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Strip That Split the Cartoonists

November 26, 1987|CHARLES SOLOMON

Since his comic strip, "Bloom County," debuted in 1980, Berke Breathed has consistently infuriated Christian fundamentalists, political conservatives and even his fellow artists. In the process, ironically, he's become one of the nation's most popular and successful newspaper cartoonists.

When the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded Breathed the 1987 prize for cartooning, members of the Assn. of American Editorial Cartoonists attacked the decision with unprecedented anger and bitterness. (When Garry Trudeau became the first strip cartoonist to receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, for "Doonesbury," the group merely passed a resolution protesting the award.)

Oliphant Led Way

Former Pulitzer winner Pat Oliphant led the way by denouncing "Bloom County" as "a highly derivative comic strip . . . that makes the pretense of passing off shrill potty jokes and grade school sight gags as social commentary."

Yet "Bloom County" appears in more than 1,200 newspapers with an estimated daily audience of more than 40 million. If Breathed sometimes seems to alienate most everybody, that doesn't seem to bother most of his readers.

Based on "The Academia Waltz," a strip he drew as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, "Bloom County" premiered in the Washington Post, replacing "DuPont Circle" (a topical strip designed to fill the gap left when the Post lost "Doonesbury" to the rival Washington Star).

Breathed's early strips bore a marked resemblance to "Doonesbury," and the artist was widely accused of cloning Trudeau's cartoons. (Trudeau usually declines to comment on Breathed, but he told the Post: "There's a point where imitation ceases to be flattering.")

"I've never been a comics fan," Breathed explains. " 'Doonesbury' was the first strip I ever paid attention to and followed regularly--which may explain the obvious roots of 'Bloom County.' "

During the seven years he's been drawing the strip, Breathed has gradually found his own voice, although Trudeau's influence can still be seen in the way he structures and paces many of his gags.

He's developed a repertory company of oddball characters, which includes the jaded Milo Bloom; Michael Binkley, a timorous connoisseur of celebrity gossip; Bill the Cat, a scuzzy feline; Rosebud, the last remaining "Basselope" (a basset hound with antlers, vaguely akin to a Jackalope) and the sleaze-bag lawyer, Steve Dallas. Rounding out the cast are paraplegic Vietnam veteran Cutter John; diminutive black hacker Oliver Wendell Jones, and Breathed's most popular creation, Opus the penguin, the perpetually befuddled observer of the world's descent into madness.

Over the years, "Bloom County" has become wilder, louder (the characters tend to shout the punch lines) and, often, sillier. Its freewheeling shenanigans contrast with Trudeau's sharply focused political satire. Breathed pokes fun at the gossip column elite more often than politicians.

"I'm very interested in politics, but I've made an effort to keep pure politics out of the strip," he says. "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." Other episodes of "Bloom County" have included a scandalous romance between Bill the Cat and then-U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and a proposal by Opus and Oliver Jones to build an adjunct to the "Star Wars" by sewing 500 billion dollar bills into an orbiting net for enemy missiles. During the brouhaha over Vanessa Williams appearing in Penthouse, photos of Mr. America/Mr. Bloom County Steve Dallas turned up in "Dog World" ("Arf! He's nude!").

"I really am a schizophrenic cartoonist," Breathed states. "The two cartoonist I admire most are Walt Disney and Pat Oliphant (and I'm aware of the irony in the latter choice). There's a side of me that reads the New Republic and wants to spill out on paper all the anger I might have on a particular issue. But I can also really lose myself in a fantasy like the work of Walt Disney or "Winnie the Pooh." So I have those two sides tugging me in opposite directions. I may read the morning paper and get riled up, but by 4 in the afternoon, I'm wishing I was living in the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh. 'Bloom County' should be seen as a hybrid: It'll never satisfy purists on either side."

Breathed's irreverent stance helps to explain the bitter, personal anger many editorial cartoonists expressed at his winning the Pulitzer.

"My first objection is to the general uselessness of the Pulitzers: I wish it could be upgraded to a worthy professional award people could feel good about winning," Pat Oliphant said in a telephone interview. "I object to my profession being impinged upon by people like Breathed, who see themselves as rock stars, rather than cartoonists. It's negatively affecting what I would like to have taken as a serious form of commentary."

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