Berkeley Breathed, the creator of Bloom County, wowed the packed audience Saturday afternoon at the Long Beach Comic Con, with his first ever comic con presentation. Rarely seen at any venue, Breathed was on hand to promote the first volume of “The Bloom County Library” collection from IDW Publishing and made ample use of exclusive or rarely seen slides and footage. Calmly and professionally, he made his way through his “source of inspiration” theme.
“Um, so this is a comic con? Cool. You know, I haven’t been to one before. I didn’t know what they were, I didn’t know what people showed, I didn’t know what people talked about. So I asked Scott, my editor, what do you think I should do? ‘Show some slides, show your old favorite slides to them.’ So I thought about that. It didn’t make much sense, but I do what my editor says…so here are some of my old favorite slides!” Breathed said as he presented numerous pictures of playground slides, to laughter from the audience.
“And making this, it made me think of where the source of ideas come from,” Breathed said, as he explained this was not his original joke, but one he borrowed from a famous author, who perhaps also borrowed it from someone else.
“I love now looking back on where ideas came from, both my ideas and [the] ideas of others. If I came to hear someone speak, someone who is creative for a living, I would like to hear about the process, where they thought of that idea…I thought I’d go back in my career and show you some of the ideas I’ve had…where did some of these things come from?”
In order to discuss when he first got the idea that he might be a cartoonist, Breathed showed the audience a color sketch of a man with his head blown to bits. “This is a very important drawing, it’s one of my first, it was done for 11th grade art class, Ms. Lewis. She glanced down, and said “I don’t even need to take it to give you a grade, it’s an F…it’s really horrible.” So I took it home, and showed it to my dad, he said one word to me. And I handed it in again, the following week, with this word beneath it,” he said, as the same picture appeared, but this time with the word ‘Gesundheit’ below it. “And she said “Berkeley, you still get an F, but you’re going to be very wealthy some day.”
“It was the first clue that I had that drawing a picture and writing a word could take two mediocre pieces, and put them together, and the whole is larger than the sum of the parts. That was really the first clue I had of probably where my career was going to go,” he said.
Breathed then took a moment to explain how he got to comic strips, starting at the University of Texas college newspaper. “I had not read a lot of comics, nor cartoons – they did not come naturally to me. I was literally fired from all the other departments in Texas college paper for making stuff up. It didn’t go well, so I found the safest place to be in the newspaper and still make stuff up.”
But before diving into the creation of comic strips, Breathed delved into their precursor: “I didn’t think of comic strips at first, I thought of editorial cartoons, which was the obvious thing to do. This was my first and only editorial cartoon, on the first ‘Star Trek’ movie and the topic of busing. It was not seen as very funny to a population on the edge about their busing order, and I was literally pushed out the door. It was not well received, so I went back to stripping, so to speak. I would have been an editorial cartoonist if this had happened any other way, and we’re talking about sources, and sources of ideas, and sources of great moves, or at least interesting moves,” he said.
“So, ‘Bloom County,’ I was hired to do it when I got out of school, never got a job in my life, and came up with a penguin one day for no other reason than I needed an animal. I had no focus. I had no clue, not only how to make a comic, but one with no leadership to tell me what to do or a theme beyond college newspaper themes of sex, drugs and rock & roll…but suddenly, shifting to a national family newspaper and [the strip] needed a focus,” he explained, as he presented numerous slides depicting the origins of Opus the penguin.
“Opus came from Mary Poppins, a fixture of my childhood. I think I channeled this when I was sitting at that lonely cartooning desk, not knowing what I was going to do. I named [the strip] ‘Bloom County,’ because I didn’t know who was going to be in it. Most the time you name it after who is going to be in it. I hated the name,” Breathed said.
Moving on to the inspiration for his “Bill the Cat” character, Breathed showed a slide of Garfield, and explained that that was part of his initial inspiration, how Garfield had just reached a point of overexposure, and had he been introduced much earlier or later, Bill would not have worked as well as the anti-Garfield.
Breathed then presented a slide of Bill the Cat eating Snoopy, with Charlie Brown in the background, and an empty “Get Met, It Pays” suitcase destroyed on ground, to laughter from the crowd. Breathed used this slide to illustrate how he was mocking both public figures and other cartoonists at the same time, and how he often had trouble with the lawyers in getting some of his comics through.
On the source of inspiration for an incident that led to his going to the White House to eventually meet a President at a state dinner, Breathed showed a rather innocuous cartoon that happened to include a picture of Nancy Reagan in the background, an image that was not actually important to the cartoon itself. But then, an odd phone call changed things. “So the next morning, I get a call at 7:30, and she says I need to hold on because the President of the United States needs to talk to me. It’s 1982. I thought it was fake [at first, but], then I knew this was not a joke, and it’s President Ronald Reagan. And he says, ‘I was reading the paper yesterday morning, and I came across Nancy, and I just wanted to tell you, I loved it.’ And I said, ‘Mr. President, you don’t want anything?’ And he said ‘No I don’t want anything, I just got a kick out of it.’ And I said ‘Well, would you like the original?’ ‘Oh, well, I didn’t think you fellas gave those sort of things out.’ And I said ‘You know, there is a short list of people that we give them to, Mr. President, and guess who’s on it?’ And he was so endearingly charmed that he was on that list. And there is the source of that man’s power, that he was genuine, that he was flattered that he was on that list to get a comic strip from me,” Breathed explained.
Breathed then moved on to the topic of comic strip themes. In particular, “Some themes I liked, but always didn’t work.” He then showed three of the ones that he felt always seemed to work the least: “One of them was being overweight. The other is cosmetic surgery. And the last topic is big medicine. No one thought it was funny. I always thought it was funny!” As to why they didn’t work, he said “I’ve come to the conclusion that, when you hit too bone with most of your audience, it’s just time to back away and take a broader look. I was making fun of something that, I think in the subtext of everyone’s mind, it was making them nervous, because it was hitting to close.”
A final slide on the topic of themes that did not work displayed a woman wearing a “Burqiniâ„¢,” a burqa-bikini. “This is the last dangerous area, and this is really what got me out of the cartoon business entirely. This was the last little nudge over that tipping point,” he said.
“This was pretty much the last few months of the Opus strips which I ran for six years in the Sunday papers. I had a character that became Muslim, got converted, and I didn’t get any political issues with the Islamic thing. I just had them show up in Muslim garb, and that sent the Washington Post Writers Group and its lawyers and its publisher into a tizzy that I hadn’t experienced in 25 years. And I thought that I saw it coming and approached it with probably more sensitivity than I am known fo. I was not mocking anything about the Muslim dress – I was mocking the reaction to it, which at the time, if I showed you the rest of the strip, it was all about Dallas’ girlfriend becoming Muslim and him reacting to it, to her dress. What they didn’t realize is that the Burqini is absolutely real. It didn’t matter, I could not put it in the strip, they didn’t want me to,” he explained.
Continuing with the impact of the reaction he was receiving, he expanded further, “And they were so sensitive about her depiction. It came from Muslim staffers within the Washington Post company. They were reacting, they were threatening to quit if this showed up in the paper, and it was confusing me completely, and the paper was so terrified of it that I was on the phone at 6pm at night before the deadline with the publisher of the Washington Post company, which I had not heard from in ten years. And he was on the phone telling me to fix her hair so it didn’t look so askew, because that would reflect poorly upon Islamic women and the religion in general,” he said, with a tone that indicated that he was still a bit flabbergasted at the notion, years later.
Explaining how this incident inspired his career change, Breathed continued. “And I could see that things had gotten so over the top, not with this issue but with religion in general. I got most of my cartoons cut in the last five years that mentioned anything or anyone remotely involved with religion, including L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. This is brand new; ‘Bloom County’ had none of this pressure on it that I was feeling the last five years [producing ‘Opus]. We keep thinking [popular culture] is getting looser, being more open, more expressive, and oddly, it is not. And this is more of a reflection of newspapers, of course, and their fears, and their insecurities right now. And one of the problems with the comic page was, it was getting weirdly more conservative. As far as cultural commentary, it was shrinking, and papers were getting more scared, and more conservative, and they’re getting more restrictive, and [this incident] was silly and funny and ridiculous enough to tell me that maybe it was time to rethink, where my heart was best.”
And where was his heart? “So, it’s a long way to explain how I ended up in children’s books, which I had started [working on] before this point, which this would cement for me,” Breathed said.
“I saw ‘Jumanji,’ and said ‘I want to draw like this.’ And of course I never could, [but] it gives you good incentive to try. So I did my first children’s book, which was this one,” he said, as a picture of “A Wish for Wings that Work” was shown displayed to applause from the audience.
“Once I got out of the two inch by one inch square, the floodgates were open, and the narrative loving part of me came to be,” he said with a smile.
His next children’s book, “Red Ranger Came Calling,” was partially inspired by a photo of a real tree with a real bike that had grown into the tree on Vashon Island where Breathed grew up. He explained that he asked around and nobody in his home town knew what the story was with the bike in the tree, and so he “Went charging in and wrote a story backwards from [the picture].”
“Mars Needs Moms” is another of Breathed’s childrens books. “This is a story of a little boy named Milo, who, in a fit of pique, says something not very nice to his mother. He wished his mother not a lot of health, lets put it that way. And, instead of disciplining him [the real Milo, Breathed’s son] probably as adequately as I should have, I immediately turned around to my computer and turned it into a story, which is my temptation these days, to turn everything into a story,” laughed Breathed.
Briefly detailing the plot, Breathed said “Martians collect Mom, Milo follows to Mars with Mom, Martians don’t have moms on Mars – they have no discipline, they have no order, nobody cooks their meals, nobody takes care of them. They build massive mini vans, but have nobody to drive them. They realized they really want what they don’t have, which is moms.
“Hollywood snapped up the idea, and I’m going to show you some secret pictures some crew members sent to me after we appeared on the set of ‘Mars needs Moms,’ with
Seth Green playing Milo, Joan Cusack playing mom…” said Breathed, as he proceeded to compare a touching scene from the book that he felt was particularly important, to the same scene in the movie. “All of the crew were completely in tears after every take. It will be a moving moment,” he said. After a brief further explanation concerning the scene, Breathed introduced the real Milo, his son, who sheepishly stood for the audience.
“This is about inspiration. For the other book I’ve done, “Pete & Pickles,” an unexpected relationship between an escape circus elephant and a small grumpy pig. I peppered this book with famous paintings that I had ripped apart. This idea came from this drawing showing the relationship between an elephant and a pig. That’s my daughter’s drawing,” he explained, as Breathed introduced his daughter to the audience.
“I love this, because it shows the continuity of where ideas come from. And I need to remind myself that ideas are all around us, and if we’re blind we will miss them, and they can end up in incredible things,” Breathed said.
Moving on to his most recently published book, Breathed described “Flawed Dogs,” stating “This is my first try at a novel. It’s got some illustrations in it – I couldn’t resist, so I insisted – and it’s the story of probably the most beautiful dachshund that’s ever been born, and he falls in love with a little girl named Heidi. And he falls in with the most unwanted dogs in dogdom, and he puts them together into a commando team to go back to Westminster [dog show] and wreck it.”
“The reason I am bringing this book up is to once again to talk about sources of ideas. There is a photograph that has been on the top of my computer that was my daily inspiration of what this is all about. This is a picture of one of Michael Vick’s fighting dogs. This is the moment when he, for the very first time in this dog’s life, faced only with hate and cruelty that you and I can’t imagine, this is where he is receiving [kindness] for the first time, and he’s becoming a dog again. And for a storyteller, this is like the bicycle in the tree. This is what we live for, this is what I live for. I wanted to write a story back from this picture. This is a quote from a couple hundred years ago, that is “All animals dream, only dogs dream of us,” and that is a theme for a book.” Breathed said to a noticeably choked up audience.
“I thought I’d give you a hint of what my next project’s going to be. This is my first conceptual painting of a fairy being born, in the forest. It’s my reaction to these pictures (by Brian Fraud) which, believe it or not I loathe. He is completely over the top about fairies. So as I keep looking at fairy imagery, I keep getting more and more disgusted with it, and it only gets sweeter and sweeter and sweeter until…” and Breathed concluded his thought with a picture of a fairy, titled in bold capital letters “FAERIES SUCK.”
So my reaction to this is to express it in a story. So I am writing ‘Cranky Scary Sweaty Fairy’ now,” he laughed, showing a picture of a grubby, grumpy looking fairy. “If you can’t tell, she’s wearing the bottom of a watermelon there. I am going to turn the concept of the fairy upside down and redefine them, and that’s the next project I am working on,” he concluded.
As for the topic of movies, Breathed presented three test movies for Opus that have never before been seen by any audience. In the first, John Cleese is speaking over Opus, tempting Opus to come out of his dressing room to kiss Nicole Kidman, though really it is to kiss a Killer Whale. Directed by Eric Goldberg, the audience ate it up with applause.
The second clip was done by a studio named Blur. This one, not written by Breathed, was mostly a technical test to see if they could do some interesting things with the characters. The clip was about a Mayfly who dies after three days of life.
“This is one I did write, [and was] done by Wild Brain.” Breathed explained, as he showed a clip depicting Opus being tempted to finish pulling down the pants of several rednecks who already had their pants part way down, underwear showing.
Concluding the panel, Breathed gave away some original art to one lucky attendee, apparently to the chagrin of his wife who is incredibly protective of his artwork, and thanked everyone for coming.