Breathed, Berkeley

views updated

Berkeley Breathed

Cartoonist, author, and illustrator

Born June 21, 1957, in Encino, CA; son of John William and Martha Jane (Martin) Breathed; married Jody Boyman (a psychologist), May 10, 1986; children: two. Education: University of Texas at Austin, B.A., 1980.

Addresses: Contact—c/o Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Home—Santa Barbara, CA.


Syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, 1980-95 and 2003—; wrote and illustrated comic Bloom County, 1980-89; wrote and illustrated comic Outland, 1989-95; wrote and illustrated comic Opus, 2003—. Also writer and illustrator of children's books.

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, for Bloom County, 1987.


Comic-strip artist Berkeley Breathed found himself in the glare of publicity in 1987 when he won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning for his comic strip Bloom County. The controversy stemmed from the fact that his strip appeared not on the editorial page but rather on the comics page, though he used the space to comment on the issues of the day. Traditional editorial cartoonists thought the award belittled their craft. No one could argue, however, that the strip was not well-read. During its heyday Bloom County, with its motley crew of anthropomorphic prairie creatures, children, and eccentric adults, was syndicated in 1,300 newspapers and achieved a cult following. The driving force behind the snicker-inducing cartoon was a big-hearted, tuba-playing, politically astute penguin named Opus, whose neurotic worldview charmed millions of readers each day. Breathed ended the strip in 1989, then created a new one, Outland, which ran until 1995. In 2003, Breathed resurrected his famous character in a Sunday-only strip simply titled Opus. He has also written and illustrated several whimsical children's books.

Breathed (pronounced BRETH-id) was born June 21, 1957, in Encino, California. He attended high school in Houston, where he was reportedly a cheer-leader and was known to peers as "Guy." Next, Breathed headed to the University of Texas (UT) at Austin to study photojournalism. While there, Breathed worked as a photographer for UT's Daily Texan and also wrote for the campus magazine. Already, Breathed's unbridled ingenuity was emerging and the student journalist acted in highly unethical ways.

In a rare interview the reclusive artist granted to the online newsmagazine the Onion, Breathed admitted to manipulating photographs during this time, once by burning a halo into a photo of a street preacher. He also invented stories that he knew would create a buzz. "I wrote about an unnamed student who secretly released hundreds of baby alligators into nearby Lake Travis, which would have been compelling if I hadn't made it up," he recalled to Tasha Robinson of the Onion. Breathed even went so far as to provide the newspaper with a staged photograph of the anonymous student releasing an alligator into the lake. "I was turned in by nearly 200 people," Breathed told Times-Picayune reporter Jeff Baker. "My apartment was surrounded by federal game agents. I was tailed, my phones were tapped . I was driven out of Austin." Breathed's fake story initially caused property values around the lake to drop and he caught the ire of the owners and even endured an arrest. After the incident settled down, someone suggested Breathed might be better suited for the cartooning desk, where his sense of imagination would be better received.

Breathed took the advice and created a comic strip called Academia Waltz, which appeared in the Daily Texan during the late 1970s. In some ways, the 658-episode strip served as a prequel to Bloom County. Some of the characters Breathed conjured up for this strip later appeared in Bloom County. They included cigarette-smoking frat boy Steve Dallas and Vietnam vet Cutter John. During this time, Breathed also revealed his passion for commenting on the political through caricatures of then-UT president Peter T. Flawn.

Even in college, Breathed preferred to stay away from the limelight and remained a somewhat elusive figure. The Texan "was sort of like family, really," the newspaper's former editor Beth Frerking told the Star-Telegram's Robert Philpot. "Everybody was friends, loved each other, hated each other, dated each other, socialized together. It really was one big group. He wasn't really a part of that, but I never got the feeling that it was a hostile thing." Others remembered Breathed as arrogant; still others said he was simply misunderstood.

Whatever the case, his strip, itself, was well-understood and caught the attention of the Washington Post Writers Group. The group contacted Breathed about syndicating Academia Waltz. Instead, Breathed revealed his vision for a new strip called Bloom County, and the Washington Post Writers Group picked it up. Bloom County debuted on December 8, 1980, in just two dozen papers. By the late 1980s, the strip was syndicated in 1,300 newspapers worldwide.

Bloom County featured a lovable maladjusted penguin named Opus, who got his name from a song by the 1970s art-rock band Kansas. In the early years, Breathed endured a lot of criticism from readers who believed the strip was a clone of Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. Admittedly, Breathed said his gags resembled Trudeau's and the two exchanged heated letters for a while. Like Doonesbury, Bloom County helped usher in a new age of cartoons that hinged on both political and pop culture references. At times, Breathed created a ruckus with the social commentary and satire projected in his cartoon. He wrote strips denouncing cosmetic testing on animals and also touched on feminist issues and political patronage. Some managing editors wanted to place Bloom County on the editorial page, but he resisted.

This created even more of a stir in 1987 when Breathed won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning for his comic strip. Traditional editorial cartoonists like Pat Oliphant lashed out in rage, believing that giving the award to an everyday strip cartoonist demeaned their craft. According to the Star-Telegram's Philpot, Oliphant, a 1967 Pulitzer winner, called Bloom County a strip of "shrill potty jokes and grade-school sight gags." Breathed retaliated with his pen, introducing to Bloom County a new penguin named Ollie Phant. Ollie was portrayed as a begrudging character, jealous of Opus' success. Breathed also got into trouble in the late 1980s for insisting on using the term "that su--s" instead of simply saying "that stinks." Some papers canceled subscriptions. He also explored a gay storyline with one character.

Speaking to the Onion, Breathed acknowledged that while doing the strip it was actually hard for him to write about topics he felt passionate about. "One rule: The more pissed-off you are about something, the less funny you are. Never good to get involved. I couldn't, for instance, do justice to animal experimentation. Not funny strips. Effective, though: We got dear Mary Kay to stop squeezing her cold cream into the eyes of rabbits. But not funny." While the strip was highly popular, Breathed, himself, has generally been ambivalent in accepting praise. Years after the strip ended, he said there are many of his own strips he simply does not think are funny and blamed it on his notorious pushing of deadlines. Breathed has said many strips were drawn at 4 a.m. in a sleep-deprived fog.

After a successful nine-year run, Breathed ended Bloom County in 1989, saying he wanted to quit while he was ahead. The challenge of turning out a daily cartoon can be draining, acknowledged Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library curator Lucy Caswell. "A lot of people don't realize how hard it is to stare at a blank sheet of paper every day, with no days off and no one else to help," she told Anthony Violanti of the Buffalo News.

Breathed returned soon enough. A month after Bloom County folded, he began creating a Sunday-only strip called Outland. The strip featured new characters, but Opus reigned supreme, and slowly, other characters snuck back into the panels. "They were like in-laws," Breathed told Psychology Today writer William Whitney. "You send them home, try to get on with your life, and then wham, doggone if it's not Thanksgiving again." Not that readers minded seeing some of their old favorites. Outland ran until 1995. It was never as popular as Bloom County, appearing in just 300 newspapers.

When Breathed gave up cartooning in 1995, he turned his attention to writing and illustrating children's books. Over the next decade, he published several, including 1995's A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, 1997's Red Ranger Came Calling, 2000's Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big, and 2003's Flawed Dogs: The Year End Leftovers at the Piddleton "Last Chance" Dog Pound. This last book was a treatise on animal adoption. Breathed has adopted three dogs from shelters himself. In addition to his book-writing and cartooning, Breathed is an avid activist in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). As such, he drew the cover for PETA's The Compassionate Cook: Please Don't Eat the Animals!. He has also been involved with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which works to help endangered whales and other sea creatures.

In 2003, after an eight-year absence from newspaper comic sections, Opus reappeared in a Sunday-only self-titled strip. While fans lauded Opus, some in the cartoon industry have been more critical. Newspaper comics page handler Mike Peterson told Editor & Publisher's Dave Astor that Opus is "not a bad strip, but there are other people doing equally good work and some doing better work . I think its main appeal is for people who wish Bloom County had never ended." Besides bringing back Opus, several other Breathed staples have slipped into the strip over the past couple years. Among them, Steve Dallas and the anti-Garfield, hairball-spitting Bill the Cat. Breathed said he was partly spurred to return to cartooning because he realized he still had more to say. As he told the Washington Post Writers Group for a profile on its website, "It was painful to sit through the Iraq war without a public voice." Like Outland, Opus appears only on Sundays, meaning Breathed has to create just four strips a month as opposed to 30. The demands of a Sunday-only strip fit better with Breathed's life. Married in 1986 to psychologist Jody Boyman, Breathed is busy raising two children.

For die-hard Bloom County fans looking for a storyline fix that once-a-week plotlines cannot deliver, Breathed, in late 2004, published OPUS: 25 Years of His Sunday Best. The book features Breathed's favorite strips from Bloom County, Outland and Opus. In reviewing the old strips to decide which ones to include, Breathed told the Boston Globe's Steve Greenlee that they all seemed fresh to him. "I remember virtually none of them. True, if you saw how most of them were actually executed (3 a.m., in a fog of narcotics and caffeine, slapping myself in the face with a ruler to stay awake), you will believe this normally unbelievable claim." In the end, Breathed said he chose only to include the ones that made him chuckle.

During the process, Breathed also tweaked some of the classic cartoons. He acknowledged that his difficulty with deadlines accounted for some of the less profound, more juvenile material. "Traditionally, I've been very rough on my stuff," he told Baker in the Times-Picayune. "I never thought it was as good as the readers did, and it pained me to read it. I was appalled at how much overwritten verbiage there was—it was like I didn't trust myself to put across an idea in a few words—so I rewrote a few of them and blamed it on the deadlines."

While some remain critical of Breathed's new Opus venture, others in the industry are delighted that he is drawing again. "There's all sorts of cartoonists out there, and there's something nice to be said about every one of them," Washington Post Writers Group comics editor Suzanne Whelton told Philpot in the Star-Telegram. "But Berkeley is very unique in my mind. It's good to have him back."

Selected writings

The Academia Waltz, 1979.

The Academia Waltz: Bowing Out, 1980.

Bloom County: Loose Tails, Little Brown & Co., 1983.

Toons for Our Times: A Bloom County Book of HeavyMetal Rump 'N Roll, Little Brown & Co., 1984.

Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things, Little Brown & Co., 1985.

Bloom County Babylon: Five Years of Basic Naughtiness, Little Brown & Co., 1986.

Billy and the Boingers Bootleg, Little Brown & Co., 1987.

Tales Too Ticklish to Tell: Bloom County, Little Brown & Co., 1988.

Night of the Mary Kay Commandos Featuring SmellO-Toons, Little Brown & Co., 1989.

Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County 1986-1989, Little Brown & Co., 1990.

Politically, Fashionably, and Aerodynamically Incorrect:The First Outland Collection, Little Brown & Co., 1992.

His Kisses are Dreamy but Those Hairballs Down MyCleavage !: Another Tender Outland Collection, Little Brown & Co., 1994.

One Last Little Peek, 1980-1995: The Final Strips, the Special Hits, the Inside Tips, Little, Brown, 1995.

A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, Little, Brown, 1995.

Goodnight Opus, Little, Brown, 1996.

Red Ranger Came Calling, Little, Brown, 1997.

Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big, Little, Brown, 2000.

Flawed Dogs: The Year End Leftovers at the Piddleton"Last Chance" Dog Pound, Little, Brown, 2003.

OPUS: 25 Years of His Sunday Best, Little, Brown, 2004.



Boston Globe, November 1, 2004, p. B7; December 6, 2004, p. B7.

Buffalo News (New York), November 23, 2003, p. E1.

Editor & Publisher, June 1, 2004.

Psychology Today, January/February 2004, p. 96.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), December 5, 2004, p. 4.


"Berkeley Breathed," Onion, (February 21, 2005).

"Berkeley Breathed," Washington Post Writers Group, (February 21, 2005).

"Opus Pocus," Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, TX), (February 20, 2005).

—Lisa Frick