After a 25-year absence, comic book artist Berkeley (“Berke”) Breathed restarted his famous and much-loved comic strip, Bloom County on Facebook, in 2015. Of course I was delighted, but it had me wondering: why did he stop in the first place? And why did he start again, with so many years in-between? (And even more important – is it working?)
Bloom County had earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1987. He had drawn the Bloom County characters on and off since 1980. He stopped this specific strip on August 6, 1989. He then started a Sunday-only strip called Outland, eventually including some of the Bloom County characters like “Opus” the penguin and “Bill” the cat. On November 2, 2008, Breathed stopped cartooning – period. His millions of fans went into mourning, presumably with wailing and gnashing of teeth, and crying over old, worn-out copies of his books. However, years later, in July 2015 he began resuscitating Bloom County on Facebook. (Thank God!) And in Sept. 2016, he released Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope. You should read the fan comments on Facebook and in Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope – people are truly dedicated.
Just a sucker for “Opurt”
I, of course, pounced on Bloom County Episode XI, being a hopeless Bloom County addict. I am particularly fond of the dandelion-patch-loving philosophical penguin, “Opus”, who is called “Opurt”, in one of the strips, by “Mrs. Limekiller”, a hatchet-wielding client of the lawyer “Steve Dallas”. (Yes, I realize this all sounds barmy. The trivia I carry around in my head is just not normal…sigh.) I blame this on an American I once dated, who bought me my first Bloom County book, now read to ribbons, and after that I was a Lost Cause. Imagine, I wrote Breathed a fan letter, breathless (and punctuation-less) with admiration:
“Dear Mr. Breathed, Today the mailman dropped my copy of Bloom County Episode XI on the doorstep and I just have to let you know; it is wonderful! Within the first two pages I was giggling and the laughter was curling up all the way from my toes to my nose! I’ve reread all my Bloom County books until they became ragged and I never imagined that one day there could be more. Like Harper Lee, I love the world you have created. Thank you for not letting Opus die.”
How this came about
What I guess most people won’t read in the book, being more concerned with catching up with “Opus”, “Milo”, “Cutter John” and the other people of “Bloom County”, is the Foreword.
In it, Breathed explains why – after such a long hiatus. He said that creating the strip no longer gave him any joy. Yep. Joy. It was a missing element. So he just stopped.
“It took a quarter-century, middle age, children and the traumas and triumphs of a life very, very fully lived to deliver The Fifth Element [the 2015 Bloom County series] so absolutely positively needed for a writer – but one so easily lost. Not love. That’s relegated to life itself. Art and expression needs much more. But’s it’s related.
His emphasis, not mine – “joy” is really important. What made him go back to his creations and reconsider them? What made him read the old strips again and laugh? It was a letter from a big fan of his, none other than Harper Lee, writer of To Kill a Mockingbird and the posthumous Go Set a Watchman. He thought Miss Lee’s publisher “villainous” to have published a novel that had, in fact, only consisted of partially completed notes.
“Why the silence after Mockingbird…the hushed void that her vile publisher so desperately needed to fill? What…had been off for Harper?
I mourned for Miss Lee and her vanished world. And then thought about my own. Rare, these: Worlds and characters that are more alive for one’s readers than they are for their creator. We who stumble upon them are the Blessed Ones…not so much clever as maybe just plain lucky. We shouldn’t walk away too easily.”
In 2015, he reread a letter that Lee had written him, imploring him not to end the characters that had meant so much to her:
“‘Don’t let Opus die,’ wrote Harper.”
“She, the silent and mysteriously invisible ghost of the literary world, the Great Unheard and Unspoken…had signed a letter to me – to Opus really – “Love, Harper.” She let her universe die. Yet she demanded mine to keep going. She ran out of time. I still had some.”
Sometimes fictional characters die…
Many people believe that despite the longing of generations of readers for the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird to come alive in more books, it was the wrong thing to do to publish Go Set a Watchman after Lee’s death. It threw off perceptions about exactly what sort of people “Atticus Finch” and his daughter, “Jean Louise Finch” were. You had to read the book very carefully to see that the basic sentiments are not contrary to those that Lee expressed in To Kill a Mockingbird. The publishing also smacked of greed.
The “Mockingbird” play
Now, the guano has hit the fan. The estate of Harper Lee has sued Scott Rudin, the producer of an upcoming Broadway adaptation, arguing that writer Aaron Sorkin’s script deviates too much from the novel. The lawsuit filed on Tuesday in federal court in Alabama asks a judge to resolve a contract dispute by giving the estate final say on whether Sorkin’s script departs from the spirit of the 1960 novel or alters its characters. The estate’s representative, Tonja B. Carter, alleges that the script alters several characters, including protagonist Atticus Finch, who is portrayed as being initially naive to racism – as in Go Set a Watchman. (Harper Lee estate sues over Broadway’s Mockingbird play, Thomson Reuters, March 15, 2018, rtrvd. 2018-03-16)
The Frida Kahlo dolls
A similar case resulting from people trying to get mileage out of a long-dead artist has now gone to court. The Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, has become so famous after her death that she has become a symbolic version of herself, used as the face of a seemingly endless variety of campaigns and causes. Often the way she is represented has nothing to do with the real Kahlo, and shows only the fictional persona she has become.
The toy producer, Mattel, has produced a “Frida Kahlo” doll in a series of dolls about important women. However, Kahlo’s great-niece, Mara de Anda Romeo, now claims that Mattel does not have the rights to use Kahlo’s image. Critics, including Romeo, have taken issue with the doll’s appearance, arguing that it doesn’t accurately depict Kahlo’s long, dark eyebrows nor her vibrant wardrobe. Mattel, however, is saying that they do have a right to produce the doll, and have been working with the Panama-based Frida Kahlo Corporation, whose website claims it has “the support of the Kahlo family” and “is dedicated to educating, sharing, and preserving Frida Kahlo’s art, image, and legacy.”
Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, were Communists all their lives and not very well-off at all. She disliked having to socialize with capitalists and was really an outsider artist for most of her life. It is the ultimate irony that her name is now a registered trademark and her work has been totally commercialized – even to the point of ignoring her physical disabilities and that unibrow, and running the corporation far away from her beloved Mexico. Oddly, the Frida Kahlo Corp. has its own Frida Kahlo doll for sale. I smell avarice here as well – why else would they OK the release of not one but two “lookalike” dolls? (Erika Harwood, Frida Kahlo’s Family Is Not Thrilled with Her Barbie Doll, in Vanity Fair, March 9, 2018, rtrvd. 2018-03-15)
And sometimes they don’t have to…
The case of Frida Kahlo is fan adoration mixed up with copyright and intellectual property law. So is the case of the play based on both of Harper Lee’s novels.
The successful re-start of the strip is testament to the fact that it is very good. What’s good, stays good. It will always be appreciated as such. But more importantly, by not only reanimating but reinventing his Bloom County characters, while keeping them essentially the same, Breathed escaped the almost inevitable event of his fans reinventing Opus and the gang on his behalf. He also escaped them getting it wrong, and all sorts of nasty court battles in his lifetime.
He recognized that there are literary worlds and characters that are more alive for readers than they are for their creator. He also realized that to have created such a stupendous, all-encompassing world meant that he had the responsibility to take care of it as long as he could.
Lucky for him, he got his “joy” back. Lucky for us readers too. Bloom County is alive and well and as charming, smart, funny and heart-warmingly sane and weird as it has ever been.
PS: If you let them live, do it right
The same goes for any writer with a loyal fan base, in any genre; J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, for instance. Imagine, she has just done the unthinkable of letting wizards and witches apparate onto Hogwarts grounds! Impossible! Fans picked it up from the trailer of the film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. And there is outrage aplenty.
Fan loyalty has no limits
This is what happens when book fans lose their marbles; I wrote Berke Breathed a poem. Believe me, it ain’t no work of art, but then, if Berke Breathed has a weakness it is in the rhyming of the songs his characters sing, and the poetry they sprout.
Poem for the Berke and the Bloom
In far way South Africa
When I was young and jaunty,
I was one of the very few
Who knew what was “Bloom County”.
I loved my friends “Opus” and “Steve”
Even “Milquetoast”, the night whisperer
(It never felt quite right after that
To be a cockroach squisherer.)
The wit, and charm and oddity
Made every strip quite magical.
A fan for life, I loved your books
A long way back, and always will.
[“Milquetoast” is a cockroach who wears a top-hat and whispers his requests for food into people’s ears as they sleep.]