Surname rhymes with "method"; born June 21, 1957, in Encino, CA; son of John W. (an oil equipment executive) and Martha Jane (Martin) Breathed; married Jody Boyman (a photographer), May, 1986; children: two. Education: University of Texas at Austin, B.A., 1979.
Home—Southern California. Agent—Esther Newberg, ICM, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Cartoonist and writer. University of Texas at Austin, photographer and columnist for Daily Texan (university newspaper), 1976-78; freelance cartoonist, 1978—.
Harry A. Schweikert, Jr., Disability Awareness Award, Paralyzed Vets of America, 1982, and Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, 1987, both for "Bloom County"; Fund for Animal Genesis Award, 1990, for "outstanding cartoonist focusing on animal welfare issues."
Bloom County: Loose Tails, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1983.
'Toons for Our Times: A Bloom County Book of Heavy Metal Rump 'n' Roll, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1984.
Penguin Dreams, and Stranger Things, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1985.
Bloom County Babylon: Five Years of Basic Naughtiness, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1986.
Billy and the Boingers Bootleg, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.
Tales Too Ticklish to Tell, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1988.
Night of the Mary Kay Commandos: Featuring Smell-O-Toons, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.
Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County, 1986-1989, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.
Happy Trails, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.
A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story (children's book), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1991.
Politically, Fashionably, and Aerodynamically Incorrect: The First Outland Collection, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
The Last Basselope: One Ferocious Story (children's book), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
Goodnight Opus (children's book), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1993.
His Kisses Are Dreamy—But Those Hairballs down My Cleavage, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
Red Ranger Came Calling: A Guaranteed True Christmas Story (children's book), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
The Romantic Opus 'n' Bill, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
One Last Little Peek, 1980-1995: The Final Strips, the Special Hits, the Inside Tips, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big: Fully Explained by Fannie Fudwupper (children's book), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
Flawed Dogs: The Year-end Leftovers at the Piddleton "Last Chance" Dog Pound (children's book), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2003.
Creator of comic strips "The Academia Waltz," for Daily Texan, 1978-79, "Bloom County," for syndication by Washington Post Writer's Group, 1980-89, "Opus Goes Home," for Life, 1987, and Sunday-only strips "Outland," 1989-95, and "Opus," 2003—. Contributor of illustrations to The Emperor, 1998.
A Wish for Wings That Work was adapted as a CBS-TV special and released on videocassette; Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big was adapted as an animated short film for Nickelodeon Network; Goodnight Opus was adapted as a children's play.
Work in Progress
Writing an "Opus" movie.
Imagine a penguin with a severely enhanced proboscis who generally wears a bow tie and collar and is filled with existential angst. Partner him with a fur-ball-spitting sidekick feline, and toss in a conservative bunny as well as a groundhog in disguise. Then add an unscrupulous lawyer, a disabled Vietnam vet who has a way with the ladies, a worldly-wise hometown reporter, and a ten year old who has difficulty telling the difference between a dog and a penguin; toss in a bit of socio-political sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor; then lean toward the liberal and you end up with the central elements of one of the most popular comic strips of the 1980s, Berke Breathed's "Bloom County." Following its debut in 1980, for nine years Breathed's "cast of cartoon crazies" managed to attack "the establishment" daily, according to People contributor Gail Buchalter. By the end of the strip's almost-decade-long run, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bloom County" was carried in 1,300 newspapers nationwide, reaching an estimated forty million readers. In addition, book reprints of the strip sold in the millions of copies, and Breathed's critters appeared in numerous spin-offs, from T-shirts to stuffed animals. "Breathed's wildly successful comic strip 'Bloom County' was like no strip before or since," wrote Tasha Robinson on the Onion A.V. Club Web site. Robinson further noted that Breathed "changed hats on a regular basis: He was intermittently a political cartoonist, calling attention to feminist issues, SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative], cosmetic testing on animals, and pork-barrel politics. At other times he was a social critic, making fun of artistic trends and celebrity foibles. Sometimes he was just plain whimsical, as his characters took dandelion breaks, explored closets full of anxieties, or created Star Trek fantasies to inhabit."
Charles Solomon, writing in the Los Angeles Times, noted that in "Bloom County" Breathed was ecumenical in his choice of what faction he annoyed. "Breathed has consistently infuriated Christian fundamentalists, political conservatives and even his fellow artists," Solomon wrote. "In the process, ironically, he's become one of the nation's most popular and successful newspaper cartoonists." When Breathed decided to leave "Bloom County" at the top of its game in 1989, he went on to create the strip "Outland," basically a revamped "Bloom County," that appeared only on Sundays for six years. In 1995 Breathed "retired" from comic strips to devote himself to children's picture books; then, in 2003, with six such books to his credit, the cartoonist decided to make a comeback in newspapers. Breathed's new strip, "Opus," which runs in the Sunday comic supplement, also features his famous penguin character, this time in a half-page spread.
From Practical Jokes to Cartoon Strips
Born in California in 1957, Guy Berkeley Breathed attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked for the school paper, the Daily Texan. As Buchalter quipped, Breathed "majored in photojournalism and minored in practical jokes." One such joke was an attempt to see how far a rumor would spread. Leaking a story to the school magazine that he had bred hundreds of baby alligators in his apartment and then set them free in the lakes in and around Austin, he watched as the story was ultimately picked up by national wire services. While at Austin he wrote and drew a daily cartoon, "The Academia Waltz," which featured two characters who would be later reprised in Bloom County: lawyer Steve Dallas and Vietnam War vet Cutter John.
"I ended up doing a comic strip, because it was the most effective way to make a point and get people listening, as a writer," Breathed told a contributor for Comics Journal. "I've always had an over-active imagination, and it could have been applied to almost any medium. I don't know if successfully, but it certainly was working when I tried out a comic strip in college. I was a writer for the paper, an avid photographer, and a columnist. I loved the idea of expressing myself in a mass medium. That became
interesting to me in itself. And cartooning, in particular, drew me because when I tried it, it was clearly apparent that the potential of it was far more than the other mediums I had been trying. Photography or illustration or just writing. When you drew a figure next to your words, it had an element of attraction for people that was unimaginable to me at the time. You draw to your strengths. It was quite clear where I was getting the attention from. And so I was drawn into drawing comic strips."
Welcome to "Bloom County"
Breathed's collegiate work attracted the attention of editors at the Washington Post Writer's Group, who approached him to do a strip. Breathed came up with his world of "Bloom County" and its mix of animals, adolescent boys, and helpless adults, and began doing the strip for $100 a month. At first running in only a few hundred newspapers, Breathed's cast of offbeat characters and satire slowly began to increase its audience and was syndicated in more and more newspapers. His most famous character, Opus, was introduced as a walk on role, but with response from fans quickly found a permanent place in Bloom County. Although the strip initially expanded as a replacement for Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" due to similarities in format between the two strips, Breathed told Buchalter in People that critics "who just see 'Doonesbury' in my stuff aren't looking deep enough." The cartoonist has also cited children's books such as the Dr. Seuss books and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster as a significant influence on his cartooning.
The influence of children's books can be seen in the cast of "Bloom County," which includes the cynical Milo Bloom; the unassertive Michael Binkley, who is frequently visited by a closetful of anxieties; the sleazy lawyer Steve Dallas; Bill the Cat, a hairball-spitting feline whose favorite expression is "ACK!"; and Opus the penguin, who Solomon described as a "perpetually befuddled observer of the world's descent into madness." The tone of the strip is frequently silly, demonstrating a keen sense of the absurd in everyday life. "Its freewheeling shenanigans contrast with Trudeau's sharply focused political satire," observed Solomon. "Breathed pokes fun at the gossip column elite more often than politicians."
Fans not only came his way, but also prizes, including the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. However, because "Bloom County" is more observant of social than political trends, Breathed's Pulitzer sparked controversy among the cartooning community. Most outspoken of the critics was Pat Oliphant, a Pulitzer-winner himself, who commented that the awarding was "a total aberration," as Henry Allen reported in the Washington Post. In addition to calling the award "the final insult to what should be true cartooning," Oliphant also maintained that Breathed's work was "negatively affecting what I would like to have taken as a serious form of commentary." In response, Breathed told Solomon, in the work of artists like Oliphant, "day-to-day political events are talked about so much that we fool ourselves into thinking they're significant. I'm more interested in longer, more subtle trends in society. . . . I won the Pulitzer for editorializing, which is a whole different matter," Breathed continued. "God knows, society needs its hard-bitten political commentators, but I've never seen that as my role."
Breathed's assertions notwithstanding, "Bloom County" managed to comment on a broad variety of current topics. However, "instead of haranguing the reader from a soap box," as Solomon noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Breathed makes the seemingly natural interactions of [his] characters into a vehicle for outrageous social and political satire." An example is the episode in which Oliver Wendell Jones, a young, African-American scientific wizard, develops an "electro photo pigment-izer" that will darken the skin color of its subject; an expedition is then dispatched to "test" the item on the South African ambassador. Other story lines follow Bill the Cat's "affair" with conservative government official Jeane Kirkpatrick and the developments in the "Meadow" Party's presidential campaigns. And in addition to the unstereotypical Oliver Wendell Jones, "Bloom County" boasts Vietnam veteran Cutter John, the only handicapped character then appearing in a major strip. But while the strip is not overtly political, it quickly became controversial and segments often generated strong and angry responses. For example, when an unflattering portrait of a religious fundamentalist appeared in the strip, the chairman of the National Federation for Decency wrote to ask Breathed's syndicator to fire the cartoonist for "religious hatred and bias," reported Solomon. In addition, when two episodes in one week used a slang word that some editors found objectionable, the strip was pulled; one newspaper chain subsequently canceled the strip entirely.
Despite Breathed's knack for alienating individual segments of society with his work, such instances did not affect his overall success. With its direct style and strong characters, "Bloom County" became "one of the funniest and most relevant strips
on the comics," according to Solomon. Radley Balko agreed with this summation. Writing in the National Review Online, Balko noted that, despite its "left-leaning" political stance, "Bloom County"'s "attraction was so overwhelming, it quickly earned a following from across the political spectrum." Drawing a comic strip, Breathed remarked to Solomon, "is not just a matter of getting a political point across or squeezing out a giggle from somebody: It's about creating your own universe, which is a real challenge. Few cartoonists succeed in doing it," the artist concluded, "but it's become my goal."
Beyond "Bloom County"
After nine years of daily scripting, Breathed decided to put an end to "Bloom County." As he noted to a Newsweek contributor, "a good comic strip is no more eternal than a ripe melon. The ugly truth is that in most cases, comics age even less gracefully than their creators." However, Breathed was far from finished with his "Bloom County" characters, and many soon appeared in his new Sunday-only strip, Outland, which debuted a month after the end of "Bloom County." Breathed continued "Outland" until 1995, when he again "retired" from comic strips to devote his full-time attention to children's books.
Breathed's first such book, A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, features everyone's favorite penguin. In this tale Opus is pained that he is unable to fly and sends a letter to Santa asking for wings. Come Christmas Eve, Opus is given a chance to finally earn his wings in an "entrancing" story that blends comic-book art and the best of children's picture books, according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. This same contributor felt that Breathed "achieves just the right balance of sweetness and levity" in his first picture-book effort.
In 1992's The Last Basselope: One Ferocious Story, Opus leads a group of explorers in search of the descendants of an ancient and ferocious race. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the work a "color-saturated, characteristically silly wilderness adventure" as well as a "rambunctious episode." In Goodnight Opus Breathed presents a rhyming book that is "both bedtime tale and vehicle for his own Opus the penguin," as another Publishers Weekly contributor commented. This same critic further praised Breathed's "airbrush mastery" with illustrations that "fairly pop off the page." Similarly Booklist reviewer Janice Del Negro commended the cartoonist's artwork for its "style and polish," and went on to note that Breathed's "rhyming text that flows smoothly."
Breathed's Red Ranger Came Calling: A Guaranteed True Christmas Story moves away from his usual cast of characters to tell a story of a retired Santa Claus called back into action in order to make a cynical young man believe in Christmas. Inspired by a story Breathed's father told at Christmas, Red Ranger Came Calling presents a hero with "reassuring homeliness" and artwork that is "extraordinary," according to Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that the book is "laugh-out-loud funny" on one page, and then elicits a "tiny tear" in the eye of the reader on the next page. The same critic praised Breathed's "hallucinatory" artwork, noting that it is as "wondrous and unpredictable as his tale."
With Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big: Fully Explained by Fannie Fudwupper, Breathed creates a new cast of characters to tell a cautionary tale about lying. The young boy in question "gets out of many sticky situations by telling whoppers in this rhyming tale related by his neglected little sister," explained Ronald Jobe in a School Library Journal review. Though a critic for Publishers Weekly characterized the tone of the story, like its artwork, as "mean-spirited and unfunny," Jobe found more to like. "This is a highly moralistic tale, but a wildly zany one," he wrote, extending special praise to the author/illustrator's "wordplay, alliteration, and outrageously expressive" illustrations.
Breathed's sixth children's book, Flawed Dogs: The Year-End Leftovers at the Piddleton "Last Chance" Dog Pound, makes a plea for better treatment of animals. "To the casual browser, the book is a rogue's gallery of unlovely pets," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who also felt that Breathed's "flippant satire and visual hyperbole make an odd fit with his devotion to a worthy cause." Marge Loch-Wouters, however, writing in School Library Journal, gave the book a more favorable assessment, noting that children "may enjoy the goofy humor and outrageousness of the poor unwanted pooches featured here."
In an interview with Jesse Jarnow for Salon.com, Breathed noted that "painting picture books necessitated me actually learning something about art. And like a baby armed with a new box of colorful crayons and a newly painted living room wall . . . I'm anxious to wreak some havoc." That havoc came with the unexpected re-entry of Breathed into the cartooning world with his Sundays-only comic strip, "Opus," beginning in 2003. Breathed came back on his own terms, and was allotted a half-page spread for his panels.
In explaining his motives for returning to the role of cartoonist, Breathed noted to Jarnow that "the world went and got silly again. I left in 1995 with things properly, safely dull, and couldn't imagine why anyone would feel it necessary again to start behaving ridiculously." In other words, with the election of George W. Bush as U.S. president, Breathed found he had a target for his satire once more. Even those on the political right were happy for his return. As Balko noted, "We need the wisdom and perspective that can only come from a flightless, motherless, twice-failed vice-presidential candidate Antarctic bird with a weakness for 1-900 lines."
Despite the political viewpoint that helped inspire him to create "Opus," Breathed declined to join what he found to be a low level of public debate at work in the first years of the new millennium. "The din of public snarkiness is stupefying," he told Jarnow. "We're awash in a vomitous sea of caustic humorous comment. I hope to occasionally wade near the black hole of pop references only obliquely without getting sucked in with everyone else."
Breathed explained his overall credo as a comic-strip artist to Jarnow. "Balancing creative growth and experimentation with accessibility is the issue of the day for any artist," he noted. "All I can say is that there's nothing more populist than a comic strip. The comic page is not the place for the whacked-out Jackson Pollocks out there to ram their nutso visions down the readers' throats . . . not that I haven't tried that myself." In response to Jarnow's question regarding how socially relevant comic strips can be, Breathed concluded of the cartoonist's enterprise: "Our job is to make people smile. If my cartoons stray into [social relevance] . . . it's an accidental byproduct in the effort to make ME smile."
If you enjoy the works of Berke Breathed
If you enjoy the works of Berke Breathed, you may also want to check out the following:
Doonesbury, a daily comic strip by G. B. Trudeau that debuted in 1970.
Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip by Bill Watterson that ran from 1985 to 1995.
The Boondocks, a daily comic strip by Aaron McGruder that made its print debut in 1997.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Arkansas Business, October 13, 2003, Carl D. Holcombe, "Opus Perhaps?," p. 30.
Booklist, January 1, 1994, Janice Del Negro, review of Goodnight Opus, p. 832; October 1, 1994, Carolyn Phelan, review of Red Ranger Came Calling, p. 325.
Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2001, May Wiltenburg, "Cartoonist Berke Breathed," p. 23.
Comics Journal, October, 1988, "Interview: Can Breathed Be Taken Seriously?"
Detroit News, April 13, 1986.
Economist, May 20, 1989, "Zap!," p. 103.
Editor & Publisher, September 21, 1991, David Astor, "TV Deal for Breathed," p. 49; June 2, 2003, Dave Astor, "Breathed Missing Newspapers a Bit," p. 29; September 22, 2003, Dave Astor, "Will 'Opus' Bloom in Comic Sections?," p. 24; November 17, 2003, Dave Astor, "'Opus' Strip: Big Debut for Little Penguin," p. 29; December 15, 2003, Dave Astor, "Early Reaction to 'Opus' Strip: Mixed," p. 29; June 1, 2004, Dave Astor, "Syndicates: Opinions of 'Opus' Comic Still Mixed."
Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1987.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 15, 1983; May 13, 1984; October 5, 1986; April 15, 1990, Charles Solomon, review of Happy Trails, p. 15.
Newsweek, May 15, 1989; September 22, 2003, Dana Thomas and Brad Stone, interview with Breathed, p. 103.
New Tekniques, September, 2000, "Tarradiddle Pants on Fire" (interview), p. 8.
People, August 6, 1984, Gail Buchalter, "Cartoonist Berke Breathed Feathers His Nest by Populating Bloom County with Rare Birds," p. 93.
Psychology Today, January-February, 2004, William Whitney, "Berkeley Breathed," p. 96.
Publishers Weekly, July 25, 1991, review of A Wish for Wings That Work, p. 52; November 2, 1992, review of The Last Basselope, p. 68; September 19, 1994, review of Red Ranger Came Calling, p. 28; August 28, 2000, review of Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big, p. 82; November 24, 2003, review of Flawed Dogs, p. 62.
School Library Journal, November, 2000, Ronald Jobe, review of Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big, p. 110; January, 2004, Marge Loch-Wouters, review of Flawed Dogs, p. 88.
Washington Journalism Review, May, 1983.
Washington Post, May 9, 1987, November 12, 1987; September 9, 2003, Reilly Capps, "Opus the Penguin Back in the Funny Business," p. C1.
Washington Post Book World, April 24, 1983; August 24, 1986; August 23, 1987.
National Review Online,http://www.nationalreview.com/ (September 25, 2003), Radley Balko, "A Great Returns."
Official Berkeley Breathed Web site,http://www.berkeleybreathed.com/ (September 8, 2004).
Onion A.V. Club.com,http://www.theonionavclub.com/ (August 15, 2001), Tasha Robinson, "Berkeley Breathed."
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (November 20, 2003), Jesse Jarnow, "The Penguin Is Mightier than the Sword."*