Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Complete Bloom County Library, Volume Two: 1982-1984 by Berkley Breathed

The current explosion of comic-strip reprints has not been primarily driven by nostalgia, unlike the previous bursts -- there's no substantial audience that remembers Gasoline Alley from the 1920s or Popeye from the '30s, and even the Peanuts fans don't, for the most part, have personal memories of reading the strip in the mid-'50s. No, strip comics have finally grown up to the point of being like any other part of our cultural heritage: the interesting stuff is pulled out and lovingly repackaged every generation or two, like the complete works of Robert Johnson or The Castle of Otranto.

But that doesn't mean that nostalgia has no part to play, or that some strip reprint projects don't strike stronger chords with some audiences than others. Anything from the last three decades -- such as the gigantic slipcased reprints of The Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes -- are selling, I'd guess, primarily to people who remember those works rather than to those discovering them for the first time. And, since strip cartoons were ephemeral until the last decade or so -- appearing in the newspaper one day, wrapping fish the next, and then possibly appearing in books that were themselves pretty disposable a year or five later -- returning to those cartoons returns the reader to that time, and those concerns, and that life. For strips that exist in their own worlds, like Far Side and Calvin, it's a soft-focus return, not too tied to anything specific. But for strips that had strong storylines, and particularly those that commented on issues of their time, the reader is reminded, over and over, that 1982 was a very specific time, and that it hasn't been 1982 for a long time.

Bloom County isn't remembered as a particularly timely strip -- it's mostly remembered for its madcap energy and its impressive array of broad characters -- but it was deeply steeped in the daily foibles of its '80s run. Creator Berkeley Breathed knows that well; it's why he'd been hesitant to allow the strip to be reprinted in any serious way for many years, and his occasional annotations in Volume Two, which collects all of the Bloom County strips from 9/27/82 to 7/1/84, mostly signpost the "you had to be there moments," the bits of '80s culture that were hilarious then but are nearly incomprehensible now.

Some of those are political references -- Edwin Meese, James Watt, and other minor oddballs of the Reagan years -- but more are just topical, as characters obsess about the Oscars or Liz Taylor's love life (or that of Lee Majors, an topic no one has cared about since the mid-80s). All of this is thrown out with the live-wire energy of Bloom County, a strip that rarely ran a single continuity longer than a week and tossed out new ideas every other day -- so the references become like streetcars, whizzing past, and if you catch one every once in a while, it's all fine.

Bloom County probably was too wacky, too manic to continue at that high pitch for too long, but Breathed kept finding new things to be manic about, even as the strip rolled through its third and fourth years. It's not quite a rampaging id -- Breathed kept it all under control -- but Bloom County at is best always had a sense of free-association, as if it were the comic-strip equivalent of Robin Williams's stand-up routine from the same era, firing off new riffs on topics as soon as they came to mind.

If you never read Bloom County, you have a treat in store for you. The comics page was shrinking back then, as it is now, but a strip was still big enough for Breathed to fill the corners with his quirky characters, their off-kilter dialogue, and plenty of visual appeal. And it'll make you laugh about things that you probably don't remember -- either because you weren't there at all (you whipper-snappers!) or because you've utterly forgotten that there was ever a public figure named "Phyllis Schlafly."

1 comment:

James Davis Nicoll said...

or because you've utterly forgotten that there was ever a public figure named "Phyllis Schlafly."

She's still active, you know.

She also helped give the world that endless font of hilarity known as Conservapedia by giving birth to its founder Andrew Schlafly and presumably helping to shape his entertaining world-view.

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