Saturday, October 18, 2008

Magnum Opus

Kerry Lauerman at interviews Berkeley Breathed about the upcoming demise of his Sunday comic strip Opus, starring the penguin that was one of the delights of his Pulitzer Prize-winning strip Bloom County (1980-89). Breathed claims that the coarsening of the National Discourse is his motivation behind closing down the strip:

You've said that you're ending "Opus" because you believe "We are about to enter a rather wicked period in our National Discourse," and that it will make keeping the successful tone of the strip impossible. Why do you think that things will get worse -- especially after the acrimony of the past eight years?

We're not a movie. In most aspects, there's no arc to the human story. Only a line heading upward. For nearly everything. In this case, the coarsening of the National Discourse. We aren't returning someday to any sort of golden era of political civility. The line heads heavenward and has been since the Republic started. And with the intersection of two rather dramatic dynamics -- the cable and Web technology allowing All Snark All the Time ... and the political realities of No More Free Lunch in America, it will spike in the coming years like Don Draper's sex life, and I hereby pledge that that's the last pop reference I use.

Look, let’s be honest here—Opus has never been all that damn funny, and I think Breathed has finally come to that conclusion. Bloom County was one of the best comic strips in the history of the medium; a free-wheeling slaughter of sacred cows as seen through the eyes of a bucolic community full of archetypes with which we could all recognize and identify. At the time of its popularity, many compared it to G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury—which wasn’t really fair, because Trudeau’s strip was penned with a razor-sharp lancelet as opposed to Breathed’s blunter instrument. The problems with County erupted when several of the characters, chiefly among them Opus and Bill the Cat, took on a popularity of their own and Berke became convinced that a strip based solely on them would surpass County’s success—and this led him to create Outland (1989-95), a WTF, toothless outing that tried to be a paean to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat…only without the humor.

And that’s pretty much been the problem with Opus since it bounced back on the Sunday pages in 2003; Breathed’s continued obsession to copy classic (and better) comic strips (in Opus’ case, Peanuts) falls flat because he refuses to be himself. All he really needs to do is swallow his pride and return to the glory days of Bloom (while cutting back on the Opus and Bill appearances). He tacitly admits this in the interview when he says "Bloom County had five times the edge of the work I do now.”

Breathed also mentions a notorious County strip in 1986 in which a cockroach screams in the last panel “Reagan sucks!” (My own recollection is that it was “Puck,” the penguin mascot from Pat Oliphant’s political cartoons, but perhaps there were two instances of this occurring.) “Nobody blinked -- 1,000 newspapers, quiet as a mouse,” he recollects as he compares it to the outrage he received for this cartoon. I have a TL for Berke: the Savannah News-Press ran the “Reagan sucks” strip but whited out the punch line; when I complained to the editor about this he expressly told me “That kind of language does not belong in a family newspaper.” So let’s adjust that figure to 999.

So while I wish Breathed good luck in his future endeavors, I can’t say I’ll miss Opus too much. The classic, funnier Opus still appears in Bloom County reruns (available at and like so many other things on the blog, is always worth wading through for nostalgia’s sake.

Correction: As Jym Dyer helpfully pointed out, I got the name of Pat Oliphant's cartoon penguin wrong (serves me right for not being more diligent in my research) so I made the necessary adjustment. Thrilling Days of Yesteryear regrets the error.


Toby said...

My favorite bit from the original Bloom County was when the kid kept pestering the Senator for his hidden secrets. And he declared that he found a hand in the pond with a teamster ring on it. While the Senator protested that it was just a frog, the kid wrote "Slowly this reporter recoiled in horror."

Linda said...

"Opus" wasn't funny from Day One.

Jym said...

=v= Oliphant's penguin is named Puck (not Punk). Breathed's parody penguin was named Ollie Funt.

goooooood girl said...

Very good......

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...


Thanks for providing the correction on that (I thought "Punk" sounded a bit odd and obviously I didn't go back to change it).

Anonymous said...

what the hell he should go out with a bang and make a strip that like an older strip about reagan but with bush and it would say FUCK BUSH!!!