It's not exactly the termination of "All in the Family" or the end of the Reagan era, for those who mourned those passings. But the decision by Berke Breathed to end Bloom County, one of the most popular daily comic strips in America, is both disquieting and saddening.
Breathed's new Sunday-only strip (Outland will have begun by the time you read this. The strip features one citizen of Bloom County, the ghetto waif Ronald-Ann (named, presumably without much irony, after President Reagan). God (and Breathed) willing, the strip may also bring an appearance from Opus the penguin. Or maybe not.
So far, Breathed has not committed himself to anything other than his lead character and a tone combining fantasy with urban realism. We shall see. (Incidentally, Outland will be bylined "Berkely Breathed" because Breathed claims no one knew how to pronounce Berke.)
Meanwhile, readers across the nation feel bereft. Unlike Garry Trudeau, who fulfilled a promise to return to Doonesbury after a year's sabbatical, Breathed has pronounced a death sentence on Bloom County. Far be it for a libertarian such as myself to call for a federal investigation of this dastardly deed on Berke(ly) Breathed's part, much less for a law requiring him to renew Bloom County. But one can (and I do) wish his guilty conscience might bring him an occasional sleepless night. Beyond that, what can one do other than reminisce?
Bloom County was a half-Edenic, half-insane region of some unnamed state and some decidedly schizophrenic state of mind. Human beings and animals lived in harmony—many of them in something of a boarding house, others with their families, and still others in a dandelion patch.
Milo Bloom—a small, blond, bespectacled newspaper writer—gave the strip its name and provided the leveling ingredient of normality. Binkley (perhaps Breathed's alter ego) lived with his father and spent his nights wrestling with his anxieties. These anxieties were very much real, emerging from time to time from his closet, terrifying him with, say, the prospect of President Dan Quayle.
Cutter John, consigned to a wheelchair, imagined himself a "Star Trek" explorer. A little black genius named Oliver Wendell Jones astounded his middle-class parents with his inventiveness and occasionally blew up their house. Ronald-Ann functioned as a token of what Reagan's social policies had supposedly led to: impoverishment and confusion.
And, of course, there was Steve Dallas. Steve began as an utterly amoral lawyer with the heart of a chauvinist pig, but he underwent a brain transplant and emerged as Mr. Sensitivity. Afterwards, Steve's parents (retrograde '50s types) found their values and even their language the bane of their son's existence. Mrs. Dallas still referred to blacks as "colored people," rather than Steve's preferred "people of color."
These characters and others opined on politics, products, and even other comic strips—sometimes with acid and bile, usually with verve and whimsy. On occasion, but only on occasion, an editor found Bloom County unbearable.
One notorious example was a brilliant series on animal experimentation in the cosmetics industry. Breathed has never been averse to naming names, and this series zeroed in on Mary Kay Cosmetics. This was probably dirty pool on Breathed's part, but since the piece was so intelligent and the satire so pointed, it may have actually been more informative than news coverage of the issue.
Bloom County dwelled, however, far less on this or that crusade than on ironic statements about the human condition in today's America. With Opus, the big-nosed, tremendously sensitive penguin as his object lesson, Breathed took on such yuppie crazes as liposuction and rhinoplasty. Opus's nose underwent both fat reduction and cutting; plastic surgeons were not amused, but the rest of us were. Opus the ultimate consumer, patron of all the catalogue retailers, faddist extraordinaire, served as a kind of flightless bird synecdoche for humankind in our most acquisitive and befuddled guise.
When the strip began, Opus looked very much like a real penguin, just as Mickey Mouse looked more like a rodent when Walt Disney first created him. Gradually, however, Opus put on weight, his nose grew bigger, and he came to serve as the alter ego of human beings. Opus also became the single most beloved Bloom County character, spawning a doll industry rivaling Garfield and Snoopy.
Never was anything made of the interspecies nature of the Bloom County community. The absolutely zonked-out feline Bill the Cat, an obvious shot at Garfield, ran for president with Opus as his running mate. They were more inviting than the Democratic or Republican tickets.
When Donald Trump's autobiography came out, Opus wrote his life story, which sold no copies until Milo gave it a sexy new title and filled it with wicked revelations about the nation's movers and shakers. If we lived it on the front page, we quickly relived it, with considerably more humor, on the comics page.
Bloom County joked about its own demise, assigning its characters to walk-on parts in other comic strips. Breathed sent his strip to oblivion with weeks of poignant, bittersweet, and often funny reflections on its creator's act of (May one say it?) betrayal of his readers by killing his own brainchild. We were given hints of the emptiness awaiting us and then, in the very last strip, Opus simply faded into nothingness.
Good night, sweet Opus; good night, Bloom County. May Berke(ly) Breathed know, with moments of regret, what a gem he has taken from us.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is WBZ radio's late-night talk host and a film critic in Boston.