" is the short answer. Papers would be flummoxed by "Bloom County" now. It was meant for youthful eyeballs -- and there be none of those ogling newspaper comic pages now. Old-timers chuckling over "Doonesbury" and "Beetle Bailey" are pretty much all that's left. They clip out their favorites, stick 'em on the fridge, and put the rest under their parakeets to shit on. The good ol' days.
RUSSELL: You've talked at length about your deadline insanity in "Bloom County"'s early days -- epic all-nighters, finishing comics on the plane ride over to the syndicate, etc. Did a passenger sitting next to you on a plane ever freak out to see you speed-drawing in the air?
BREATHED: They were understandably intrigued, and often peppered me with questions while I tried to work. Not so interestingly, it was usually "What's it like to be a cartoonist?" An impossible question to answer -- even while one isn't on deadline trying to ink on a piece of 28-inch-wide paper balanced on a 14-inch-wide airline table while going through thunderstorms over St. Louis. I remember answering it with, "Well, what's it like to be a nose picker?" It made no sense, but that was the point, and they'd usually go quiet until Washington. The good ol' days.
RUSSELL: How long did it take you to produce a finished "Bloom County" strip when you were working on all fear-fueled cylinders?
BREATHED: Don't hafta tell you.
RUSSELL: You've said middle age gave you a bit more discipline, deadline-wise. Was this a gradual process, or was there an actual come-to-Jesus moment in there somewhere?
BREATHED: Maturity just handled it eventually. After 20 years, it simply became too embarrassing to seem that much of a juvenile dolt about deadlines. Plus, I had kids. They don't need to observe and learn that extra dollop of adolescent dweebishness from their dad when he's a walking manifestation of arrested development already.
RUSSELL: Steve Dallas' arias of foul behavior were always my favorite part of "Bloom County." I believe you've said he was based somewhat on a real person. Did that person ever catch on?
BREATHED: No, no. Steve Dallas was a synthesis of all the frat boys I went to school with. There was a suicidal kid at U of Texas that came to believe that he was Steve Dallas and I was listening through his walls. I'd wake each morning to find him sleeping on my front porch. 'Twas my first hint as to the can of worms that I'd opened with cartooning. And their weird power. Then.
RUSSELL: One reason the IDW reprints are possible is because you fought to win back your copyright in 1989, and encouraged peers like Gary Larson to do the same.
BREATHED: I had to swindle my rights back, which was unpleasant. A necessary evil. I told them I was going to quit "Bloom County" unless I got the rights back which they should have never owned to begin with. They thought I was bluffing until a week before my deadline. A Post exec flew out and hurriedly signed the papers.
A week later I told them I was retiring anyway, but now with my rights. War is messy.
RUSSELL: You went to your first Comic-Con this year. Were you surprised by the enduring love for "Bloom County," which you'd described in older interviews as having a topical sell-by date? Did it make you feel like less of -- as you've put it -- "a fraud and a cheat"?
BREATHED: Ha. Oh, I'm still a fraud, but I'll take "Appreciated Fraud" these days. Comic-Con was a marvelous experience. I relished being around so much creativity ... as nutcake as it was. I walked the insanity and breathed it in -- savoring it like a vaguely unpleasant odor from one's past that still brings on a smile nevertheless.
I live in a community where the only creativity expressed is at tax time.
[You can find videos of Breathed's 2010 Comic-Con presentation right here: 1234567 ]
RUSSELL: Did you always see yourself as an outsider in the cartooning community?
BREATHED: I was destined to be an outsider because cartooning was a means to an end: humorous expression and storytelling in whatever medium would have me. Cartooning happened to lay in my path and I rode it. But the True Believers knew a part-timer when they saw one. Not in my DNA.
RUSSELL: You've talked about the "ridicule and disrespect" you've endured in certain quarters, especially early in your career. But now that print retrospectives are being issued of your work, do you sense that changing? Are you an elder statesman now?
BREATHED: "Ridicule"? Where'd I say that? The only disrespect I got was from the editorial cartoonists royally pissed I won a Pulitzer. Now there's some ill-treatment that one can relish. It's like being disrespected by your mother-in-law who sawed her own legs off during a drunk. Good simile.
ASTONISHING HOLLYWOOD TALES
RUSSELL: Before Zemeckis came along for "Mars Needs Moms!," you had frustrating Hollywood experiences: an animated "Wish for Wings that Work" special that you mildly dismiss in the Vol. 3 side-notes as "sentimental"; a production of "Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big" that you've called "unfinished and unwatchable"; and a recent Miramax development process for an "Opus" movie that your recent comments suggest is best forgotten. (They wanted to redesign Opus? Really?) What are some of the most dunderheaded notes you've gotten during a Hollywood development process?
BREATHED: Bob Weinstein in 2006: "You can't have a penguin talk to people."
The project only had one place to go from there. It's very funny now. In the end, it cost him an astonishing amount of money to be allowed to say that.
RUSSELL: You've said, "Opus shall remain unsullied by another director's vision. He's mine." If "Mars Needs Moms!" goes well, is there any chance you'd pitch a Breathed-helmed "Opus" movie?
BREATHED: I've got nothing to do with "Mars Needs Moms" as a production. They declined my invitation to participate in development ... as well they should, in retrospect. They wanted freedom to re-invent. I granted. They went in an unexpected but nonetheless exciting direction with the movie.
I'll tell you a secret (this won't get on the Internet, will it?) -- I haven't told my kids that they've made a movie from my book. So I'll take 'em to the movies on opening day, but tell them we're going to see a Michael Moore lefty commie documentary on TARP. The opening bits for "Mars Needs Moms" will come up, and then I get to say, "Whoa. What the heck? Man, I'm always the last to know. Good title, though."
Being a smart-ass is a DNA thing in the genes. Trying to run away from it would be like expecting a llama to quack.
And no, there won't be an "Opus" movie. Bob and Harvey Weinstein own it and they don't think penguins should talk to people.
BREATHED: I dearly love this story, because it's so instructive about life in general. The great man arrived royally pissed-off to have been conned into such a cheesy production. So I stuck him in a chair with several pretty make-up girls fussing over him, and he started telling funny stories and making people laugh, as I suspected. Boom. Like touching a match to some nitrates. He exploded, and I got a great little performance. The only successful thing about that disaster. Actually, we had Haley Joel Osment and Frances McDormand as voice talents, and they were wonderful. But the animation simply never got done to my satisfaction and it was never finished. Hiding in a vault somewhere.
RUSSELL: With "Mars Needs Moms!," do you finally feel you've gotten the toehold in Hollywood that you wanted? Did you think it would take this long?
BREATHED: Hardly a toehold, but it will be great fun seeing one's imagination realized in a movie. The movie business is all the crap and ego and greed that people have always laid upon it. But it is also the present depository of the most unabashedly creative people on the planet. They're not trying to invent the next fucking Facebook. They're trying to tell you a story and carry you somewhere. All of us -- whether we get into production or not -- are lucky to work in such a business. But they are all twisted nuts. Buried the lead.
RUSSELL: You, Bill Watterson and Gary Larson all called your signature strips quits after about a decade, before you'd all lost your fire. What did the three of you understand that others creators don't?
BREATHED: Always leave them wanting more. Oh, how cartoonists ignore that one.
BREATHED: Oh, I'm sure he is. But he ain't poking his head out.
RUSSELL: Are you and Watterson still in touch?
BREATHED: The boy has gone to ground. We exchanged a large number of letters many years ago, where he'd penned brilliant, hilarious, deeply cruel cartoons of me or Opus at both our expenses. But now? Only quiet. I've got a very solid report that he was seen working at a Six Flags doing caricatures for 5 bucks. I'm serious. They said he looked really happy, albeit completely insane. I put out a bowl of milk for him on the porch on warm summer nights.
RUSSELL: Have you ever reflected on how Charles M. Schulz squeezed about three decades of prime greatness out of his 50-year run? (If you've read "The Complete Peanuts," the sheer stamina of that run becomes overwhelming.)
BREATHED: Cartooning coursed through his veins like cholesterol. His wife Jeannie once explained to me that he couldn't quit -- as I had suggested he consider -- because he drew to live. It would have killed him to stop. And indeed, he died the day that last strip appeared.
I'll be checking out in a different way.
RUSSELL: Schulz sent you some get-well art when you broke your back.
[In early 1986, Breathed -- as he writes in a Vol. 3 endnote -- "ran out of gas in a homebuilt ultralight and crashed into a boulder." It's why Vol. 3 ends with three Sunday strips in a row -- the last dated Feb. 23, 1986 -- and Vol. 4 starts when Breathed's injury-induced hiatus ended, on March 31, 1986.]
Please explain what Schulz's gift meant to you, at the time and now.
BREATHED: To be truthful, not that much at the time. But I will always harbor a deep, deep regret that I didn't make it a point to get to know him. He lived relatively close ... and was an odd, unexpected genius in a charmingly dumb way. The best kind of genius. The fact that they never gave him a Pulitzer Prize should be a curse upon the souls of the Columbia people. What simpletons -- they were so easily cowed when the editorial cartoonists raised a ruckus when I won. Such a narrow, parochial view of cartooning they and the editorial cartoonists have.
THE ART OF THE REVISIT
RUSSELL: As the IDW books have gone on, you've offered more and more remarks in the "sidebar" commentary that accompanies some of the strips. Why the increased participation?
BREATHED: Having fun looking back. In many ways, I'm almost just another reader. Most I barely remember. Most, in fact, seem to me to have been written by someone I don't know well. It's an odd bit of dissonance for me.
RUSSELL: Is there a "sweet spot" for you, reading over the entire run of "Bloom County" -- a point where you feel the strip peaks, narratively and artistically?
BREATHED: I came across my favorites ... and I point them out in the volumes. It's fun putting enough distance between me and my work where I can read it like a fan. I'll laugh. It's a weird feeling. But a good one. Like sex with cows.
I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. Please don't include.
[Readers -- this is an e-mail interview. -ed.]
RUSSELL: When the IDW collections were coming together, were you ever tempted to restore elements the syndicate had cut -- restoring a gun removed from a man's hand, for example?
BREATHED: We handled each case differently. We usually fell back on what was actually published. Other times, I made them the way I had intended. Tough calls, often.
It was very, very, very hard to resist re-writing many of the Sundays. Some were in simply hugely ghastly in need of editing. Like that sentence.
RUSSELL: What's an example of a strip you did revisit?
BREATHED: I won't tell you. Won't. Can't. But I did. I cut about twenty unnecessary sentences out of some needless Opus oratory that made my teeth hurt. Ruined the spirit of the enterprise. But I did it, I'm not proud, and it's my book and I get to break the rules. I think I was high on horse tranquilizers when I wrote it in 1984, so there's my moral license.
RUSSELL: I just want to say: I hope there's a way to get the "Billy and the Boingers" floppy LP single from the Little, Brown books into one of these collections. That issue of the "Bloom Picayune," as well.
BREATHED: You will have to die unhappy. You find me a record player and I'll put the records in.
RUSSELL: How about a CD single?
BREATHED: I'll tell IDW that Mike Russell will be paying for this.
BREATHED: I've found that with Dunbier and IDW ... it's best to never say never. And then change your phone number.
GOING DIGITAL, GOING VINTAGE and SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
RUSSELL: You've embraced digital tools for coloring and painting. Have you experimented with going digital on the linework, as well?
BREATHED: Ha! If only. I just can't free up and get loose without a pencil. They may be the bridge too far for me, digitally.
No surprise-- painting digitally changed my career. My old painting table sits behind me now, gathering cobwebs. I miss only the beautiful painting to hang on a wall that used to be the result. Tangible, physical art can now be thrilling to look at. But far too slow for storytelling ... which is really my job. I don't paint. I draw stories.
RUSSELL: What was the learning curve to ramp up on the digital-painting process?
BREATHED: Steep for me. Hair-pulling incline. Career-changing once I went over the top.
RUSSELL: I've read that you have an impressive vintage-toy collection. What's your most prized piece?
RUSSELL: Has treatment for your Spasmodic torticollis [referenced on Breathed's Wikipedia page] proven effective?
BREATHED: I mis-diagnosed myself. I just had a whopper of a neck spasm that dropped me for several days -- literally -- then lingered for a year. It was a great opportunity to put myself in the cartoon again. I love the drama.
'OPUS' AND THE END
RUSSELL: How would you describe your relationship with a syndicate editor? I remember I was having a late dinner with your then-editor Amy Lago at a 2005 journalism conference, and she was called away in the middle of it to help you make an "Opus" deadline. "He always gets a special dispensation from me," I recall her saying before she left. Nice person.
BREATHED: Amy was the only editor that I allowed to truly edit my cartoons. She knew the game. She knew that her job was not to tell me something wasn't funny ... but that it wasn't clear. She's the last of a dying breed. Like a vodka-swigging unicorn with a hell of a sense of humor.
She spanks cartoonists, by the way. We need to be on the record with this.
[I e-mailed Breathed's remarks to Ms. Lago for comment. She responded: "Mr. Breathed is, obviously, in need of another spanking."]
RUSSELL: The Internet's biggest impact on culture has been the fragmentation of discourse -- there's no one central album or TV show or comic strip that's a universal discussion point any more. How blessed do you feel for having gotten out of the game before that fragmentation really set in?
BREATHED: Your question is my answer. Blessed. The last hurrah. People think that things will unravel with rising sea levels. I happen to think that it's because we won't all ever be humming the same song at the same time around the country… or laughing at the same cartoon.
RUSSELL: You're somewhat unusual in having retired from comics three times and returned to them twice. Why do you think both "Outland" and "Opus" reintroduced tropes and characters from "Bloom County" (and cut down on what you've called "stylistic detours") as they went along?
BREATHED: Because I do as all artists and writers should do: Write what we know. I knew Opus.
RUSSELL: When you launched "Opus," you scored a glorious contractual obligation that the strip run large. The strip did not appear online, either, initially, in a bid to boost print-newspaper circulation. But changes followed. "Opus" shrank in size, lost some detail in its color palette and ended up syndicated on Salon.com. And when you ended the strip, you in fact asked readers to go online to see the final panel (a generous gesture on behalf of the Humane Society). How did your consideration of the Web and the newspaper industry change over the run of the strip?
BREATHED: I knew I was on borrowed time -- and hence announced on the first day that it would go for five years and not a day more. Our culture has moved on from newspapers, and the cartoon strip as we know it has sailed off into the sunset. The Web will be a home for graphic humor. But it will be different.
There are tribes of Indians in the jungles of Brazil that have never seen a spoon. But when one of them tries to get another to step into their canoe while holding an armload of bananas, promising to hold the canoe steady, the other guy will say "Oh right, and Lucy won't yank the football away at the last second, asshole."
We've lost that.
RUSSELL: Do you follow any webcomics?
BREATHED: I've never read comics anywhere. I will die wondering if I would have read mine if someone else created it.
RUSSELL: You've cited the "coarsening national dialogue" as spurring the end of "Opus." It was, you said, a bitterness-avoidance measure. Has it gotten coarser since?
BREATHED: I've gotten pissier, and hence, my cartoons would too. No fun, those.
When you're 24, you don't see the bullshit in quite the stark relief that you do in later years. That filter of youth helps you keep having fun with self-expression. I can't see this screen without reading glasses now. But I don't need glasses to see the strings yanking on events now. Anger is usually a poor lubricant for mirth. The kind that doesn't tear up the ground behind it, anyway.
RUSSELL: Ever feel the urge to call Garry Trudeau and finally make the peace? Your statements in recent interviews almost feel like ramp-ups to this act.
BREATHED: Good ol' Garry. Ever see the interviews with Elizabeth Edwards where she's asked about Rielle Hunter and she can't get herself to actually say Hunter's name? Calls her "that woman"?
He's sorta like that with me. Come to think of it, I'm sorta like Rielle. I just want all of us to be a big happy family even while I hold his fat homely bastard love child that looks like a penguin.
RUSSELL: What was the final straw with "Opus"? The blowback with the Lola Granola-converts-to-Islam strip? (I can't believe you could have Mary Kay declare a bloody fatwa on Opus twenty years ago, but have papers pull that Lola Granola strip today.)
BREATHED: I was already headed out the door when I spent an evening standing in the produce section of a Trader Joe's talking with the publisher of the Washington Post Company directing me over the phone as to how much hair should dangle down from the forehead of Steve Dallas' newly-converted Islamic girlfriend. Bo Jones -- a big, delightful, shrewd man in the tough job of sounding very, very small due to the times and pressures of a business that was wallowing in panic. It was a sad moment. But not unfunny.
I announced the final day for "Opus" within a week. An era had closed. What a good time was had, though.
RUSSELL: So you're standing in a Trader Joe's going back and forth on the phone with Bo Jones about a strand of hair on Lola Granola's head. How pissed-off are you becoming as this conversation goes on?
BREATHED: Aggravated, not angry. It'd be like getting angry at the fact that my kids are texting their lives away with the new technology. It just is. But that moment was galvanizing: time to say goodbye. The room in which you're singing is now empty except for the sound of your own echo.
The good news is that if you're willing to step through some new doors, there's always other rooms with people to serenade. Or in my case, to moon.