Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Long Read: Back Home To Bloom County

This week's Sunday Long Read is something a bit less serious than usual, but still worth it: cartoonist legend Berkeley Breathed has returned this summer to where he started, his Pulitzer Prize winning Bloom County strip, now being published 25 years later on Facebook.  Here's the transcript of his interview with Sam Briger of NPR's Fresh Air, and host Terry Gross.

GROSS: So there's an interesting back story that you had started telling me about how Berkeley Breathed brought back the strip in part because of his connection to Harper Lee who wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird." And this past summer, the original draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird" was published under the title of "Go Set A Watchman," and he was very upset when it was published.

BRIGER: Yeah, that's right. He had a big, emotional reaction to the publication, and mostly because he was upset how the character Atticus Finch was treated. In the original "To Kill A Mockingbird," Atticus Finch is this very heroic character and in "Go Set A Watchman," he's portrayed as a racist. And Berkeley Breathed was worried that this was going to kill off the character in the imagination of readers. And it made him reconsider his own characters.

GROSS: So why don't we get to that part of the interview that Sam did with Berkeley Breathed.

BERKELEY BREATHED: I watched slack-jawed in horror as they threw one of the 20th century's most iconic fictional heroes, Atticus Finch, under the bus. At the time - and this was a couple of months ago - it made me think that there would have been no "Bloom County" without "Mockingbird" because I was 12 I read it, and the book's fictional Southern small town of Maycomb had settled deep into my graphic imagination and informed it forever. If you look at any of my art for the past 30 years, there's always a small-town flavor to it.

So this summer, just a couple months ago when "Go Set A Watchman" was causing an uproar, I went back to my files and I pulled an old fan letter from years ago. It says (reading) dear Mr. Breathed, this is a plea from a dotty old lady and from others not dotty at all. Please don't shut down Opus. Can't you at least give him a reprieve? Opus is simply the best comic strip there is and depriving him of life is murder - a hard word to describe an obliteration of your creation. But Opus is real. He lives. Harper Lee, Monroeville, Ala.


BREATHED: When I pulled that out - I hadn't seen it for 25 years. And I choked up, and I thought about the preposterously ironic impossibility of my literary heroine from my childhood demanding that I not kill one of her fictional heroes. The universe throws us some obvious little pitches sometimes, and we need to be awake enough not to let them slip by. So that night I found the blank four frames of "Bloom County" from years before in my files, and I sat down to draw the first one in 30 years. And I posted it on Facebook in sort of a what-the-hell moment, and that's exactly how much careful reason sober forethought went into the whole thing. And then it exploded after that.

BRIGER: Is it strange to return to "Bloom County" after 25 years? What comes easier or harder for you now writing the strip?

BREATHED: Well, no. It's a reverse question. It's why does it come so easy rather than why did it come so hard before, which is what it did. I never met any of my deadlines for 5,000 comic strips in the 10 years that I did "Bloom County," not a single one, and it was because I was miserable. I was driven, but every single deadline was ripped out of my backend. I don't know why. I've long examined why that was so difficult and why the strip turned out even readable. But it's such a reverse now that I'm still - it's all so new. I'm still trying to figure out and decipher what it is that's happened in the ensuing 25 years that has turned that around into something that I can't wait to get up in the morning to do.

And ever if there was a more perfect moment for the return of Opus, Bill the Cat, and the rest of Bloom County's off-kilter residents, it's now. I'd like to think of it as the body politic's autonomic response to the sheer ridiculousness of the 2016 campaign so far.  Make sure you're following the strip on Facebook, because politics here has gotten so insane that you really do need a comic strip to make sense of it all.

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