Four Color Philosophy: Back to the Boarding House with Bloom County

NOTE: The following was originally written on 4/17/10 under "kakapotrainer" for my That Guy with the Glasses blog.  Since it addresses what I feel is the finest comic strip of my lifetime, I am reposting it here.

As a fan of the comic medium, I'm quite fond of comic strips of all stripes. While this field is in largely sad shape (with only a few I actively read because they're good but most read just to mock them a la "The Comics Curmudgeon"), there thankfully are reprints always available from various sources. Having gotten The Complete Bloom County V.1 as a Christmas gift, I was reminded how awesome my all-time favorite comic straip was in its heyday.

I was also reminded of the dangers of going back to the well.

As much as some people might lament the loss of strips like Calvin & Hobbes or The Far Side, their creators deserve a lot of credit. They knew when to quit, then knew not to let lesser hands handle them after their retirment, and they would not allow endless, constant reruns to foster audience weariness. Their short lifespans have assured that they'll always be remembered for being fresh and enjoyable (even if they have dated references), all because their creators stopped doing them before they lost that sense of freshness and enjoying their own work.

When looking back at Bloom County, the work is still Berke Breathed in his "fresh" stage, despite the strip's focus on then-current events. (In fact, I find a strange sort of time capsule-like value in that aspect.) The art evolved from blobbly to stylized, and the strips never got so preachy that the message killed any humor. The ensemble cast was well balanced even with a larger focus on Opus, Bill, and Milo. For the vast majority of its life, Bloom County was pretty brilliant.

Its Sunday-only sequel Outland started out promisingly with a surreal, somewhat Herriman-esque setting and a mostly new cast. The 1-day-a-week format seemed to suggest it would not be as "set" as Bloom County was, and early strips (like one that still sticks in my mind, with a farm where you can club a fat hairy guy to death to make a "fur" coat from his pelt) continued to adeptly mix humor and commentary.

A lot of people site the addition of Opus & Bill to Outland (which happened along with the loss of the surreal setting) as when it started to falter, but I don't think its decline is that easy to demark. It just sort of... happened. One week it was funny, and the next it was neo-Luddite whining about the Internet, whining about why female cartoon characters supposedly can't be funny, whining about poor Hollywood adaptations, and so forth. Then other minor Bloom County characters and ones that had been randomly dropped in the earliest days of Outland started to reappear equally as randomly, all feeling a bit "off" as far as their characterization. I wasn't entirely sad to see it end.

Personally, I never got a chance to read Opus, as none of my local papers would carry it, and Breathed was very odd about online distribution. From what others have said, along with Breathed's sudden case of "I alone can save the funny pages" pomposity in interviews about the strip, it mostly seemed to continue down the same path as the last waning years of Outland. My only real experience with it was charity fundraiser/publicity stunt/overdramatic curtain call with the last strip, which I found ethically questionable. Good cause or no, you shouldn't charge newspaper readers to see the real ending online - especially after you'd been so hostile to online distribution during the strip's brief life. I think Breathed began to buy his own hype about this return, and that alone is always poisonous.

Someone on "The Comics Curmudgeon" proposed that Breathed's decision to only run the two sequel stories on Sundays was the root cause of their downfall, comparing it to being given a dessert without any dinner. Whoever said this, I feel, was right on the money. Breathed said in interviews that he did Outland and Opus as Sunday-only strips because he had grown tired of the daily strip grind. That grind, however, was what kept his Bloom County work so fresh - he had to rotate the characters more adeptly, give them all proper focus, and tell stories about more than whatever gripe or news story was bothering him that day. If he couldn't do a daily strip, he should've stayed retired, taking a cue from Watterson and Larson, but I'll never be able to pin down why he thought he could come back.
Should Outland and Opus have been daily strips? Would they have worked better? Honestly, no. Given the deterioration we saw with his once-a-week series, I think Breathed would've burnt out even faster and been even more oblivious about it. Then he'd be in the same sad boat as countless other comic strip creators, either the originators or their legacies, on the funny pages that are squandering what gifts they once had. Whatever mistakes he made, he still deserves not to suffer that fate.

Bloom County can easily stand on its own merits and, luckily, its sequels aren't so close to it (time-wise or tonally) as to damage it. It's very 80s, it's very silly, it's occassionally very preachy, but it will also always be very, very good.


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