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Creating a new opus

October 03, 2009|Geoff Boucher

Berkeley Breathed, the creator of the comic strips "Bloom County" and "Opus," lives on a high hilltop in Santa Barbara -- yes, the money from all those Bill the Cat T-shirts has added up nicely -- but on a recent afternoon when he looked down at the churn of the blue-gray ocean, he seemed to feel the undertow of nagging regret.

"When you're young, you miss things, you just don't see them," said the 52-year-old Breathed, who walked away from comic strips last year because the Digital Age had eroded his newsprint audience and, worse, his artistic vigor and sense of whimsy. There are other pursuits now: Breathed has written and illustrated an entire shelf of bestselling children's books, including last month's "Flawed Dogs: The Novel," and he has some Hollywood ventures in play. But a lavish new collection of his past work, "Bloom County: The Complete Library," stirred up some bittersweet reflection as he gave a tour of his home studio.

"Not to sound like someone swinging their cane, but in the 1980s there weren't a thousand other voices screaming to be heard at the same time," Breathed said of the decade when his "Bloom County" was featured in more than 1,200 newspapers and he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. "There was a quiet in the room that made being a commentator very exciting. There was no Web, there was barely any cable TV. If you were looking for humorous topical commentary, you would go to the Johnny Carson monologue, 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Doonesbury.' That was it. After you have the silence of that room, you get really weary with the screaming it takes today. There's also this bitterness in the public square now that is difficult to avoid. I never did an angry strip, but in recent years I saw that sneaking in."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 09, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Berkeley Breathed: An article about "Bloom County" creator Berkeley Breathed in Saturday's Calendar said that he arrived at the University of Texas at Austin in 1978 at age 18. He was indeed 18 when he started there but the year was 1975.

In the 1980s, Breathed was a sensation fresh from the college campus and, both brash and insecure, he didn't always handle the spotlight well. He was viewed as a lone wolf in the quirky and stodgy community of comic-strip artists, and he didn't build any bridges by announcing to the world that he had no knowledge of the field's history, craft or conventions. That led to some indelicate decisions, such as his choice not to follow up on a kind gesture that arrived in the mail one morning not long after Breathed was injured in a 1986 ultralight plane crash.

"The major regret in my cartooning life is I didn't get to know him," Breathed said, pointing up to the framed art from a "Peanuts" strip signed by the late Charles Schulz. "He sent me that as a get-well gift when I broke my back. This was a time when I was a pariah to the comics old guard. It was an opening, and I let the opportunity pass. Just a few months ago, I went up and visited with his wife, Jeannie, and I was tearful leaving. I would have loved to have been able to call him my friend."

Then there's the schism between Breathed and Garry Trudeau, the satirical mind behind "Doonesbury." The two artists' work appeared in papers side by side for years, but they have never shaken hands. There's a reason. The younger cartoonist, searching for a style, borrowed plenty from "Doonesbury" and then chafed when the elder artist pointed that fact out in public.

"He came as close to a hero for me as I was going to have in the comics world," Breathed said. "But I earned his spite by doing a lot of things wrong, and then when he called me on it, and did so relatively benignly, I was a smartass. I was, what, 21? I didn't handle it well. After that, he had no interest in having a beer with me."

Breathed also wishes he could connect with Bill Watterson, the "Calvin and Hobbes" artist who was Breathed's fan, friend and rival but who now does everything he can to stay off the grid. "There are people searching for him, reporters, documentary makers and fans, but he doesn't want to be found," Breathed said, sounding like the last member of a dysfunctional tribe. "I have a box of letters from him. You should see the drawings on them. He is a once-in-a-century talent."


Critical of his

early drawings

Breathed speaks of his own work with far less enthusiasm. He never aspired to be a cartoonist -- "It was an accidental career," he said with a smirk, "to say the least" -- and it pains him a bit to see the rough edges of his early work, which is now seeing the light of day in the five-volume series "Bloom County: The Complete Library" (IDW Publishing, $39.99 each, the 285-page Vol. 1 is now on sale).

"It's embarrassing. I should have worked out all that stuff before I got in the public sphere," he said. When asked about the vivid, color-rich art today, he shrugged. "It's airbrush, which is for cheaters. It's the perfect medium for people that don't know what they're doing."

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