Opus Returns as Bloom County gets Breathed Back to Life

in Fiction by

Oh, Internet—is there anything you can’t do? You let me chat with my friends when I’m supposed to be working, you help me keep track of baseball games that are being played simultaneously across the country—and now this.

You’ve made it possible for Bloom County to return.

Social media flew into an absolute tizzy last week when Berkeley Breathed breathed new life into the Pulitzer Prize-winning, 80s-era comic strip, posting the first panels of Bloom County 2015 on his Facebook page. In the strip, Opus the penguin woke from a 25-year-long nap, only to find that not only had he gone through puberty while he slumbered, but that millions of fans were rejoicing in his return.

“And suddenly, the world is in alignment again,” wrote one follower. “Thank you, Sir.”

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Bloom County, along with Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Gary Larson’s The Far Side, were part of a 1980s comic-strip renaissance, when the childhood habit of jumping straight to a newspaper’s comics section became a passion once again for grown-ups. Breathed’s comic was housed the likes of Opus, Bill the Cat, Steve Dallas, Milo, Oliver Wendell Jones, Ronald-Ann Smith, and a host of characters who reveled in the weird and the wacky world of American culture and politics.

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The strip debuted in 1980, won the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning in 1987, and then closed shop in 1989. “Deadlines and dead-tree media took the fun out of a craft that was only meant to be fun,” Breathed told the New York Times. “I had planned to return to Bloom County in 2001, but the sullied air sucked the oxygen out of my kind of whimsy; Bush and Cheney’s fake war dropped it for a decade like a bullet to the head.

“But silliness suddenly seems safe now,” he added. “[Donald] Trump’s merely a sparkling symptom of a renewed national ridiculousness.”

Moneyed windbag Trump, now making headlines by badmouthing Senator John McCain for his seeming ineptitude in being captured during the Vietnam War, was a frequent target of Breathed’s sharpened pen during Bloom County’s original run. Was Trump’s entry into the presidential race part of Breathed’s decision to revive the strip? “This creator can’t precisely deny that the chap you mention had nothing to do with it,” Breathed wrote to an inquiring reader.

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Posting the new strip on Facebook gives Breathed an independence that he wasn’t able to enjoy in Bloom County’s original run. “The option of self-publishing allows for the freedom to keep it fun, which it can’t stray from—or forget,” he told the Washington Post. “Dead-tree media requires constancy and deadlines and guarantees. This flattens the joy. It also presents a huge income. It’s an interesting trade-off, isn’t it?”

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Cartoonist Berkeley Breathed

After shutting down Bloom County, Breathed continued cartooning with the Sunday-only strips Outland (1989-1995) and Opus (2003-2008), but an editorial dispute led him to leave cartooning altogether in 2008. Bloom County 2015 is “nicely out of reach of nervous newspaper editors, the PC humor police now rampant across the web…and ISIS,” he told NPR.

How did Breathed react to the outburst of joy following Bloom County’s return? “Honestly, I was unprepared for it,” he told the Post. “It calls for a bit of introspection about how characters can work with readers and how they’re now absent as a unifying element with a society.

“There is no media that will allow for a Charlie Brown or a Snoopy to become a universal and shared joy each morning at the same moment across the country,” he said. “Maybe the rather marked response to my character’s return is a reflection of that loss—a last gasp of a passing era.”

Generations ago, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia united his city when, during a newspaper delivery strike, he took to the radio and read Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie to his constituents. Today, in the waning days of both newspapers and radio, a flightless penguin wearing tighty-whities on the Internet serves as a reminder of the power that still exists in the four-panel strip—how it can underscore our social foibles, skewer those in power and simply make us smile.

Opus, we’ve missed you.

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Recommended reading:

Berkeley Breathed’s Academia Waltz and Other Profound Transgressions by Berkeley Breathed (IDW Publishing, 2015)

coverBefore Bloom County, Berkeley Breathed was a University of Texas student and a contributor to the Daily Texan newspaper, for whom he wrote and illustrated the comic strip The Academia Waltz. Featured in that strip were Steve Dallas and many of the other characters who would go on to inhabit Bloom County. Now, for the first time, comes the complete (“We think!” says the publisher) run of The Academia Waltz, where readers can see the early days of the creator of one of the most famous and beloved comic strips ever published.

Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.