Berkeley Breathed at the Cartoon Art Museum Berkeley Breathed. Illustration from Pickles & Pete. Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum.In the first volume of the collected Bloom County (IDW), Berkeley Breathedclaims that he was destined for a career as a Starbucks barista, that his1987 Pulitzer Prize was a huge mistake, and that the “accidentallysubversive attitude” in his strip was inspired by dead-line pressure and lackof sleep. He (and the companion essay by Dean Mullaney and BruceCanwell) reminds of us of what the early 1980’s were like: Ronald Reagan,Johnny Carson, the Star Trek films, Charles and Diana, the hostage crisis,and what wasn’t there, such as the internet as we know it and MTV. Thereare significant parallels, Mullaney & Canwell point out, between the 1980’sand today (economic problems, trouble in the Middle East, polarized politicalrhetoric). At that time, before our attention span was splintered by cablenews and the internet, most people, young & old still read newspapers. “It’sfair to state,” Mullaney & Canwell say, “that Bloom County may have wellbeen the last newspaper comic strip to fully capture the nation’s attention.”This may be true… it certainly had mine; I couldn’t wait to read it everymorning. For all his modest posturing, Breathed was a master at getting tothe heart of pop culture and human nature.With this context in mind, I went to the Cartoon Art Museum to see BloomCounty to Mars: The Imagination of Berkeley Breathed, a selection of keyoriginal artworks spanning from the beginning of Bloom County to his recentwork as a concept artist for the film Mars Needs Moms. The show is in themain gallery, and seems to be evenly split between black & white drawingsfor the strip, and color illustrations from his many book & film projects,including his work for Secondhand Lions and Flawed Dogs (one of mypersonal favorites).
Berkeley Breathed. Self Portrait.Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum.The tone is set by the first work on display, Breatheds “first and last”editorial cartoon for the Austin American Statesman. This 1980 cartoon,Honky Trek: The White Flight perfectly spoofs the famous poster for StarTrek: The Motion Picture, with a trio of middle class Texans taking the placeof the Star Trek cast and a truck towing a U-Haul trailer in place of theEnterprise. If there is any lack in the bounty of this show, it’s the absenceof any representative strips from Breatheds early work on The AcademiaWaltz (for the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper of the University ofTexas, Austin). I can’t tell, from reading the commentary in the BloomCounty collection if they were in bad condition or Breathed is simplyembarrassed by his early work.Whatever the reason, the viewer loses a chance to see the earlydevelopment of Breathed’s humor and drawing style, and the firstappearances of many of his cast of characters, Steve Dallas, Cutter John,the Hare Krisna guy. What follows are some of Bloom County’s greatesthits: The Empire Strikes Back spoof, where the cast celebrates the breakupof the Ma Bell monopoly only to sight the Death Star on the horizon (the AT& T globe logo, 7/1/84). A misunderstanding between Opus and a SonyWalkman wearing woman that results in the line “Godzilla ate Arafat withasparagus on a bun?" (10/31/82). Dialogs with the monster from the closetof anxiety. Gary Trudeau sentenced to hang from chains in the Dungeon ofMisbehaving Cartoonists for missing deadlines (8/17/83). A spoof of the(then) ubiquitous audio cassette commercial with Milo getting his hair blownback ala Pete Murphy from Bauhaus (Is it live or is it Memorex? 6/13/83). Ihad forgotten how topical the strip was, taking on Apartheid and having Bill
the Cat woo (or be wooed) by Jeanne Kirkpatrick who sends him a box ofchocolates shaped like Nicaragua (85). This section of the exhibit ends,fittingly, with Bill and Opus looking in their underwear to “take a hard look atthe thing that brings meaning to men’s lives” (7/25/93)A 7/31/82 cartoon that introduced Bill the Cat is one place where the vieweris able to really observe and contemplate character development in the strip.Bill is still very cat-like, and is presented as a send-up of Garfield and theovercommodification of that character. Bill is not upright, wearingunderwear, or sporting the extremely bug-eyed look we know and love laterin the character’s development. Yet, his essential “Bill-ness” is there, youjust know there’s something manic-depressive about this cat. After lookingat the whole range of the strips on display, I was taken with how the laterdrawings still had meticulous detail, but the line work grew much moreexpressive and looser. I suppose Breathed would claim that this was due tolack of sleep. ACK! Berkeley Breathed. Concept art from Mars Needs Moms. Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum.The show is rounded out by one or two representative strips from Outlandand Opus, and then continues with Breathed’s color work. I found itfascinating to see his technique on these up close, the hard ink lines filled inwith soft yet defined highlights and shadows in a watercolor/airbrushedlooking style. His use of lighting is excellent. I was mesmerized by the waythat this combination of soft and hard, light and shadow led my eye throughthe painting. On the whole, I’d say we are lucky that Starbucks missed outon a promising barista, and Breathed pursued another career.This review was originally posted on my blog at http://kmunson-mac.blogspot.com/2011/03/berkeley-breathed-at-cartoon-art-museum.html March 23, 1011/