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Strip That Split the Cartoonists

November 26, 1987|CHARLES SOLOMON

"A Pulitzer Prize is not a license for on-the-job training," says Los Angeles Times' Paul Conrad, who has won the award three times. "This is one of the few examples I know in the history of cartooning and the award itself that it's been given to encourage young artists. I don't think strip cartoons generally belong in the same category as editorial cartoons: They're entertainment, and that's about it. They aren't journalism."

"My attitude upset the editorial cartoonists," Breathed replies. "They find each political happening monumental, as is their job. A comic strip is more permanent; it's a waste of time to use one to comment on the political trivialities of the day. 'Bloom County' is not a political strip for that reason. I won the Pulitzer for editorializing, which is a whole different matter. God knows, society needs its hard-bitten political commentators, but I've never seen that as my role."

Some of the criticism the editorial cartoonists have aimed at Breathed seems to be deflected anger at the '80s mentality his strip reflects. "Doonesbury" embodies the strongly committed liberal politics of the late '60s/early '70s. The tone of "Bloom County" is closer to the smart-aleck, frat-house hipness of "Saturday Night Live" and "The David Letterman Show," where a good put-down line counts for more than the correct political stance.

And although the Pulitzer has traditionally been given to editorial cartoonists, "political" and "editorial" don't appear in the official description of the category. The award is given "for a distinguished example of a cartoonist's work, the determining qualities being that the cartoons shall embody an idea made clearly apparent, shall show good drawing and striking pictorial effect, and shall be intended to be helpful to some commendable cause of public importance."

"Breathed is much more of an anarchist than some political cartoonists," comments Matt Groening, who draws the often outrageous strip, "Life in Hell." "I think his message comes through clearly, but it's based on excitement and contempt for what's going on in our culture. More traditional political cartoonists are engaged in scoring points, like a tennis game; Breathed levels a cannon that shoots custard pies. He has to couch his point of view in silly garb, otherwise they'd string him up."

Even couched in silly garb, Breathed's views often provoke angry responses.

In June, he introduced a fundamentalist woman named Edith Dreck: "Dreck" means "trash" in American slang, but the Rev. Donald Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., chairman of the National Federation for Decency, discovered the word means "excrement" in the original Yiddish. He wrote to the syndicate that distributes "Bloom County," asking that Breathed be fired because "there is no room in our society for religious hatred and bias."

Wildmon's charges annoyed Breathed, who says he heard the word growing up in Encino in a Jewish neighborhood, but didn't know its Yiddish meaning: "I couldn't convince them I wasn't playing the adolescent and trying to sneak something by."

A bigger controversy erupted earlier this month when Breathed spoofed the recent National Football League strike by having his characters stage a walkout, demanding more room in newspapers for comics strips. As a "scab replacement" for Opus, Steve Dallas brought in Punk, Oliphant's signature penguin, who declared, "Reagan sucks!" Nineteen small Southern papers in the Donrey Media Chain dropped "Bloom County" because the editors deemed the language objectionable.

When the Pueblo, Colo., Chieftain declined to print the strips, a reporter at a local radio station urged listeners to protest the suspension. The paper received more than 1,000 calls.

Even Breathed's most vehement detractors can't deny his success. His work is wildly popular with young readers, especially college students, who buy millions of "Bloom County" T-shirts, calendars and stuffed Opus dolls each year. The latest collection of his work, "Billy and the Boingers Bootleg," remains on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times trade-paperback best-seller list (more than 850,000 copies sold), and total sales for the five "Bloom County" books have passed the 4 million mark.

The 30-year-old cartoonist (who "never expected to make a dime off the strip") and his wife, photographer Joy Boyman, divide their time between a home in Colorado and a 54-foot Italian cruiser (The Penguin Lust) they keep in Florida. Unlike the stereotypical quiet, reclusive cartoonist, Breathed owns an assortment of speed boats, motorcycles and fast cars.

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