Bloom County

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Bloom County

A popular daily comic strip of the 1980s, Bloom County was written and drawn by Berkeley Breathed. During its run, the comic strip reveled in political, cultural, and social satire. Capturing popular attention with witty comment, the strip also offered a new perspective in the comics.

Bloom County began in 1980 with the setting of the Bloom Boarding House in the mythical Bloom County. Both boarding house and county appeared to be named for a local family, originally represented in the comic strip by the eccentric Major Bloom, retired, and his grandson Milo. Other original residents included Mike Binkley, a neurotic friend of Milo; Binkley's father; Bobbi Harlow, a progressive feminist school teacher; Steve Dallas, a macho despicable lawyer; and Cutter John, a paralyzed Vietnam vet. Over the years, the boarding house residents changed; the Major and Bobbi Harlow vanished and the human inhabitants were joined by a host of animals including Portnoy, a hedgehog, and Hodge Podge, a rabbit. But two other animals became the most famous characters of the strip. One, a parody of Garfield, was Bill the Cat, a disgusting feline that usually just said "aack." The other was the big-nosed penguin named Opus, who first appeared with a much more diminutive honker as Binkley's pet, a sorry substitute for a dog. Opus eventually became the star of the strip and when Breathed ended the comic, he was the last character to appear.

Breathed used his comic menagerie to ridicule American society, culture, and politics. Reading through the strip is like reading through a who's who of 1980s references: Caspar Weinberger, Oliver North, Sean Penn and Madonna, Gary Hart. Breathed made fun of them all. In the later years of the strip, Donald Trump and his outrageous wealth became a chief focus of Breathed's satire. In the world of Bloom County, Donald Trump's brain was put in the body of Bill the Cat. The strip supposedly ended because Trump the Cat bought the comic and fired all of the "actors."

Breathed didn't restrain himself to ridiculing individuals. He also attacked American fads, institutions, and corporations. Opus had a nose job and constantly bought stupid gadgets advertised on TV. Milo and Opus both worked for the Bloom Picayune, the local newspaper, and Breathed used them to launch many attacks on the media. He lampooned the American military through the creation of Rosebud, a basselope (part basset hound, part antelope) that the military wanted to use to smuggle bombs into Russia. Corporations such as McDonalds and Crayola felt the barb of Breathed's wit, though not as much as Mary Kay Cosmetics. Breathed had Opus's mother being held in a Mary Kay testing lab. Breathed used this to point out the cruelties of animal testing as well as the extremism of the animal rights terrorists. The terrorists faced off against the Mary Kay Commandos, complete with pink uzis.

Breathed was adept at political satire as well. Whenever the country faced a presidential election, The Meadow Party would emerge with its candidates: Bill the Cat for President and an often reluctant Opus for V.P. Breathed used the two to ridicule not only politicians but the election process and the American public's willingness to believe the media campaigns. Breathed had a definite political slant to his comic, but he made fun of the follies of both conservatives and liberals.

Bloom County was a unique creation not only because of its humor, but because of the unusual perspectives Breathed used. Unlike other comics, Bloom County's animal and human characters interacted as equals and spoke to each other. Breathed also made the strip self-reflexive, often breaking from the comic to give comments from the "management" or from the characters themselves. One sequence featured Opus confused because he hadn't read the script. Setting the comic up as a job for the characters to act in, Breathed was able to acknowledge the existence of other strips, making jokes about them and featuring guest appearances by characters from other comic strips. As Bloom County came to an end, Breathed had the characters go off in search of jobs in the other comics strips, such as Family Circle and Marmaduke. While some other comics have used this technique as well, notably Doonesbury, it remains rare in comics, and Bloom County was most often compared to Doonesbury for content and attitude. Also like Doonesbury, in 1987 Bloom County won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.

The strip was not without its flaws, the chief one being a lack of strong female characters, a lack Breathed was well aware of (and commented on in the strip). While the male characters stayed strong, the female characters dropped out. When the strip ended, the only female characters were Ronald-Ann, a poverty stricken African American girl and Rosebud the Basselope who earlier in the comic's run turned out to be female. Besides a lack of women characters, many readers felt that the comic was offensive and not funny and often lodged complaints with Breathed.

Breathed ended the strip in 1989 when he felt he had reached the end of what he could do with these characters. He followed Bloom County with a Sunday-only strip called Outland. The strip at first featured Opus and Ronald-Ann though most of Bloom County's cast eventually showed up. It never gained the popularity of its predecessor, and Breathed stopped writing comics and turned to the writing of children's books.

—P. Andrew Miller

Further Reading:

Astor, David. "Breathed Giving Up Newspaper Comics." Editor and Publisher. January 21, 1995.

Breathed, Berkeley. Bloom County Babylon. Boston, Little Brown, 1986.

——. Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County 1986-1989. Boston, Little Brown, 1990.

Buchalter, Gail. "Cartoonist Berke Breathed Feathers His Nest by Populating Bloom County with Rare Birds." People Weekly. August 6, 1984.