My heart leaped Monday when the New York Times reported that Berkeley Breathed would be reviving his comic strip Bloom County on his Facebook page. “Deadlines and dead-tree media took the fun out of a daily craft that was only meant to be fun,” Breathed told the Times via email. “I had planned to return to Bloom County in 2001, but the sullied air sucked the oxygen from 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. Trump’s merely a sparkling symptom of a renewed national ridiculousness. We’re back baby.” Oop! Ack! Great news! Or, actually... is it?
I got all flustered and excited, and thought of all the years I’d spent worshipping that strip, the books I bought, read, re-read, memorized. I still have the “U Stink (But I Love U)” flexidisc by Billy and the Boingers. Then I read the new strips. Then I calmed down. Of course it takes time for a comic strip to find its rhythm and momentum and if anyone has earned a little B.O.D. it's Breathed. But extrapolating from these first three installments, I can't help wondering whether maybe Bloom County was so about the ‘80s that it never should have left them.
Of course I'm still glad of a chance to see what Breathed is on about. I doubt I’m the only one here who has fond memories of Bloom County, one of a very few comic strips in daily newspapers that revealed any sense of a liberal, or even moderately contemporary consciousness. The Far Side was more purely absurdist and Calvin and Hobbes was more transcendentally beautiful, but after Doonesbury (which it blatantly resembled and for many years surpassed), Bloom County was the premier source of social/cultural critique in the funny papers—which it also critiqued; Bill the Cat was a gross-out parody of Garfield’s merchandising mania, and Opus the Penguin was meant as a sort of existentialist spin on comic strip protagonists—during the Reagan era. When Breathed retired the strip in 1989 (replacing it with the conceptually distinct, ultimately indistinguishable, yet massively inferior Outland for reasons passing understanding), it marked the end of something very dear to those of us whose little sensibilities it helped shape. (I might not have understood exactly who U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was when she was implicated in a sex scandal with Bill the Cat, but the parody made it seem worth finding out.)
But the ‘90s came in hard and the collective comedic sensibility morphed immediately into the assumption of bemused skepticism. Breathed’s critique of comics culture was to make characters that would be impossible to turn into dolls. Then the world bought zillions of those dolls. The irony such a disparity illustrated—how little even the most jaded liberal artist type understood about consumerism’s appetite and its effect on every level of culture—was the inciting incident of ‘90s pop culture. And though Bloom County hastened that change, I don’t know if the strip ever found a way to keep pace with it.
Maybe now that we appear to have re-entered an age of piety, cant, and psychotic superciliousness, the time will be ripe for the return of Opus, Bill the Cat, Steve Dallas, Binkley, Cutter John, et al.—representatives of a time when you didn’t have to say anything too off-the-wall in order to be the good kind of shocking.
The good kind of shocking would be a welcome change.