by KC Carlson
At first glance, Bloom County seems like an odd choice for archival quality comic strip collections, since it’s only some 30 years old (as opposed to some of the 50, 60, 70, or even older strips currently being archived). And all of its original collections are still in print. But upon closer inspection, there are a lot of gaps (and dropped strips) in those collections, leading to a fairly big cache of “lost” or uncollected strips, demanding a complete reprinting. With the publication of Bloom County: The Complete Library: Volume One 1980-1982 (the first of a projected five volumes), the vaults have been thrown open and those “lost” strips are finally coming back into the light. And what a fascinating story they tell!
First off, this is like reading a totally different comic strip altogether. As the series starts, the only recognizable regular in evidence is young Milo Bloom – and he’s not quite himself yet. The rest of the strip is populated with lots of elderly folks, including Milo’s grandfather. Initially identified as Major P. Flynn, but later known as Major Bloom, he’s an elderly right-winger who owns and runs the boarding house where many of the characters in the strip live. Helping him is his (apparent) wife (the name thing confuses me), Bess, also known as Ma Bloom, who keeps the Major on an even keel and affectionately cares about everyone – including the cockroaches who live in the house, whom she feeds regularly as if they were pets. There’s also a basset hound named Rabies (a holdover from Breathed’s college comic strip, The Academia Waltz, see below) and a couple of other elderly borders, Rubie Tucker (and her cat, Spartacus) and Pops Popolove – all three of whom almost immediately disappear.
Most of the first year of the strip has never been collected (except for a few strips in the Bloom County Babylon collection, and then without any kind of annotation or explanation of just what the hell they were). I’m guessing that at least 40 or 50% of the strips here haven’t seen the light of day since they were first published in newspapers back in 1980 and 1981.
In Bloom County: The Complete Library, annotation is the name of the game. This first volume starts out with an introduction by Breathed, spilling some key elements in the creation of the strip and indicating that this warts-and-all collection includes “some big ugly ones” – an amazing admission from a creator who’s been a part of some creative revisionism in previous reprint collections. (Although I suspect that, due to the nature of the strip, occasionally some of the changes were of the legal necessity type. We will probably never actually know.) Usually the changes are nothing too drastic – some re-written dialog here or some cleaned-up artwork there. But it took me less than 15 minutes on the internet to discover sites with before-and-after changes from original printing to collected version. So people have noticed.
Things have been changed or compromised beyond Breathed’s control anyway. Beginning, believe it or not, in the second published strip, where the punchline of a joke was changed (presumably by the syndicate) from “contraceptive jelly” to “denture adhesive”. We know this because of the book’s strip-by-strip running annotation. There are actually two tracks of notes here: Breathed’s insightful comments, and historical notes (usually explaining forgotten politicians and minor celebrities) by the Library of American Comics’ Creative Director Dean Mullaney and Associate Editor Bruce Canwell (who also provide the historical background and setting of the strip in their informative introduction). One wishes for more comments from Breathed, but what is here is illuminating.
Other introductory matter includes a smattering of strips from Breathed’s college-era The Academia Waltz, reprinted from the University of Texas, Austin’s The Daily Texan, circa 1978 and 1979. These are also annotated and feature some strips that were eventually re-worked for Bloom County. Of special interest are the six non-continuity Bloom County strips produced by Breathed and supplied to the syndicate as substitutes in case regular strips arrived late. They are all reprinted here for the first time.
Back to the strip itself. The early Bloom County was obviously a strip in search of a direction, and that search involved many different experiments, both creatively and stylistically. It’s been fairly well-documented that the strip’s origins are much influenced by Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, both blatantly and unconsciously – and to which Breathed freely, if uncomfortably, admits several times in this volume. Some of that may be because of the syndicate’s intent – Breathed was originally hired to do Bloom County to replace Doonesbury in the Washington Post after the latter strip defected to a rival newspaper. There is an artistic similarity, at least until Breathed’s unique artistic style eventually coalesced. After that first year or so that it took Breathed to break out of his shell, Bloom County developed its own manic style of energy that eventually could not be mistaken for the more sedate Doonesbury.
It was a bumpy road at first, certainly not helped by the introduction of a now-forgotten character called Charles Limekiller, an occasional crazed vagrant of a character who came to live in the Bloom boarding house. In Breathed’s words, he was “a sloppy retread of Doonesbury’s Duke” – something pointed out in a series of spicy letters from Trudeau to Breathed. Limekiller is all over the first year’s strips, rapidly changing appearance and personalities, probably in an effort to get him away from any perceived “Dukeness”, but also because it’s fairly obvious that Breathed had no idea what to do with him. As Breathed says in his notes, “Being without focus, I was muddling about, looking for a center. Thievery occurs effortlessly in this state.”
To be fair, there are other strips besides Doonesbury that Breathed was pinching from, at least unconsciously. All of the kids in this strip talk and reason remarkably like adults (ala Peanuts) and talking animals are a time honored tradition in comic strips since (at least) Mickey Mouse, but I’m guessing that Breathed had at least a passing interest in Pogo, one of the most famous and popular (as well as political).
Meanwhile, Milo (virtually the only character from this era who survives throughout the run of the strip) is pretty much carrying the younger generation point of view, but he’s trapped in a storyline where he’s coping with his pending puberty by having conversations with the bathroom mirror (another Doonesbury rip). This includes some strips where Milo fears that he’s going bald, which feature him imagining that he’s prematurely aging to match the other characters in the strip. We also discover Milo’s obsession with Betty Crocker about this time.
Some relief eventually comes when the next recognizable “classic” Bloom County character appears: Feminist schoolteacher Bobbi Harlow arrives on the scene, and Milo (as well as all the other boys) immediately starts crushing on her. Bobbi’s time as a major character is relatively short (she’ll be gone in about three years) but not before introducing the lovable (not) yuppie lawyer Steve Dallas (another Academia Waltz holdover) as wildly inappropriate date material. That’s only until yet another regular, Vietnam vet Cutter John (a renamed Siagon John, also from Academia Waltz) , rolls in and literally sweeps Bobbi off her feet and into his wheelchair.
Before Steve and Cutter John show up, the next regular cast member to appear is young Michael Binkley, being both psychologically and physically tortured by his football coach, Major Bloom, in pretty much his last gasp as a major character of the strip. At this point, Binkley is physically not the Binkley we know and love – the distinctive hairstyle does not appear for several weeks – but we immediately see him for the bundle of neuroses that he is, even if his anxiety closet is still quite a ways away. Still, it’s nice that Milo finally has somebody his own age to talk to on a regular basis. It’s during a school field trip to Washington, D.C., where Milo and Binkley get lost during the White House tour, end up in the Oval Office, and almost accidentally start a nuclear war, that Breathed makes his first tentative steps into political commentary.
Shortly after arriving home, Binkley, trying to prove to his dad that he’s a normal boy, brings home what he thinks is a German shepherd – but instead is a penguin. The penguin is not identified as Opus, but it’s obviously him – he immediately sits down and watches TV. Not knowing what he’s got, Breathed has the penguin stick around for a couple of strips, but then he disappears for another six months – meaning that it will be a full year into the strip until Opus the Penguin becomes a regular Bloom County player.
[Here’s your useless trivia question for the day: What were the first words spoken by Opus in the Bloom County comic strip? Answer: “Tuphlem Grdlphump” (Opus attempting to say “Tuba Player”). Fool your friends! Later, after Opus reappears in the strip, he famously mispronounces “Public Servant” as “Bozo”.]
There were still more missteps to come: The next character introduced is a horrible (and thankfully forgotten) character called Ashley Dashley III, the obnoxious TV station manager intended as a satire of Ted Turner. He is noteworthy for enabling Breathed to spout off about the FCC and self-imposed television censors, such as another forgotten character, Otis Oracle. Charles Limekiller eventually went to work for Dashley as a TV news anchor, so at least Breathed was combining his bad characters together, which afforded the opportunity of giving the promising new ones space to shine.
Cutter John’s eventual intro was like a breath of fresh air – literally in some senses, as many of the character’s best scenes occurred in the great outdoors, giving high-speed rides to Bobbi, the kids, and eventually all the local critters in his wheelchair. The crazy rides began adding manic energy to the strip (doubly good when dealing with a brightly optimistic wheelchair-bound character), and the influx of animal characters (including Hodge-Podge and Portnoy) gave Breathed a forum for the animal rights part of his nature. They provided the strip a sweetheart of a “quiet” center for the wildness that was to come. By now most of the early, and older, characters had vanished. Bloom County was almost home.
And we’ve only barely seen Bill the Cat. Wait until this strip kicks into high gear in Volume 2.
You would think that reading several hundred strips (almost 300 pages!) of a series desperately fighting to find its unique identity would be a tedious undertaking. It is not. It’s a fascinating study into the creative spirit from the germ of inspiration (or apparent lack thereof), to the flopsweat of emptiness – verging on absolute theft to the edge of adrift. And then a small spark. And another. A happy accident or two. A nearly missed opportunity. A lot of really hard work. And then, suddenly your office is filled with stuffed penguins.
Bloom County: The Complete Library looks to be a fiercely great comic strip reprint series from The Library of American Comics and IDW Publishing. That’s as it should be. The original work by Berkeley Breathed was pretty fiercely great itself. Even if it took a little time to get there.
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.