Thursday, August 13, 2009

Q&A: Berkeley Breathed (pt. 2)

Here’s the rest of my 1982 interview with cartoonist Berke Breathed. Mark your calendars: Volume One of the complete “Bloom County” collection is due out in October.
DAVID MILLS: You do some political suff in “Bloom County,” like on James Watt or the nuclear issue, but you don’t do a whole lot about President Reagan directly. How come?

BERKELY BREATHED: There’s more to the world than politics. And there’s so much political commentary in the world right now – and in this country right now – it’s almost overwhelming.

It’s almost an easy shot. So I don’t find political figures as such good material for “Bloom County.” ... I mean, everyone’s screaming about Reagan right now. It’s not going to help if I do too.

MILLS: There’s nothing about drugs in “Bloom County.” Is that a topic you won’t write about?

BREATHED: For two reasons, I would really shy away from having any commentary on drugs. One is that it’s an old subject.

Drugs are not a social happening any more, basically. Whatever they are, they’re not intertwined with any social upheaval like they were in the ’60s. It was almost a social statement to be taking drugs, so it was almost worthy to talk about.

But Christ, nowadays all you hear about them is people dying from them. So the only thing I would say about drugs is that they’re basically pretty much out of vogue and I see little merit in them.

If I’m going to be doing a strip where it can be influencing people, I think it’s not wise nowadays to have any characters taking drugs, even if you’re making a negative comment on them. ...

It’s just not an issue any more.

MILLS: What has been the most controversial topic you’ve dealt with?

BREATHED: No doubt about it: Prince Charles and Lady Di. It’s definitely an untouchable subject as far as a great many people in the world think – like with the pope – for some reason.

I find that funny by itself, that basically these two people in the world who have absolutely no responsibilities are considered above almost everything, including any satirical comment.

MILLS: If anything, you’ll go down in comics history for having presented the first handicapped regular character, Cutter John.

BREATHED: I’m getting a Disability Awareness Award from the Paralyzed Veterans of America in Oklahoma City for that character, so I’m very proud of him.

MILLS: What made you think to have a character in a wheelchair?

BREATHED: No big deal. Being someone who appreciates good characters, in a novel or a comic strip or whatever, it just seemed like an interesting thing to explore – someone’s perspective from a wheelchair.

But I have no great claims to any humanitarian reasons for doing it. It just seemed a good idea to present a disabled person as somebody that could function independent of his disability, without making a major statement on his disability every time he appeared, such as most TV shows seem to do.

MILLS: How do the animals fit in? I mean, some days the strip is very realistic...

BREATHED: Sure, and then you see a bear and a rabbit sitting there talking to everybody. That just reflects my attraction to a little bit of fantasy. A strip can get too dry if it’s reflecting real life too much.

I think it makes it a little more interesting to throw in something that just absolutely shouldn’t be there in realistic terms. Otherwise, why do a comic strip? Why not throw in a talking penguin, for Christ’s sake?

MILLS: Why is it that, after “Doonesbury” broke the mold, there haven’t been other strips like “Bloom County,” with a very contemporary sense of humor?

BREATHED: I haven’t the slightest idea. As I said, I think the people with more to offer than others head elsewhere. And certainly I would too if I had a chance.

Comics are obviously not my first love, and there are other things to do. But I don’t know.

I think if more people realized how much freedom they had on the comics page and the magnitude of its potential and communicative powers, there might be more of a draw to talented people.

What has been done in the last 10 years except “Garfield” that’s gotten any attention at all? And 10 years is a long time for there to be a drought in any artistic area. ...

If the artist had more control, I think you’d find better quality on the comics page. But the syndicates keep the artist as pretty much employees, and they mold their product, just to be able to sell easily and not to upset anybody and to keep the money rolling in. So you find little experimentation.

Although I must admit that, now that I’m looking, I’m seeing a lot more avant-garde humor on the comic page, especially in one-panel strips. Like “The Far Side” and “Guindon.” That’s good to see.

My God, the stuff that’s usually been in those one-panel strips for 50 years has been pretty bad. I mean, “Dennis the Menace” is fine, but it’s time to move on.

MILLS: How much of your time does it take to do “Bloom County”?

BREATHED: I work about five days out of the month.

MILLS: What do you do with the rest of your time?

BREATHED: Work on other projects. Compose music, all sorts of things. Travel.

MILLS: Do you write?

BREATHED: I would like to think that I will in the future. But not at the moment.

MILLS: How long do you plan to keep the strip going?

BREATHED: I won’t say. But I would make this comment: A wise comic-strip artist should realize that there is a life span to a comic strip, and it’s not meant to be immortal.

The reason some strips have died such inglorious deaths in the past, such as “Li’l Abner” and “Pogo” – almost embarrassing demises – is because somebody thought it would be worthwhile to carry on either after the death of the original artist, or after the strip had just fulfilled its potential. To squeeze as much money out of it as possible....

I realize that it’s tough for an artist, after developing a strip for five or 10 years, to decide to cut it. But I think a comparison can be made to good television shows.

If you notice, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” got out of it before it started decaying. They’re taking “M*A*S*H” off the air. It’s still a big hit, but they realize they can’t continue it.

There’s going to be so much you can do. And when you go beyond that invisible line, you start getting old, stale, out of date. ...

I mean, look what Al Capp did. He continued his strip for so long, he continued his ways of thinking right into the middle of the liberal ’60s, and it killed him – almost literally and figuratively.

He should have cut the strip off at its peak, or right after he detected its decline.

MILLS: When you’re through with “Bloom County,” what area do you want to get into?

BREATHED: Oh, I’ve got some ideas, but I wouldn’t say. All I would say is that I admire film and television a great deal. ...

I mean, for me to create a batch of characters and let people get to know them, it takes at least a year, unless I’ve got extremely simple strips.

But I’ve got 25 characters, and to get their story across to anybody, it takes drawing strips every day for an entire year, while I could do it in two hours in a movie.

It’s an extremely slow medium, frustratingly slow, and something that would probably keep me from staying in it for too long.

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