On Friday at BookExpo America, I had the good fortune to attend a panel given by Berkeley Breathed, cartoonist of Bloom County, and Scott Dunbier, the Special Projects Editor at comic and graphic novel publisher IDW Publishing. Breathed discussed the reasons for his return to Bloom County in detail, and why he’s done it in the form of digital media. At the same time, he announced the forthcoming release of his first new collection of strips in print since his return.
I learned a number of interesting things during this panel, first of which is that Mr. Breathed’s name is pronounced as “breath-ed” rather than the past tense of “breathe.” But that was only the beginning.
Breathed began by discussing what led him to restart Bloom County in July, 2015. A lot of fans (including me, in the article I just linked) believed it was due to Donald Trump—one of Breathed’s favorite targets in the halcyon days of the original Bloom County strip—returning to prominence as he ran for President. Breathed said he let that image proceed, but it was actually a complete coincidence. Breathed had been thinking about coming back for some time for other reasons.
He added that he got in a run of strips satirizing Trump early in the new Bloom County strip, then dropped the subject of Trump for good. As far as satire is concerned, Breathed notes, what he expected has come to pass—Trump has “jumped the shark.” You simply can’t make fun of someone who manages to be more ridiculous than anything you could write all on his own.
A bigger reason he came back, Breathed explained, was that he felt he had grown and matured considerably since his earlier days, and wanted to see what it would be like to do Bloom County “as an adult.” He’d done the original Bloom County when he was a kid just out of college and “emotionally 12,” which was why he had so much trouble with meeting deadlines. Now he has a wife and kid, and the extra maturity that comes with them.
One benefit of doing the comic independently is that he has no editors except his wife, and no one can fire him. However, he does have Facebook readers who let him know within an hour or so whenever he’s late with a new strip.
In a way, the genesis for the idea came when Scott Dunbier talked Breathed into doing a complete collection of Bloom County, rather than the books they’d used to do where they collected some of the best storylines in any given year and put them out. Scott had come up, collected boxes covered with snake urine out of Breathed’s basement, and turned them into books. It was the way those books sold that convinced Breathed there was still a market for the comic.
When he started doing Bloom County again, he did so quietly, without saying anything about it beforehand, because he still wasn’t sure he could follow through and didn’t want to build up expectations if he couldn’t. In the end, he simply snuck the new strip out onto Facebook, which isn’t how you’re “supposed” to do it.
Breathed’s “editor” now is his wife, who had no idea who he was when she married him but was then editing him within six months—not just for typos, but pointing out areas where the art needs to be changed to make more sense for the story. “Your third panel with Opus looking to the right—no one will understand that at all. He needs to be looking at his shoes for the joke to work.”
The old Bloom County was completely unedited, which is why he was so happy to drop most of his strips and only collect the best 20% or so in the old days. Breathed said he would often send off strips back in the eighties, then come back and read them and not even be able to understand them himself. He compared it to “what you think is funny when you’re drunk.”
Breathed moved on to relate a couple of stories about traditional publishing from back in the day. When Little, Brown published 10,000 copies of his first Bloom County book, the publisher printed 10,000 copies and gave him an advance of $5,000. When he pointed out to his editor that he’d had 20,000 copies of a book he’d published in Austin sell, the editor lectured him on how presumptuous he was as a new author and how lucky he was to be published at all. Of course, the book sold out immediately and was out of stock for six weeks while they went back to print more, and ended up selling 1.3 million copies.
It wasn’t just the publisher who was surprised, either. “We would go to retail buyers who were 22 and had never heard of Bloom County, would only buy one book per store, and were constantly getting surprised.”
Scott Dunbier related an amusing story of how he was constantly getting complaints about the Bloom County collections from readers who saw that some strips were different from the way they’d appeared in newspapers and accused Scott of messing with Berke’s work. The truth was that it was the newspapers who’d published the strips that had messed with them—if Berke touched on a subject that was sensitive in their area, the editors would change the strip before they ran it, but the collected version was Breathed’s original.
Breathed said that part of the reason for his return was that he wanted to know what it was like to be eager to draw again. In the old days, he never got instant feedback, but now he gets it immediately from Facebook whenever he posts a strip. He gets emails from people whose parents read them Bloom County when they were kids, and now they’re able to rediscover it and reconnect with their parents. Charles Dickens never got this kind of instant feedback when he was writing his serials, Breathed observed.
He’s also getting numbers that surprise him. When he did a tribute strip to the deceased recording artist Prince, it was liked by 70,000 people, shared by 50,000, and reached an audience numbering in the millions. (Actually, on checking the strip, Breathed’s numbers are slightly out of date; it currently shows 91,000 “likes” and almost 82,000 “shares.”) His audience numbers are almost back where they were in the old days, when people were reading him in 1,200 newspapers across the country.
“People ask me why I’m not back in newspapers,” Breathed said, then asked the audience, “but how many of you read daily newspapers anymore?” Not too many people raised their hands. And given how newspapers have been cutting back on their comics pages, Scott Dunbier put in, it’s simply not the right market anymore—it’s evolved and changed. (As if to emphasize the point, the latest Bloom County comic strip has a little sign saying “These aren’t back” pointing to the newspaper one character is reading.)
Breathed noted that when he did a series of April Fool’s Day strips in which he impersonated Calvin and Hobbes artist Bill Watterson, he expected to hear from Watterson’s lawyers and was surprised when he didn’t.
Finally, Breathed discussed another inspiration for resuming Bloom County: deceased novelist Harper Lee. Her publisher decided to publish Go Set a Watchman, her half-baked first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, risking harming her and her characters’ reputations to earn a few bucks. When that happened, it reminded him of the relationship he and Lee had used to have. Breathed said that Bloom County had been greatly inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird, and he’d set the strip in the same kind of small-town environment Lee had used, and tried to do his strip as if it was being written by Harper Lee.
Then, twenty-five years later, Harper Lee herself became one of Bloom County’s biggest fans. Breathed was shocked to receive a letter from her (because “no one gets letters from her”) begging him not to “kill Opus.” Breathed remarked on the irony of that request coming from the woman whose work had been such a huge inspiration for his strip, who had only ever written one book herself. “I should have found a gentle way of telling her I’ll let Opus live if you bring Boo back.”
After that, Breathed took questions from the audience. I myself asked something that had been puzzling me for some time—why Breathed continued publishing strips only on Facebook rather than launching a webcomic site of his own. Breathed replied that it was a good question and they have contemplated it, but he didn’t feel it was possible to replace the community that has sprung up on Facebook around the strips. “We have hundreds of thousands of people who love talking to each other. They consider it their breakfast club. They meet their friends there, talk about their problems…”
He added that he and his wife manage the community very carefully and constantly clean it of all snark and negativity. Breathed’s wife gets up at 5 a.m. and cleans out all the trolls (who do come out if he slips too far into politics.) (I have to say, Breathed’s wife sounds like an absolute saint, and I really hope he manages to hold onto her.) “Fans love it that it’s a peaceful, kind, good place to hang out. We provide a safe Facebook landing spot for people that we don’t feel can be duplicated by a website.”
Another fan asked where Breathed saw himself in a few years. Breathed replied that the strip was going month by month right now, and he was having a great time. You could get rich in the old days, but it’s hard to do that now. If you do it now, you do it because you love it—and you can see that from reading the strip. “I can’t promise I’ll do it for twenty years, but for the next few years, sure.”
Another fan asked about the possibility of more Bloom County animation, and Breathed said that for a while they’d been working with the Weinstein brothers on the possibility of an animated movie, but the deal fell apart because the Weinstein brothers didn’t want Opus to talk to people. Apparently at the time it wasn’t “done” in American animation that talking animals actually talked to humans. They just talked to other animals. Of course, that’s all changed since then.
Breathed also noted that at one point he’d been in talks with the producers of Family Guy to do a Bloom County animated TV series, but he wouldn’t have been able to write every episode. Breathed was fairly sure that if he couldn’t keep that kind of creative control, it wouldn’t have turned out well—and again, he had the example of Go Set a Watchman to remind him that it wasn’t a good idea to sell out your beloved characters for a quick buck.
After that, Breathed set up at a table to sign autographs of a special preview chapbook collecting much of the new Facebook Bloom County. A full-sized collection is due out this fall. I got one autographed for me, and later went by his booth at IDW to get another one autographed for a friend (and a photo taken with him). I also suggested he might come to Gen Con, and meet some of the experienced webcomic artists who attend there.
It was terrific to have the chance to meet Mr. Breathed, and to hear about the impetus behind his much-beloved comic’s revival. (If only Bill Watterson could be persuaded to come back, too!) But one interesting thing that struck me about it is that Breathed is very much a member of the prior media generation. His experience in the old school traditional media publication environment still informs his outlook, and he seems to be feeling his way into new media very gradually.
There are plenty of webcomics with their own sites who nonetheless have thriving Facebook communities, after all—there’s no need for the strip to have to be posted exclusively there for that to be the case, and the external site would let Breathed scoop some additional money from advertising, if he did it tastefully. But folks who don’t want to have anything to do with social media do still have a way to get their Bloom County reboot fix thanks to GoComics, which is just a day or two behind the Facebook version of the strip.
But in any event, I’m happy to have Bloom County back at all, and I’m glad I invested when the Humble Bundle sold the complete digital collection of Bloom County a few months ago. (I ought to get around to reading it.) It’s interesting to get Breathed’s old-media perspective on the new world of digital distribution—especially on how newspaper comics aren’t terribly relevant anymore. When you get right down to it, even the comics that still show up in daily newspapers have a home on the web in the form of GoComics, but they’re just the beginning of the vast expanse of the web comic universe. It’s great to see Berke Breathed has joined that universe.