Opus 55:

Breathed Speaks. Two guerrilla Internet cartoonists, Chris Jackson and Scott Kurtz, unearthed Berk Breathed’s phone number earlier this year and rang him up. Astonishingly, the fugitive creator of Bloom County and Outland agreed to be interviewed (on the condition that the two brigands don’t divulge his phone number to anyone). The results were posted on February 19 in two parts, one to each of the cartoonists’ sites (www.in2itonline.com/ for Jackson; www.pvponline.com/ for Kurtz). And then I came along and culled the parts I liked best to present herewith (but you can visit the actual Q&A interview sites by clicking on the appropriate URL in the foregoing sentence.)

Breathed has been writing children’s books since abandoning the funnies—five so far, at least two of which have been published: Red Ranger Came Calling: A Guaranteed True Christmas Story, and the more recent Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big among them. And he’s also been dabbling in movies and tv, writing and directing. But nothing out front yet.

Asked what he thinks of newspaper comic strips these days, Breathed confessed he never reads the funnies, never has—not even his own once they left his studio. The exception, Doonesbury, which he read during his college years and was so inspired as to launch what many regard as an imitation. And when Bloom County started, Garry Trudeau wrote Breathed a letter tweaking him about the similarities between the two strips. Asked if he and Trudeau ever made peace, Breathed said:

"He wouldn’t meet with me many years ago when we were at a conference together. Painful at the time. But I can’t blame him. I built heavily on his style, inadvertently lifted a handful of his specific gags the first year (very embarrassing) and then won a Pulitzer Prize [like Trudeau did]. He has license to be fairly unimpressed with my rather glib response to his initial objections [to Bloom County]. He is, by the way, the best social satirist of the second half of this century."

At the time he quit cartooning, Breathed explained that he wanted to escape before he’d exhausted his material and his approach. But there were clearly other influential factors:

"A secret," he confesses, "—it always came hard, the deadlines were deadly for me rather than a weekly joyful encounter. And I always felt as if I should be telling stories differently. Also, the strip encouraged my cynicism (most humor is cynical by its very nature), and I wanted to—sorry I have to say this—find more positive storytelling. Negative humor is forgotten immediately. It’s the stuff that makes us feel better about our lives that lives long. Much more satisfying. Enter, children’s books."

Asked if he misses doing the strip, Breathed said:

"If the world still read the comics page—and if strips weren’t the size of two-cent stamps—I would still do it. But their days as a topic of national conversation are over, I fear. There are a great many more distractions of a more visceral nature to compete with. Too small, too quiet."

And the Internet holds no great attraction for him. At present, he doesn’t even have a website.

Acknowledging that strips on the Net get better display, he is still not enthusiastic: "As the disciples of Net entertainment are finding out, they can’t compete with the audiences we used to have [as syndicated cartoonists]. I had a daily readership of 50 to 70 million around the world. It’s a different world [today]. I can’t get excited about the fragmentation. More voices are not necessarily better than fewer."

Except for the first year of Bloom County, all of that opus is available in the reprint books, he revealed. He also confessed that he ignores "Hallmark Holidays," the ones that promote greeting card sales.

"And this," he admitted, "from a guy who has sold a million Opus greeting cards. This is the sort of sell-out that makes Bill Watterson break out in hives."

There’s not much about Breathed in my book, The Art of the Funnies; but Breathed’s inspiration, Doonesbury, gets a couple pages. For more about the book, click here.

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