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 Breathed
claims that he was destined for a career as a Starbucks barista, that his
1987 Pulitzer Prize was a huge mistake, and that the “accidentally
subversive attitude” in his strip was inspired by dead-line pressure and lack
of sleep. He (and the companion essay by Dean Mullaney and Bruce
Canwell) 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. There
are significant parallels, Mullaney & Canwell point out, between the 1980’s
and today (economic problems, trouble in the Middle East, polarized political
rhetoric). At that time, before our attention span was splintered by cable
news and the internet, most people, young & old still read newspapers. “It’s
fair to state,” Mullaney & Canwell say, “that Bloom County may have well
been 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 every
morning. For all his modest posturing, Breathed was a master at getting to
the heart of pop culture and human nature.
With this context in mind, I went to the Cartoon Art Museum to see Bloom
County to Mars: The Imagination of Berkeley Breathed, a selection of key
original artworks spanning from the beginning of Bloom County to his recent
work as a concept artist for the film Mars Needs Moms. The show is in the
main gallery, and seems to be evenly split between black & white drawings
for the strip, and color illustrations from his many book & film projects,
including his work for Secondhand Lions and Flawed Dogs (one of my
Berkeley Breathed. Self Portrait.Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum.
The tone is set by the first work on display, Breathed's “first and last”
editorial cartoon for the Austin American Statesman. This 1980 cartoon,
Honky Trek: The White Flight perfectly spoofs the famous poster for Star
Trek: The Motion Picture, with a trio of middle class Texans taking the place
of the Star Trek cast and a truck towing a U-Haul trailer in place of the
Enterprise. If there is any lack in the bounty of this show, it’s the absence
of any representative strips from Breathed's early work on The Academia
Waltz (for the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper of the University of
Texas, Austin). I can’t tell, from reading the commentary in the Bloom
County collection if they were in bad condition or Breathed is simply
embarrassed by his early work.
Whatever the reason, the viewer loses a chance to see the early
development of Breathed’s humor and drawing style, and the first
appearances of many of his cast of characters, Steve Dallas, Cutter John,
the Hare Krisna guy. What follows are some of Bloom County’s greatest
hits: The Empire Strikes Back spoof, where the cast celebrates the breakup
of 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 Sony
Walkman wearing woman that results in the line “Godzilla ate Arafat with
asparagus on a bun?" (10/31/82). Dialogs with the monster from the closet
of anxiety. Gary Trudeau sentenced to hang from chains in the Dungeon of
Misbehaving Cartoonists for missing deadlines (8/17/83). A spoof of the
(then) ubiquitous audio cassette commercial with Milo getting his hair blown
back ala Pete Murphy from Bauhaus (Is it live or is it Memorex? 6/13/83). I
had 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 of
chocolates shaped like Nicaragua (85). This section of the exhibit ends,
fittingly, with Bill and Opus looking in their underwear to “take a hard look at
the 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 viewer
is 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 the
overcommodification of that character. Bill is not upright, wearing
underwear, or sporting the extremely bug-eyed look we know and love later
in the character’s development. Yet, his essential “Bill-ness” is there, you
just know there’s something manic-depressive about this cat. After looking
at the whole range of the strips on display, I was taken with how the later
drawings still had meticulous detail, but the line work grew much more
expressive and looser. I suppose Breathed would claim that this was due to
lack 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 Outland
and Opus, and then continues with Breathed’s color work. I found it
fascinating to see his technique on these up close, the hard ink lines filled in
with soft yet defined highlights and shadows in a watercolor/airbrushed
looking style. His use of lighting is excellent. I was mesmerized by the way
that this combination of soft and hard, light and shadow led my eye through
the painting. On the whole, I’d say we are lucky that Starbucks missed out
on 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/