(Guy) Berke(ley) Breathed (1957–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress, Sidelights
Surname rhymes with "method"; born 1957, in Encino, CA; Education: University of Texas at Austin, B.A., 1979. Politics: "Middle-winger."
Agent—Esther Newberg, ICM, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Cartoonist and writer. University of Texas at Austin, photographer and columnist for Daily Texan (university newspaper), 1976–78; freelance cartoonist, 1978–.
Harry A. Schweikert, Jr., Disability Awareness Award, Paralyzed Vets of America, 1982, and Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, 1987, both for "Bloom County"; Fund for Animal Genesis Award, 1990, for "outstanding cartoonist focusing on animal welfare issues."
A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1991.
The Last Basselope: One Ferocious Story, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
Goodnight Opus, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1993.
Red Ranger Came Calling: A Guaranteed True Christmas Story, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big: Explained by Fannie Fudwupper, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
Flawed Dogs: The Year-end Leftovers at the Piddleton "Last Chance" Dog Pound, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2003.
Bloom County: Loose Tails, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1983.
'Toons for Our Times: A Bloom County Book of Heavy Metal Rump 'n' Roll, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1984.
Penguin Dreams, and Stranger Things, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1985.
Bloom County Babylon: Five Years of Basic Naughtiness, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1986.
Billy and the Boingers Bootleg, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.
Tales Too Ticklish to Tell, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1988.
Night of the Mary Kay Commandos: Featuring Smell-O-Toons, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.
Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County, 1986–1989, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.
Happy Trails, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.
Politically, Fashionably, and Aerodynamically Incorrect: The First Outland Collection, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
His Kisses Are Dreamy—But Those Hairballs down My Cleavage, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
The Romantic Opus 'n' Bill, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
One Last Little Peek, 1980–1995: The Final Strips, the Special Hits, the Inside Tips, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
Opus: Twenty-five Years of His Sunday Best, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2004.
Creator of comic strips "The Academia Waltz," for Daily Texan, 1978–79, "Bloom County," for syndication by Washington Post Writer's Group, 1980–89, "Opus Goes Home," for Life, 1987, and Sunday-only strips "Outland," 1989–95, and "Opus," 2003–. Contributor of illustrations to The Emperor, 1998.
A Wish for Wings That Work was adapted as a CBS-TV special and released on videocassette; Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big was adapted as an animated short film for Nickelodeon Family Films; Red Ranger Came Calling was adapted as a musical.
Work in Progress
Writing an "Opus" feature film.
Writing and illustrating the popular and satirical "Bloom County" comic strip beginning in 1980, Berke Breathed became one of the country's most popular newspaper cartoonists, winning the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. After 1989, when he retired the curious cast of characters that inhabited "Bloom County," Breathed wrote and illustrated the "Outland" strip, which appeared weekly in the Sunday comics until the spring of 1995, and in 2003 again made a showing on the comics page with "Opus." Beginning in 1991 Breathed also embarked on a second career: as a children's book author, and with titles such as Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big and Red Ranger Came Calling has earned a new set of younger fans.
Breathed was born in Encino, California, in 1957, and after high school attended the University of Texas at Austin. In college he began a comic strip "because it was the most effective way to make a point and get people listening," Breathed told an interviewer in Comics Journal. While his overactive imagination may have gotten him into trouble as a child, as a cartoonist it became an asset, and he began working for the Daily Texan, his college school paper, in 1976 as a writer, photographer, and columnist. "I loved the idea of expressing myself in a mass medium … [and] when you drew a figure next to your words, it had an element of attraction for people that was unimaginable to me at the time."
During his senior year of college, Breathed approached several newspaper syndicates—companies that market articles, columns, and cartoons to a wide variety of newspapers at the same time—with samples of his work in the hope that he could find a new outlet for his cartoons. A year later he got a call from Al Leeds at the Washington Post, who commissioned the young cartoonist to create a new comic strip for the paper. Breathed's "Bloom County" debuted in newspapers in 1980.
Irreverent in tone, "Bloom County" boasts a quirky cast of characters that included scruffy Bill the Cat, who constantly "Ack!"s up hairballs; Opus the over-anxious
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penguin; and humans such as lowlife lawyer Steve Dallas, scientific whiz-kid Oliver Wendell Jones, disabled Vietnam veteran Cutter John, wimpy ten-year-old Michael Binkley, and ever-gloomy child-entrepreneur Milo Bloom. Touted by many critics as the comic strip of the 1980s, "Bloom County" gained a strong readership and Breathed received letters from loyal fans and offended detractors alike. By the end of the strip's almost-decade-long run, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bloom County" was carried in 1,300 newspapers nationwide and reached an estimated forty million readers. In addition, book collections of Breathed's strip sold in the millions of copies, while "Bloom County" critters appeared in numerous spin-off products, from T-shirts to stuffed animals. "Breathed's wildly successful comic strip … was like no strip before or since," explained Tasha Robinson on the Onion A.V. Club Web site.
Bloom County Babylon collects the first five years of Breathed's popular strip, and a thumb through its pages reveals how each of the characters—as well as the strip's overall sarcastic slant—developed over time. Breathed "quickly hit his stride," noted Charles Solomon in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "and turned his strip into something unique." Solomon also praised Breathed's strong characterizations, his improving artistic abilities, and the barbed wit that made "Bloom County" "one of the funniest and most relevant strips" in the newspaper.
Billy and the Boingers Bootleg collects the next batch of antics from the "Bloom County" gang. Poking fun at everything from movie stars and espionage rings to heavy metal music—Bill the Cat and his band the Boingers doing a feral rendition of "Deathtongue" are among those images brought to life by a pen heavily inked with satire—Billy and the Boingers Bootleg was sought out by the cartoonist's fans. In Tales Too Ticklish to Tell Bill the Cat trades in his amplified guitar for a microphone, a teleprompter, and a hat, and now passes as the televangelist "Fundamentally Oral Bill." Conversion of all of "Bloom County" quickly follows; just as quick is its "deconversion" when the entire list of comic characters decides to go on strike, demanding an end to crowded conditions in their small strip in the newspaper.
Other collections include The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos and Happy Trails In the first volume the 1988 election sees Bill the Cat and Opus the penguin (not surprisingly) beaten at the polls, while steps are
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taken to break failed candidate Opus's mom out of the headquarters of Mary Kay Cosmetics, where she is in peril of being used for cosmetic testing. In Happy Trails, the last of the "Bloom County" books, characters indulge in one last round of sarcasm during a theatrical "wrap" party celebrating the end of their long-running performance. In the bittersweet final strip, Opus the Penguin abandons his regular haunts and, suitcases in hand, walks off the edge of the page.
"A good comic strip is no more eternal than a ripe melon," Breathed was quoted as saying in Newsweek while explaining his decision to end the strip in August of 1989. "The ugly truth is that in most cases, comics age even less gracefully than their creators. 'Bloom County' is retiring before the stretch marks show."
Fortunately for Breathed's fans, he quickly hit the presses with a new comic strip, the weekly "Outland," which appeared in the Sunday color supplements. Although it contained a different cast of characters, the first anthology of "Outland" comics, Politically, Fashionably, and Aerodynamically Incorrect: The First Outland Collection, showed, from its very title, that "Outland" covered the same territory—and stepped on the same sets of toes—as "Bloom County" had. While Breathed ended "Outland" in 1995, he returned to comics in 2003 with his syndicated Sunday strip "Opus," featuring one of "Bloom County"'s favorite characters.
The character of Opus the penguin has also made an appearance in the first of several books Breathed has written and illustrated for children. In 1991's A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story Breathed tells of the penguin's desire to use his wings the same way other birds do: to fly. Opus gets his wish in a roundabout way after his swimming skills get Santa and his sleigh full of goodies out of a lake after a piece of the sleigh's harness snaps. Although some reviewers were disappointed that the book does not contain the sarcasm of "Bloom County," others wrote that A Wish for Wings That Work has a tone that is more appropriate for young readers. In Publishers Weekly a reviewer praised the book as one that "little ones will love for its own magic and logic."
Geared for slightly older readers, The Last Basselope: One Ferocious Story finds the sturdy penguin and his friends in a dark, creepy forest during a search for a ferocious and legendary beast. With vivid, full-color, full-page airbrushed illustrations, The Last Basselope lets readers follow Opus the "Great and Famous Discoverer" and his comrades—several characters from "Outland" along with the rangy Bill the Cat—as they hunt down and corner the terrible Basselope, only to discover … a quiet basset hound burdened with a set of ten-times-too-large antlers and an allergy to dandelions. Ilene Cooper, writing in Booklist, praised Breathed's "dramatic, full-color" illustrations as "eye-popping" but found that the story "falls curiously flat." More enthusiastic, Lisa Dennis noted in School Library Journal that older children will appreciate the author's "delightfully sarcastic and sophisticated" humor while younger readers may enjoy the book's "sheer silliness."
Goodnight Opus is a parody of Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's story Goodnight Moon. In the book Opus listens to a favorite bedtime story read by his grandmother. When sleep and a vivid imagination carry the penguin away on a fantastic journey through the night, Opus joins such fantastic creatures as a pillow with a balloon for a head and a purple snorklewacker on a flying three-wheeler. On a voyage to see the cows of the Milky Way, the trio visits everyone from Abe Lincoln to the tooth fairy during their dreamtime trip. While Lisa Dennis commented in School Library Journal that the book is "less sarcastic than that of his cartoon collections," other reviewers still detected the presence of Breathed's incorrigible sarcastic humor in the author's work. Fellow cartoonist Gahan Wilson commented in the New York Times Book Review that Goodnight Opus "is so well disguised as a children's book that I suspect it will be purchased and actually read aloud to children by many people who would, if they understood it, burn the thing on sight…. I highly recommend this book."
A young disbeliever gives Santa one last chance in Red Ranger Came Calling: A Guaranteed True Christmas Story, published as a tribute to Breathed's father in 1994. The book takes place in 1939, when nine-year-old "Red" Breathed lives for the day when he will be the proud and rightful owner of an Official Buck Tweed Two-Speed Crime-Stopper Star-Hopper bicycle. When he is sent to spend Christmas with his aunt at her island home Red knows that all his pleas to his now-absent parents have been wasted. His only hope now lies with a mysterious toothless oldster who Red figures may or may not be Santa Claus; floating old gentlemen who look suspiciously elf-like and the granting of a small wish make Red suspect the old fellow is for real, and he makes his demands. When Christmas morning dawns and there is no cycle in site, the boy chalks it up to another case of being let down by grown-ups. However, Breathed's surprise ending "reaffirm[s] a reader's belief in the spirit that is Santa," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Booklist critic Carolyn Phelan hailed Breathed's "extraordinary full-color illustrations [that] seem three-dimensional," and concluded that Red Ranger Came Calling is "a most original Christmas book."
With Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big: Explained by Fannie Fudwupper Breathed creates a new cast of characters to tell a cautionary tale about lying. The young, and very unpleasant, boy in question "gets out of many sticky situations by telling whoppers in this rhyming tale related by his neglected little sister," explained Ronald Jobe in a School Library Journal review. Though a critic for Publishers Weekly characterized the tone of the story, like its artwork, as "mean-spirited and unfunny," Jobe found more to like. "This is a highly moralistic tale, but a wildly zany one," the critic wrote, extending special praise to the author/illustrator's "wordplay, alliteration, and outrageously expressive" illustrations.
Flawed Dogs: The Year-End Leftovers at the Piddleton "Last Chance" Dog Pound, is a poignant plea for bet-
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ter treatment of animals couched in an humorous story. "To the casual browser, the book is a rogue's gallery of unlovely pets," explained a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Marge Loch-Wouters, writing in School Library Journal, noted that children "may enjoy the goofy humor and outrageousness of the poor unwanted pooches" in Breathed's catalogue of the current residents of a Vermont animal shelter that stands as the last chance for a home for a wide assortment of misaligned, misbehaving, and mistreated pooches. Along with Breathed's picture of each "too colorful, too gassy, too long, too hairy" dog, as Loch Wouters described them, the author includes a sad life history, told in rhyme. While the overall effect of the book is humorous, Breathed concludes with a plea for readers to adopt pets at their local animal shelters.
Breathed has remarked that illustrating children's books requires a different approach than cartooning, but cited the Dr. Seuss books, Jules Feifer's illustrations for Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, and other examples as influences on both types of work. However, talking with Jesse Jarnow for Salon.com, the cartoonist noted that "painting picture books necessitated me actually learning something about art. And like a baby armed with a new box of colorful crayons and a newly painted living room wall … I'm anxious to wreak some havoc."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, January 1, 1994, Janice Del Negro, review of Goodnight Opus, p. 832; October 1, 1994, Carolyn Phelan, review of Red Ranger Came Calling, p. 325.
Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2001, May Wiltenburg, "Cartoonist Berke Breathed," p. 23.
Comics Journal, October, 1988, "Interview: Can Breathed Be Taken Seriously?"
Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1987.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 15, 1983; May 13, 1984; October 5, 1986; April 15, 1990, Charles Solomon, review of Happy Trails, p. 15.
Newsweek, May 15, 1989; September 22, 2003, Dana Thomas and Brad Stone, interview with Breathed, p. 103.
New Tekniques, September, 2000, "Tarradiddle Pants on Fire" (interview), p. 8.
People, August 6, 1984, Gail Buchalter, "Cartoonist Berke Breathed Feathers His Nest by Populating Bloom County with Rare Birds," p. 93.
Psychology Today, January-February, 2004, William Whitney, "Berkeley Breathed," p. 96.
Publishers Weekly, July 25, 1991, review of A Wish for Wings That Work, p. 52; November 2, 1992, review of The Last Basselope, p. 68; September 19, 1994, review of Red Ranger Came Calling, p. 28; August 28, 2000, review of Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big, p. 82; November 24, 2003, review of Flawed Dogs, p. 62.
School Library Journal, November, 2000, Ronald Jobe, review of Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big, p. 110; January, 2004, Marge Loch-Wouters, review of Flawed Dogs, p. 88.
Berkeley Breathed Web site, http://www.berkeleybreathed.com (May 6, 2005).
National Review Online, http://www.nationalreview.com/ (September 25, 2003), Radley Balko, "A Great Returns."