You’ll Appreciate This: Bloom County – The Complete Library

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed an uptick in people writing in to ask us about traditional comic strips. Do we read webcomics? Do we read newspaper comics? Which ones do we like? Garfield, Mary Worth, Dick Tracy… you know, the stuff my dad thinks of when he thinks of every book I’ve bought in the last ten years.

As I mentioned a little while back, with a few exceptions I don’t really read comic strips. Webcomics in particular are given freedom by the web to be anything they want to be, but given that freedom it turns out all most of them want to be is Beetle Bailey. (I’m sure I just haven’t been exposed to the right ones.) I reached my mental saturation point for the standard three-to-four-line question-setup-punchline comic strip many, many years ago. I don’t know what the catalyst was or when it happened; I only know that the last time I turned to the “Funnies” page (and I haven’t subscribed to the paper since 1994; sorry, journalist friends) I found I had gained superhuman psychic abilities: I could always see two panels into the future and tell you how the joke was going to end. The field is full of skilled artists and one-liner craftsmen, but to my jaded eye it’s like the multi-camera sitcom or Law & Order; they do the same things the same ways so consistently that the drinking game would kill you. After all these years, it’s a style that is simply Not For Me. It’s just a recipe for rolled eyes.

There is one comic that I have always loved, however. Maybe Bloom County just got to me while I was young, before I’d seen it all and grown world-weary, or maybe it was actually the realized Platonic Ideal of the comic strip that everyone else is still trying to live up to. Maybe the strip– which, for the uninitiated, used talking animals in Middle America to explore the absurdity of current events during the eighties, when they were particularly absurd– just captured the zeitgeist in a way no other strip has done. Whatever the reason, Bloom County was the first thing I read with my Apple Jacks every morning growing up, and I’m delighted that IDW is giving me the opportunity to experience the series fresh all over again this fall.

If you take one look at Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume One: 1980-1982, it’s immediately obvious that the strip is being reprinted by people who are as fond of it as I was. The oversized hardcover presentation of these strips is gorgeous and eye-popping after years of seeing them crammed into a tiny newsprint corner of the Post-Dispatch. I love a book full of penguin cartoons that looks like it should be kept on a podium in the parlor. Every time I open it, I feel like I should be in a smoking jacket with a pipe. But then, not a lot of “Absolute Editions” typically have found their way into my house before now; maybe you get used to it.

In addition to the hi-def format of the book itself, the strips have undergone a restoration similar to the kind DVDs are always touting. Strips that were arbitrarily deleted from the eighties trade paperbacks have been added back, and word balloons that creator Berkeley Breathed had shortened or “punched up” over the years have been changed back to their original wording for historical/author-wince-inducing purposes. Just the thought of going back through all the writing I’ve “fixed” over the years and unfixing it so Future Generations will always know how shitty I was makes me want to kill myself, but I’m glad Breathed is a more secure person than I am.

Another DVD-style touch the book adds is an occasional creator’s commentary in the margins, not only fun because it allows you the opportunity to virtually watch Breathed squirm as he relives some of his least favorite choices, but also because it gives you a peek into how the strip was made, how the strip was censored by the syndicate, and how the writer’s mind worked. As funny as the strips themselves are, it is as funny to “see” the author reading them, saying, “Yep! Still had no idea what I was doing at this point…. This is the character Garry Trudeau said was ripped off from Doonesbury. And he was right.” We do love our little peeks inside the process, don’t we? It’s not enough to see a thing and like a thing; we have to know three other ways it could have ended and amass those countless lines of trivial data that so enthrall our dinner guests. The Complete Library delivers those nuggets in spades.

Besides the comics themselves, the book also delivers fifty gallons of unintentional hilarity in the form of footnote after footnote. One of my favorite things about Bloom County looking back is that the eighties are an integral protein in its DNA. The strip ran from December 1980 to August 1989; Breathed might as well have been the Reagan administration’s official court jester. But how do you effectively reprint a comic that was built entirely on topical humor twenty years later? In this case, you add helpful footnotes like “Phil Donahue was the Oprah of his day” or “Michael Jackson was a very popular singer and entertainer” or “In 1981, it was common to put meat between bread slices and call it a ‘sandwich.'” I don’t think that exaggeration is a big one; do they really think nobody remembers who Lady Di was?

People do remember who Lady Di was, right?

They don’t? I’m very old? Even though I was in grade school at the time, reading a political cartoon like a big nerd? I see. Time for my Geritol.

If you weren’t around during the eighties, or were too young to register any of the things that were happening, I’d argue this is still worth a library checkout. But, see, I’m the kind of person who loves getting complete seasons of Saturday Night Live on DVD (instead of the “Best of” collections with only the “good” sketches on them) because the references are dated. No history text was ever going to tell me that Jimmy Carter had a hemorrhoid in 1979; only Dan Aykroyd would do that.

As a kid, Bloom County was my Social Studies Schoolhouse Rock. Why do I know even now that Jeane Kirkpatrick was Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations? For what possible reason has the name Caspar Weinberger been etched permanently into the folds of my brain meat with a branding iron? When in doubt, blame the penguin.


What strikes me most now is that, while the strip definitely had a point of view (known today as a “bias”) I never felt preached to for even a panel. Mind you, if I had been a member of the Moral Majority at the time, I might have felt differently… except, now that I think about it, I sort of was a member of the Moral Majority at the time. Still: you can see inklings of Breathed’s later animal activism, but even when some of the strip’s characters were caged and used in animal testing it always seemed to be in good fun. There seemed to be enough jokes and good nature to go around among all parts of the social and political spectrum. I don’t think you could do Bloom County today, although I’m not sure why I think not. Have I changed? Have comics? Has the political dialogue in the United States? (Answer: D.)

Leaving the punchlines and talking bunnies aside, I am fascinated to look at a comic like Bloom County and see that the same things were dividing the world then that divide it now. The same politicians have been making the same foibles since before they had gray hair and beer guts. Conservatives and liberals have been at each other’s throats on and off since I was learning cursive (which I guess is something people still do). Some people probably read things like that and think, “Ugh, nothing is ever going to change”; I read Bloom County and think, “We’ll survive this. We survived that, and looking back it’s actually pretty funny.”



Jim Mroczkowski will, he swears to Bill the Cat, beat each and every one of you to death with a goddamn fireplace log if the comments even look like they’re going to devolve into a political “discussion.” Everyone knows that sort of thing goes on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Cool Points for Palto Refernces.

  2. Oh, the memories!  The oddest thing about reading this book was realizing that the strip ceased publication in 1989, and also that the daily strip *never* ran in my local paper.  This is significant because I distinctly remember devouring the whole thing in 8th grade, which was 1988-89, when I was totally smitten with ‘topical’ humor — probably brought on by SNL’s coverage of the 1988 presidential debates and extending to Mark Russell specials, which I taped and watched over and over and even, I’m afraid to say, learned the songs. And wow that may be a nerdier confession than the ‘Star Trek’ movie brought out.  Anyway, the point of that is that aside from a few months of reading the Sunday strips in the local paper, I must have read these in trade paperback form (since I had no income I can only include that all of my allowance went to Berke Breathed and/or the Baby-Sitters Club).  So, it follows, the humor was already dated by the time I was reading it.  I’d guess a good deal of the appeal came from being baffled by what in the world they were actually talking about, and feeling smart when I got it.  Therefore, I kind of resent the informational footnotes — though I did enjoy learning that Steve Dallas was a real person, and that Berke assumes he was murdered by a pissed-off girlfriend, which explains the lack of lawsuits.

    Finally I’ll just add that, as an adult, I realize Mark Russell wasn’t funny, but if it weren’t for him I would have no idea that Jimmy Carter was ever attacked by a giant swimming rabbit, or claimed to have committed adultery in his heart.

  3. Bloom County was my favorite comic strip back then, and I made every effort to read it every day. It was a sad day when the strip ended.

  4. i dont think i have ever once read Bloom Country, but from your writeup it sounds like it would be right up my alley if it were produced today. Although i think a lot of the 80s political references would shoot straight over my head now

  5. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Back when I first started writing for iFanboy, my uncle learned of my interest in comics and sent over his pile of Bloom County treasuries. "These have been a mainstay in my bathroom for years and years," he told me, setting them down on my coffee table, where they remained largely untouched for a few months before I donned some gloves and slid them into a grocery bag and returned them. 

    (I do want to read these new collections.)  

  6. I somehow found BLOOM COUNTY when I was in late elementary school and into middle school.  Mind you, this was after BLOOM COUNTY had finished up its run, so if you thought that references to Caspar Weinberger were weird when you were 8 and he was the Secretary of Defense, try reading these strips while 8 years old after he’d stopped being the Secretary years earlier.  Made for some interesting reading.

    Maybe I just liked the funny talking penguin.  And the name Caspar Weinberger.

    But thanks for the review here, Jim.  I’ve been eyeballin’ this book since I first heard about it.  I didn’t know that it had all that extra commentary stuff in it.  This title is going to stay on my Amazon Wish List for Christmas, that’s for sure.

  7. Very cool.  I have several collections of Bloom County already in soft covers.  Behind Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side (which really pushes the idea of comic, one panel isn’t really sequential is it) Bloom County was the comic strips I collected most.  This might sound slight, but bear in mind I have 6 or 7 collections of C&H and Far Side a piece.

  8. Great column and great timing. I just got an Opus tattoo last Thursday. I’m so looking forward to these collections.

  9. I’m wondering about encountering the strip for the first time in these collections — I think it might be a good idea to read some of the later ones first, if you have the (non-tainted-by-years-next-to-the-toilet) option to see the strip at its peak, then go back to the library edition for the origins. 

  10. I meant to mention that in my review, actually. The first "season" of anything isn’t necessarily the best place to start because they haven’t always figured out what they’re doing yet. Kramer is unrecognizable for the first year of Seinfeld, and different people play his parents. For the first year of the Simpsons, Homer talks like Walter Matthau and is about 40 times smarter than he will be by season four. The first season of the Muppet Show, you can literally see guys crouching down behind them sometimes.

    Bloom County wasn’t that bad, but it does take a bit to get up to speed; many of its main characters and beloved bits don’t show up until the end of the first year or so. Nonetheless, the commentary mitigates all that a bit in the collection itself.

  11. I should hope you’ll be mentioning Outland in your follow-up article, Jimski!

    I f’n loved Bloom County, whether I got it or not. So much of it had to do with the artwork. Breathed’s work is awesome and I love his style.

    My comic shop had it’s semi-annual sale the other day and I had my eye all over the recently released collection, but "these troubled times" have kept me from purchasing it.

    There’s always next half year?

    Can’t believe you put up a link to the Post-Dispatch. Always love when you make STL references.

  12. I was a big comic strips kid growing up and I read them all every single day. My favorite being Calvin and Hobbes, Far Side and Peanuts. Yet Bloom County mystified me. I was too young to really get it but I read it every day someday hoping I would! I would love to check out this collection.