Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume One: 1980-1982 by Berkley Breathed

The erstwhile "Berke" Breathed, who at some point in the last two decades learned what a "berk" was in British slang and decided to extend his professional name, presents one of the most interesting and stark success stories in the history of modern American strip comics: he lept to fame with Bloom County, almost from the moment it launched in 1980. [1] And then he ended that strip in mid-1989 (cementing its role as the quintessentially '80s strip, for anyone with an axe to grind about that decade), partly for creative reasons and partly for overwork issues, to work on a spin-off, Outland, that never had the wide appeal or impact of its parent, even as it got more Bloom County-ish as it went along.

Every other major strip cartoonist before Breathed had a different reaction to success, creative unrest, and pressures of work: they all corporatized, bringing on gagmen and inkers and ghost pencilers to one degree or another, from the light end of G.B. Trudeau's Doonesbury (inked by Don Carlton) to the high end of Jim Davis's Paws, Inc. Garfield empire. But Breathed wanted to do it all all himself, and, if he couldn't, he didn't want anyone else to do do anything. So Bloom County remains entirely a product of the '80s and of Breathed's youth: exuberant, frenzied, full of more ideas and gags than it quite knows what to do with.

Last May, I reviewed the second volume of this reprint series -- there are now five matching volumes, collecting the entire run, all handsome hardcover as part of IDW's excellent Library of American Comics -- and nearly all of what I wrote then applies to Volume 1: 1980-1982, and possibly even more so. This book collects the very early days of the strip, as it was still feeling its way and Breathed was deciding what made it different from his college strip Academia Waltz (and how he could, conversely, continue elements of that strip into something carried in millions of newspapers every morning). Even more importantly -- and as Breathed mentions, bluntly, in some of his too-few marginal comments [2] -- he was figuring out what this strip was about: who were the main characters, what was its tone, what were the major themes and ideas, what of all the possible things to write about would this strip focus on.

So this book sees a strip that begins in a boarding-house, without a penguin to be seen -- though there is a talking dog, appearing briefly -- and its central characters are Milo Bloom (with much of the introspection and neuroses that would soon be sloughed off onto Binkley, once he existed), his grandfather the Major, and a succession of other oddballs, as Breathed casts about for the characters and situations he can build his mature strip on. Over the course of the next two years, Binkley appears and quickly solidifies, as does his father, and then Opus the penguin -- and, along the way so do Bobbi Harlow, Cutter John, Senator Bedfellow, the Meadow animals, and Steve Dallas, each one slotting into a need as Breathed realized they existed. At the same time, Milo is seen less and less at the boarding house (which quietly disappears, or is left unmentioned), and the Major drops into a rare supporting role and Milo shifts from an innocent to a rabble-rouser, relinquishing the center of the strip to Binkley and Opus and their shared neuroses.

I read the first two Bloom County volumes in reverse order by accident, but it's not a bad strategy: knowing where Bloom County would eventually end up makes the early days that much more interesting. And even the quickly discarded ideas and storytelling cul-de-sacs in this volume point the way clearly towards the strip Breathed was building, and that came together by the end of this book, in the fall of 1982. Bloom County is one of the great American comic strips, and its compact size -- one creator, one decade, five volumes -- makes is that much easier to comprehend and encompass.

[1] It felt that way from the outside, at least; from his comments in this book, I'm sure Breathed didn't feel like an immediate success. Does anyone?

[2] Bloom County is intensely entertaining on its own, but it's fun in such a deeply angled, oddball way that the reader -- especially three decades later -- can't help but wonder how Breathed ended up with that very peculiar, and gleefully anarchic, angle of attack of the issues of the day. If there's one thing these books could use more of, it's Breathed's voice and thoughts about how it came about, what worked well (and what didn't), and why he did it the way he did. The strictly factual notes are just fine, and sometimes deeply necessary, but Breathed's insights and thoughts are vastly better.

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