It was a book no larger than the annual Garfield collection of comics. It formed the basis of most of my sociopolitical knowledge of the 1980s. Its contents represented the genesis of a body of work that would earn its creator a Pulitzer Prize — only the second one awarded for work of such kind. Sometime in college, a friend of mine who stumbled across my battered and dog-eared copy held it in his hands like The Grail and offered me forty bucks for it.
I turned him down.
The book was Loose Tails, the first collection of Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County cartoons, and by the time I was offered those forty dollars, it had been out of print for years, and eBay wasn't yet common cultural currency. Even if it had been, nobody I knew was selling their copies either.
Now, thanks to the Bloom County Complete Library and its lovingly footnoted and full-sized reproductions, nobody has to.
Perhaps many of you only remember Opus the Penguin dolls, but for the kids of Generation X, Bloom County (along with The Far Side) was a sublimely subversive, hilarious and endearing cultural icon that could be experienced every morning over Pop-Tarts. It was for many of us what Walt Kelley's Pogo and, later, Doonesbury were for the Boomer Generation. Pogo said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Bloom County looked at Reagan and Mondale and said, "Don't blame me; I voted for Bill and Opus."
The grassroots cry of political resentment was at once both sincere and absurd. Bill and Opus talked more sense in four panels on a newsprint page than the people running government. On the other hand, Opus was a penguin, and Bill was a celebrity cat that had expired like John Belushi, then come back from the grave. Like the indestructible cat, the strip is finally back on the shelves.
What may seem like 1980s nostalgia is, in its new and full presentation, surprisingly timeless. For every joke like Milo Bloom running a science experiment where he feeds bunnies named after social programs to a python named after Reagan Budget Director David Stockman, there are strips that resonate today. In one from 1982, Milo faces prosecution for teaching penguin evolution in schools. The fact that Inherit the Wind was about a 1925 trial, a movie released in 1960, parodied on a comics page in 1982 and is still equally plausible today is a little depressing. The fact that Opus refers to his antagonist as, "O Balding Monkey" and suggests to a tantrum-throwing judge that he must feel like "a total ape" is simply hilarious.
Bloom County sent up both sides of the culture war with a dual acidity and tenderness that is hard to imagine encountering on the comics page today. Unless you've grown up with Doonesbury, its concerns can seem dated and generational. On the other side, Mallard Fillmore's "walk from one side of the panel to another, marry talking points with a zinger" format seems too mean-spirited and pedestrian to be trenchant.
In Bloom County, penguins can talk, and Hare Krishnas confuse them. The rabbits and groundhogs can talk, too, and they like pretending they're in a Star Trek adventure on the lap of a disabled Vietnam vet. Oliver Wendell Jones not only objects to having to answer questions as a token representative of African Americans, he also wants his mom to stop trying to make him look like Michael Jackson, because he's busy hacking the world. Michael Binkley is terrified of his anxiety closet, and his dad is terrified he going to grow up a wuss. Pre-adolescent Milo Bloom is already the voice of the press and the ultimate political fixer. All Opus wants to do is find love and his long-lost mother.
There were so many good gags and so many tender moments that I could fill up a thousand words on memory alone. It's my immense pleasure that I no longer have to. The new editions beautifully compile and elaborate on the collections people like me grew up with.
First and foremost: each volume contains hundreds of strips never before collected. Breathed was (and is) viciously critical of himself and cut tons of funny stuff from the early collections. It is now all restored. Sunday comics are finally given the full space needed to spread across the page, with flowery title drawings previously omitted. Each collection comes in a solid hardback edition designed both to withstand compulsive re-reading and also look sober and important on a shelf.
Best of all, to those who don't remember the bizarre news cycles of the day, footnotes accompany comics with dated references, explaining their relevancy. Even though it's funny on its face, it's easier to understand the greater humor in an alien Zygorthian Raider (who looks like an adorable puppy) being lauded for his "honor" by the same congressional committee investigating him for an orbital attack when you realize he's a satire on Oliver North. It's pretty funny that Opus beat a mime half to death with an olive loaf, but it's better when you know that's a riff on Bernie Goetz.
Fans of the series should be happy to re-experience old favorites and discover forgotten strips. Kids who never got to see Bloom County in the paper will enjoy encountering it for the first time. (I got a collection for a family member in his teens, and he loves them, even if he can't yet understand everything. He's in good company: that's how a lot of us experienced them at first, too.) Meanwhile, adults will be able to (re)discover a body of work tender and sweet enough that it brought people to tears when it ended and whip-smart and sharp enough to be the second comic strip to win the Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning.
Altogether, Breathed's Bloom County represents such a remarkable combination of sweet family comedy and political satire that it makes one wonder: will we ever see such an ambitious and intelligent comic strip in our newspapers again?
Who is your favorite Bloom County character?