A few weeks ago Berke Breathed stopped doing his comic strip Opus. So this means from now on we won’t be seeing the wonderful penguin that Berke Breathed created almost 30 years ago in his comic strip Bloom County and continued in his subsequent strips Outland and Opus. It’s a loss for comic fans, as Opus was one of the funniest comic creations to ever grace the newspaper page. And it has been one of the most humorous commentators on the cultural and political landscape of America, continuing a tradition of social commentary in comic strips that includes Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Al Capp’s Lil Abner, and Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury.
Berke Breathed first began his career as a part time political cartoonist for the Austin American-Statesman. While he was a student of the University of Texas, he did a comic strip called The Academia Waltz for their school newspaper the Daily Texan, and the characters of Steve Dallas and Cutter John were born. The Washington Post picked up Breathed’s strip and on December 1, 1980, Bloom County debuted in the local newspapers. Though in the beginning, the strip was heavily influenced by Gary Trudeau’s comic Doonesbury, it eventually evolved into it’s own style, and in 1987 Bloom County won a Pulitzer Prize for Best Editorial Cartooning. Bloom County eventually ran in 1,200 newspapers until it retired in 1989. This comic was replace by Outland and it retained Opus the penguin and Bill the Cat, until Outland retired in 1995. In 2003 Breathed created the comic Opus, once again starring his cartoon penguin. You can learn more about Berke Breathed in http://www.berkeleybreathed.com/pages/About.asp.
In whatever strip Opus was in, this funny penguin had a penchant for making silly comments about pop culture and politics. Opus indulged in gentle satire and not hard hitting political commentary, and this caused some controversy among editorial cartoonists when Bloom County won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Pat Oliphant, one of the great editorial cartoonists in our time, said of Bloom County‘s prize,
“From now on, the quickest ticket to winning a Pulitzer is to be light, be funny, be vacuous, be inane, take it easy. Don’t offend anybody or any institution, don’t take a stand.”
I always thought that it was an unfair criticism, as Bloom County never pretended to be a hard hitting satire. And I always wonder, what’s so bad about gentle satire? In the October 1988 issue of the Comics Journal, Berke Breathed talked in an interview about his philosophy about political subject matter in comic strips:
“One of the things I find dismaying about being a conventional political cartoonist- I don’t want to be that critical all the time. I mean, I’m normally a pretty happy guy, and I’m not that preoccupied with, really the transient nature of politics. Things that we’re so concerned about today that I’ll be drawing a cartoon about, no one could care less about next week. And those aren’t the things that I’d want to write about. But that’s your job as a political cartoonist: to write to the moment… These things seemed so important at the time, but the issues that really stay with you are just a few every year. The ones that stick to the bones, as I say, are few… Oh, when I finally come across something… there’s no way to really stretch and call Bloom County a political strip, even occassionally. Pure politics rarely get into the strip. Sometimes I make suble digs at Bush, maybe not so subtle digs at other politicians I think are acting silly. But those are easy… It’s the other commentary, it’s the other editorializing. I think social commentary is just as editorial. There’s nothing political about the word ‘editorial’. That’s what Al Capp did so well, as well as political cartooning. Pogo and others. It’s a commentary on the mores of the times. I think they are the things that people do remember and are more personally affected by than an of the crap that’s going on in Washington D.C. And that’s fun to comment on. it seems to be what strikes people much more personally than anything political.”
I was a big fan of Bloom County when I was young and what I loved about it was its sheer silliness. It seemed more like Mad Magazine or the Marx Brothers in the sense that it made fun of everything. I have to admit that I didn’t read Outland or Opus as much, but when I did read them, Opus still made me smile.
Berke Breathed decided to stop doing Opus because of the declining readership in newspapers and the increasingly hostile tone of the political landscape. Amy Lago, the comics editor of the Washington Post Writers Group, noted that in it’s heyday, Bloom County appeared in over 2,500 newspapers while today Opus is in just under 200 newspapers. In a Regan McMahon article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Breathed commented on the worsening political climate:
“People are angry and frightened, and teh things that they’re saying are only going to get worse, because the problems are going to get worse. The election will not stop it. And I don’t want opus to succumb to it. I’m wanting to kill the penguin in order to save it. Although I’m not killing him. He’s becoming part of the ages.”
Though I haven’t read much of Opus lately, I’ll be sad to see Opus go. I’ll take some time to look at the web to catch up on past Opus comics that I haven’t read, and hopefully smile and laugh at politics from the eyes of a penguin.