By Berkeley Breathed
288 pages, black and white, plus color
Published by IDW
In the 1980s, my two favorite newspaper comic strips were easy to identify: Peanuts and Bloom County. The funny thing is that especially at an early age, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of Bloom County went over my head. Even as I approached becoming a teenager, I didn’t get a lot of the political humor that Berkeley Breathed infused into Bloom County. So a joke about Cuba sailed right past me, to say nothing of references to various politicians. The thing is, even then, there was always something that would make me laugh. I might not know who was being parodied, but I got the punch line none the less. Now that I’m going back and re-reading Bloom County, though, it’s a very different experience.
The only Bloom County collection I never owned back in the day was Loose Tails, the very first one. One of my school teachers did, though, and I remember reading it over and over again. But even then, there’s still a lot of unfamiliar material here. A lot of the early Bloom County strips were never collected, and I can now see why. It’s not that Bloom County was bad at that point in time, but rather it didn’t resemble what was to come. Similar to how Thimble Theatre strips before the introduction of Popeye are quite different than what came afterwards, Bloom County was still fumbling around for its voice, with some characters that would quietly drop away with time. Widow Tucker, Pops Popolov, Major Flynn… all sorts of characters that were being thrown into the strip at random, seeing what would stick. The Complete Bloom County provides Breathed a chance to provide annotations along the way, and early on he notes, that "[he] hadn’t the faintest clue what Bloom County was going to be about" in those early strips. There’s even a dog as a character early on, but it’s one of the first casualties. A lot of those early strips are surprisingly weak, but there’s always a gem among the rubble that makes it worth reading on.
As the strip gets moving, though, you can see Breathed begin to solidify in his mind just where Bloom County is going. I’m not talking just about the introduction of Opus the Penguin, although his regular appearances in the strip is a major milestone. Rather, it’s the mixture of political and social commentary with just good old-fashioned humor. You might not know precisely who David Stockman was, but the strip where Milo has named a 12-foot python after him and then feeds it rabbits named after various social programs? The joke rings true even without knowing that Stockman was the head of the Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan administration. Interestingly enough, while the jokes have aged well, it’s some of the characters who now seem particularly dated. I’d forgotten that Cutter John was supposed to be a Vietnam vet, for instance. And while Steve Dallas was known even then for being a bit of a cad, at the time I remember him being cool at the same time. Now it’s hard to not look at him and grimace, the ultimate distillation of the "ugly American" in all his cluelessness. (The less said about the strangeness—and general unfunny nature—of Prince Charles and Princess Diana jokes, the better.)
Breathed also becomes a more accomplished artist throughout the strip. While even at his earliest strips there’s a certain raw charm to the art—the strip with Milo and the pregnant woman makes me laugh because of the expressions on everyone involved—the characters become more refined and crisp looking as the years go by. His lettering gets tighter and more uniform, and characters no longer look like they’re starting to melt in a hot summer sun. Even the physical humor of the strip improves; spit-takes and dancing have a surprising amount of energy to them despite being burnt into single panels. There’s no doubt in my mind that Breathed’s strip increased in popularity in part because of the strength of his art went up.
Breathed and IDW go all-out for The Complete Bloom County. Breathed created occasional two-page spreads explaining what’s going on in the news as the strips were being published, to help put things into perspective. As mentioned before, Breathed also gets to annotate his strips when he feels like it. More often than not he’s explaining cultural and political references from the time period, but occasionally it’s more of a director commentary, mentioning when characters weren’t working, or key moments for him as a creator. It’s a handsome book, one that reminds me a lot of the care that was put into the huge three-volume The Complete Calvin and Hobbes a few years ago. And, just like it and The Complete Peanuts, I’ll definitely be back for the rest of these books. I might be laughing for slightly different reasons than I did 25 years ago, but I’m still getting a good chuckle.