One of my favorite Bloom County strips shows Binkley confronting a pair of economists who have emerged from his anxiety closet. “Two economists!? In the same room!” he gasps in horror. “Please just don’t discuss the economy!” But of course they do (“The deficit my fanny”) leading Binkley to utter a desperate, terrified shriek of existential despair.
I love this strip in part because economists suck and should be ridiculed. But it also encapsulates Berkeley Breathed’s characteristic and flamboyant schlubbiness. Elsewhere on the comics page in the 1980s Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes celebrated the creativity of childhood with gorgeously drawn set-pieces featuring dancing tigers or the destruction of the universe.
In contrast, Breathed’s imaginative swoops were always small and neurotically banal. Bloom County’s field of dreams is stocked with economists and overdue library books, all drawn in Breathed’s endearingly bulbous and dumpy style. Art critic Bert Stabler, writing at my site the Hooded Utilitarian, called Bloom County the last great realist comic strip.
That’s not because transplanting Donald Trump’s brain into a dead cat is an everyday occurrence, but because the strip delights in deflation, bringing even the bloated Donald down to size. Every flight of fancy in Bloom County flaps feebly and hopefully before spiraling down to land disastrously on its oversized schnozz. Bloom County is a flightless waterfowl of a strip.
It’s not really a surprise, then, that Breathed’s recent return to Bloom County after a quarter of a century feels somewhat anticlimactic. The first Bloom County 2015 strip shows Opus waking up from a nap in the dandelions only to be informed by Milo that he’s slept for 25 years.
Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle fantasy was about how alien and strange the world seems to a man out of time—but in Bloom County even time itself is punctured. Opus looks in his underwear and can’t tell whether he’s gone through puberty, while Milo, impassive as ever behind his glasses, is still the same blandly urbane child. As subsequent strips show, Arnold Schwarzenegger is still in movies, Trump is still Trumping, and the miracle of the Internet is not so much a miracle as a way to stumble, with mild incredulity, upon infinite iterations of nun porn.
The Internet isn’t the gateway to a transformative utopia, despite its more wide-eyed boosters. But it has changed comics. Bloom County 2015 is for now only available online; whether it will ever be syndicated for print papers again as it was back in the 1980s is uncertain.
And that’s a major change, because Bloom County, in its long, convoluted, spastically mundane narratives, was very much tied to the long, convoluted, spastically mundane narratives of the daily news.
Inspired in part by Doonesbury, Bloom County’s continuity mirrored current events—though Breathed’s take on those tended to be more sideways and blandly absurdist than Gary Trudeau’s. Under Breathed’s pen, the Iran-Contra affair transformed into a attack by ruthless Zygorthian raiders determined to destroy earth men and enslave earth women. Their depredations cause Congress to issue a subpoena to a Congressional hearing. There they discovered to their horror that the Zygorthians are cute puppies with antennae, which means that they are even more telegenic than Ollie North.
As this strip indicates, Breathed loved to show his characters watching television, and to puncture the idea that television spoke for, or to, a vast universal audience. So you get Opus dozing in front of a soap opera, in which one of the characters admits she’s in love with a penguin.
“And I’m not ashamed!” she declares, as Opus nods approvingly. The television show is just for him, which is the joke, because television of course, in theory, wasn’t just for him. The universal audience, the American public, presumed by television and newspapers, didn’t exist. It was a dumb, pompous conceit, which trips over a penguin and falls flat on its screen.
Bloom County riffed on that difference between a public supposedly united by its love of Ollie North or its electoral process and the individual anxieties of everyday puttering. So Opus ends up on the front page of the paper when a spy satellite takes a picture of him scratching his armpit, and the Bloom County Meadow Party runs a dead cat for President.
The problem for the revised strip, though, is that the dream of a collective public, which Breathed loved to honk, doesn’t exist in the same way any more. With the media fragmented and turned into a zillion social media accounts, Bloom County 2015 can’t even pretend to speak to a coherent newspaper audience the way it did in the 1980s.
The strip instead is targeted, specifically, like everything else in the digital age, at fans. It is actually speaking to its own micro-audience. You can’t make a joke about the distance between the real audience and penguins when your audience is in fact entirely made up of the odd birds who love you.
Maybe Breathed will figure out a way to work with that, though his first post on the isolation of the digital age isn’t especially promising. Opus is put off by everyone looking at their iPhones, does a goofy dance and then pulls the ensemble outside to frolic and play on the Starship Enterpoop. He escapes the current alienating futuristic technology by running back to embrace the old warm, comfy, fun dreams of futuristic technology. That’s not realism. It’s nostalgia.
These days, it seems, reality is so small bore and circumscribed even Breathed’s flatness is falling flat. Bloom County 2015 hasn’t been very funny yet, and perhaps it won’t ever be. But even that seems right. If ever a strip should end with a whimper and a grouchily resigned “pfft”, that strip is Bloom County.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.