Dandelions, Whimsy, and Barfing Cats: Reasons to Look Forward to the Return of ‘Bloom County’
I don’t really remember the first time I came across a Bloom County comic strip. The Pulitzer Prize–winning Berkeley Breathed creation only ran from 1980 until 1989, when I was all of two years old, so I couldn’t have seen it in the newspaper. That means I found it initially in the shelves of comic collections scattered around my dad’s house, among the Peanuts and Dilbert and Doonesbury and Sherman’s Lagoon and Calvin and Hobbes books. I still have a memory of looking at the cover of Bloom County Babylon, a massive paperback adorned with a glossy image of Opus the Penguin gazing lidded-eyed out at the reader while an anonymous female hand strokes his (awfully phallic) nose. Oh, and he’s holding a cane topped with a gold Bill the Cat head, complete with bugged-out eyes and extended tongue.
It was a weird image with which to sell a bunch of comic strips: surreal, impenetrable, almost sexy. To my ten-year-old brain,
stood out among all the strips I devoured for being alluringly adult. It was populated with the usual comics-page assortment of talking animals and precocious children, but these
characters were more carefully drawn—in every sense—than most. They also drank, made risqué cracks about sex and drugs and guns, and tossed political references that were utterly, utterly incomprehensible to a pre-teen in the Clinton era. I mean, how was I supposed to decipher this “Louie Louie” parody?
These memories are bubbling up in the wake of today’s news that Bloom County is back—an announcement Breathed made on Facebook that immediately made fans’ hearts go “ACKKKK THMMPPP!” in anticipation. Some of those fans are probably like me in that they’re too young to remember the strip’s original run, and not many really liked Breathed’s Sunday-only sequels Outland and Opus all that much. So what gives? Why
are we still excited about new Bloom County strips?
It’s still hard for me to put my finger on why the strip drew me in like few others. Maybe its oblique Caspar Weinberger references made it seem like it contained forbidden knowledge. Maybe I appreciated the way Breathed imbued all his characters—from soused politicians to naïve penguins, to pathetic, womanizing lawyers—with the charm of caricature; that is, his drawings are funny even if you can’t parse the dialogue about “gams” and the Iran-Contra scandal and Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Whatever the initial appeal, as I returned back to Bloom County over the years (in much the way you might return to a real place), I picked up more of the jokes—like this one about college campuses being “hotbeds of liberalism”—and came to appreciate what might be called its worldview. Broadly speaking, a lot of Bloom County is political satire: The strip ended when Bill the Cat got Donald Trump’s brain and fired all the other characters; one of its most famous storylines involves Bill running for president despite being a constantly barfing, inarticulate, amoral drug addict. Then there’s what’s probably the most famous Bloom County weekday strip, where a salt-of-the-earth small-time farmer informs a smarmy politician that his crop “tain’t corn. It’s dope.” By the standards of the comics page, it’s a fairly cynical, edgy joke, but there’s also something sweetly innocent about the farmer offering his wares with a smile.
That was the miracle of Bloom County: Like all good satires it peeled away a layer from public life to show how stupid and vicious people could be. But then, instead of leaving you with a sneer or a sermon (ala late-period Doonesbury), the strip somehow became a celebration of life’s simpler, sillier joys, like diving into a bunch of dandelions. Politics is a business with nasty means and nastier ends,and Bloom County reacted to it not with outrage but with a kind of sleepy, absurdist grin. Who else but Breathed would come up with a penguin declaring his love for “long, warm sloppy kisses” to a Congressional committee, then getting slapped (literally) with a “liberal” label and tossed into the street?
Despite regularly targeting the Moral Majority and Reagan, Bloom County avoided curdling into clichéd left-wing outrage or lazy, editorial cartoon–style point-scoring. Breathed mocked hard rock just as he mocked the people like Tipper Gore who hated it, and he seemed to treat all religions with equal unseriousness—witness his strip about a money-demanding Hare Krishna, or the controversial Opus storyline where a ditzy character converts to “radical Islam.” Just about the only demographic left unmocked are innocent flightless waterfowl.
On i-D: Checking in with Daniel Clowes
The Breathed characters who aren’t comically inept shitheads have a always-look-on-the-bright-side sweetness to them that falls just sort of being corny. Bloom County is actually pretty sweet most of the time, a work aimed at cynics who secretly have gooey centers, for people who roll their eyes at most Americana but still hold visions of stereotypically bucolic meadows in their hearts.
That might be why fans are excited for a revival, whether it comes out in newspapers or as a
webcomic: Outrage and cynicism are both cheap and monetizable these days, but whimsy of the sort Breathed produces is in short supply. There are plenty of places to go to find out about the outrageous atrocities being committed around the world, but a new Bloom County, even if it were a shadow of the old one, would be a place where you could take a deep breath and think about how silly everything is.
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