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Stand-up comics

Returning with 'Opus,' Berkeley Breathed wants to bring art -- and conviction -- to the funnies.

November 22, 2003|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

BERKELEY BREATHED is clutching a piece of paper and talking fast. The 46-year-old cartoonist has just arrived for lunch at a high-end Mexican restaurant in Montecito called CaVa. "Have you seen this?" he asks, passing the paper across the table, mouth curving into a grin beneath his mustache, eyes hidden behind a pair of wraparound shades. "Look carefully. What do you see?"

The paper, as it happens, is a printout of a recent "B.C." comic strip by Johnny Hart. It's a simple gag, three panels, in which, beneath a nighttime sky, a caveman walks toward an outhouse, enters and mutters, "Is it just me or does it stink in here?"

On the surface, the strip appears to have nothing to it, but Breathed thinks there's more to the picture than meets the eye. First, he points out, are the crescent moons, six of them, three in the sky and three on the outhouse door. Then, there's the word "SLAM," interjected in capital letters between two panels, a sound effect to mark the closing of the outhouse door.

"Johnny Hart," he says, "is a born-again Christian, and the crescent moon is a symbol of Islam. So you see six separate images of a crescent moon, and he makes a joke about is it just him or does it stink in here. And Johnny has written "SLAM" vertically. Slam/Islam. Basically, he's calling Islam [excrement]." In the Washington Post on Friday, Hart rejected such a reading, saying the comic was just a "silly" bathroom joke. While Breathed remains skeptical, he is most interested in what this says about comics as an art.

"Putting his sentiments aside," he says, "the operative point is that it's a breath of fresh air to see the soul of the creator come through in his work. Because what's happened on the comics page is that strips have been taken over by distant relatives of the original creators, or by corporations that continue them long after their creators are dead.

"It represents not an art form but a gag machine that turns the page into a soulless exercise. And this is a terrific example of what a writer is supposed to do. Johnny's exposed himself wide open here. What you're seeing is a guy's personal passion laid out on the page. That's how comics started; there was a single voice. 'Garfield' is going to be 'Garfield' forever because it's written by a small corporate entity the author long ago hired to do it for him. The whole idea is to keep the strip so benign that no one can tell there's a human behind it."

For Breathed (pronounced breth-ed), this exegesis on the state of comics is more than a matter of aesthetic speculation; it's an issue of his livelihood. On Sunday, after eight years of writing children's books and working in Hollywood, he will return to the comics page with a new feature called "Opus," featuring the iconic penguin of his Pulitzer Prize-winning strip "Bloom County," which from its 1981 debut until Breathed voluntarily ended it in 1989 was unlike anything else in the daily newspaper, an idiosyncratic mix of "Doonesbury," "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Peanuts," all refracted through its creator's anarchic mind.

In one installment, a boy named Milo goes to the Lost and Found at Sears, claiming to have lost his youthful idealism; as the strip progresses, he realizes that he's also lost his sense of optimism, his patience and his temper, until finally the beleaguered Lost and Found employee wonders, "P-Please! Hasn't anybody lost anything tangible?!"

In another, Milo accompanies Opus to a clothing store, where the penguin says he dislikes dressing rooms because you never know when a strange woman (Margaret Thatcher, he conjectures) might walk in. As Milo rolls his eyes, a clutch of beauties crowds into the dressing room, proclaiming, "Hi! We're the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders ... Peekaboo!"

Whether "Opus" will share this lighthearted surrealism, this fluid interplay of reality and invention, Breathed will not say. In fact, he won't talk about the content of the strip at all, not even to many of the 150 or so newspapers that have signed up to carry it, including The Times. About all he'll reveal is that he felt he'd left Opus unfinished, even though he continued the character's adventures in a spinoff strip called "Outland" that ran until 1995.

"If someone asks about Opus," he says, "I don't think I could answer enough questions. So Opus is coming back. It'll still be Opus, although it will look different, and it won't have the other characters. But I'm terribly curious about my own character, who I don't think I explored fully enough, and I want to have some fun."

Of course, the unspoken question is why, given his curiosity about Opus, Breathed shut down "Bloom County" in the first place. Other strips, "Doonesbury" included, have carved out long lives by weaving current events into an invented universe. When it first appeared, in fact, "Bloom County" was among the few comics to rely on contemporary culture -- what Breathed calls "the unceasing drumbeat of pop references" -- as part of its repertoire.

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