Monday, October 20, 2008

The End Of "Opus"

The End Of "Opus"

Berkeley Breathed explains how our coarse national

dialogue led him to end his strip. But what fate awaits

our beloved, big-nosed hero?

By Kerry Lauerman

Salon.com

Oct. 18, 2008

http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2008/10/18/opus/

 

As the country excitedly awaits our great quadrennial

political climax, a smaller subset looks toward the

first week of November with great anxiety and dread. On

Sunday, Nov. 2, the comic "Opus" will end. Worse yet,

creator Berkeley Breathed has made it clear that the

strip's namesake will, in that final strip, find his "final paradise."

 

Sure, it's been an unnaturally long run for a penguin.

Opus, who started with a bit part in Breathed's

Pulitzer-winning "Bloom County" (1980-89), starred in

"Outland" (1989-95) and finally took center stage in

"Opus" (2003-08). But for those of us accustomed to

seeing our own thoughts -- and fears, hopes and

simmering anger -- take flight in the broken-nosed face

of a penguin every week, there's no preparation for his exit, only mourning.

 

Breathed says it's the anger that led him to close the

book on "Opus," that the increasingly nasty political

climate has made it too difficult to keep his strip from

drifting into darkness. Breathed has described his work

as a hybrid of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz's gentle

humor and Michael Moore's crusading social justice.

Perhaps losing touch with his inner Charlie Brown,

Breathed has said that "a mad penguin, like a mad

cartoonist, isn't very lovable," and wants Opus to take

his final bow before bitterness changes him forever.

 

As for Breathed, he says he will turn to other projects,

such as his children's books. His latest, "Pete &

Pickles," is just out, a delightful love story of sorts

between a practical pig and a whimsical circus elephant.

 

He answered a round of our questions this week, through

e-mail, about Opus' end, rumors about Breathed's own

health, and just what, precisely, will happen to our

beloved penguin in two weeks.

 

You've said that you're ending "Opus" because you

believe "We are about to enter a rather wicked period in

our National Discourse," and that it will make keeping

the successful tone of the strip impossible. Why do you

think that things will get worse -- especially after the

acrimony of the past eight years?

 

We're not a movie. In most aspects, there's no arc to

the human story. Only a line heading upward. For nearly

everything. In this case, the coarsening of the National

Discourse. We aren't returning someday to any sort of

golden era of political civility. The line heads

heavenward and has been since the Republic started. And

with the intersection of two rather dramatic dynamics --

the cable and Web technology allowing All Snark All the

Time ... and the political realities of No More Free

Lunch in America, it will spike in the coming years like

Don Draper's sex life, and I hereby pledge that that's

the last pop reference I use.

 

Aren't dark times exactly when satire is most needed?

 

It's not so much dark times now, as profane and loud.

Satire you'll have, oh dear me, indeedy yes. "Vomitous"

and "awash" are two words that come to mind. It used to

be that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. How

antediluvian. Rather, everyone will now want a satirical

YouTube film with 15 megabytes.

 

Satire we'll have. Rather, the real dearth in our world

will be sweetness, comfort, thoughtfulness and civility.

If I could do "Peanuts," that's what I'd be doing. Alas,

I've tried. And oh, you get way, way richer.

 

There have been moments in the past few years when

"Opus" upset your syndicate. (Specifically, this cartoon

in 2007; and this cartoon earlier this year, which the

Washington Post Writer's Group refused to even

distribute.) How often in your career had that happened

before? And is it more of a reflection of your work

changing, or the climate that you're now creating in?

 

"Bloom County" had five times the edge of the work I do

now. In 1986 I had a cockroach scream, "Reagan sucks!"

in print size that took up the entire cartoon box.

Nobody blinked -- 1,000 newspapers, quiet as a mouse.

Now I draw a woman wearing a Muslim scarf, and the

frantic publisher of the Washington Post Co. is on the

phone at 9 p.m. telling me -- I am not making this up --

to adjust my character's hair so she doesn't look too unkempt.

 

Fear doesn't so much rule the wood pulp news industry.

More like pee-on-themselves existential terror.

 

I will miss the crinkly mass of pressed dead tree held

aloft over my Caesar salad and iced tea at the corner cafe.

 

After your May 18 strip, in which you announced that you

have spasmodic torticollis, there's been a fair amount

of speculation -- especially among Salon readers --

about how bad your condition actually is; about whether

it's contributing to the end of "Opus," and much more.

Can you fill us in on your health?

 

It's far too big a cliché to quit for health reasons.

Truly, I'm fine.

 

I'm quitting to spend more time with my family.

 

Your audience has, by and large, mostly read you in

newspapers. These are far less vital times for

newspapers than when your career started. What has that

been like -- having your work distributed in what seems,

increasingly, like a dying form?

 

I like turtles.

 

Maybe you saw the YouTube of the kid at Halloween saying

precisely that to the TV reporter when she asked what he

thought of being made up as a zombie. It's a perfect

dodge from unpleasant candor.

 

Do you think cartooning itself is a dying form, now that

there are fewer news outlets for young cartoonists to

get their start? Or will it evolve into some other form?

And if so ...  any clue what that is?

 

There'll always be great, classic cartooning. There'll

also be radio. Concept rock albums. Theatrical movie

dramas for intelligent adults. Little kids riding

bicycles down a neighborhood street without a grown-up.

Family dinner hours. Eleven-year-old girls who dress

like children. Instant coffee. Buggy whips.

 

They'll just be much harder to find.

 

The very, absolute last comic strip characters destined

to become true household words across America were

invented 23 years ago: Calvin & Hobbes. There are and

will be no more new ones.

 

That's a technology and cultural issue. Not a talent issue.

 

Your children's books seem to appeal to your gentler,

Charles Schulz side. But how -- without Opus -- will you

exercise your Michael Moore side?

 

I'll be on my couch Sunday mornings screaming at Brokaw

and Stephanopoulos to call out the blathering bastards

on their stupid ******* talking points and pin the

dancing, lying, spinning Tasmanian Weasels down about

something, ANYTHING for Christ Bloody Sake THE COUNTRY

IS GETTING STEERED INTO CHAOS AND INSOLVENCY AND WAR BY

ITS UNREAD UNINFORMED DULLARD SHEEP CONSTITUENCIES AND

YOU JUST LET THE CANDIDATE SAY ONE MORE TIME WITHOUT

OBJECTION THAT HE'S GOING TO CUT TAXES WHILE HE CALLS

FOR FREE 24 KARAT GOLD FRANKFURTERS TO BE INSERTED INTO

EVERY AMERICAN'S *** JUST BECAUSE BUTT BULLION POLLS WELL.

 

You see right there why I can't have Opus involved with this anymore.

 

"Opus" was the third in a series -- beginning with

"Bloom County," followed by "Outland." Is this it? Are

you ruling out the possibility of ever doing an episodic

cartoon ever again?

 

I like turtles.

 

When you say Opus will meet his final paradise, are you

really saying what we fear you're saying? Some of us

remember a certain amnesia episode with Opus, which saw

him come back to life. Also, I want to remind you what

you told us just last year, when asked about rumors that

you'd finish the poor little guy off: "I was kidding

about killing Opus, by the way. I'd like to walk the

streets free from fears of spontaneous garroting ..."

 

K-k-k-kill? I've never said the K word. Did I? Don't YOU

say that. COMPLETELY depressing. He's Passing Into the

Ages. A Christian Scientist appreciates the distinction.

Opus will be where I'd like to think of him being for

the rest of my life ... which will be a small surprise

to many readers. And possibly a Sopranos-like

disappointment for some, but I simply will not bow to

clichés this late in the game.

 

If nobody guesses it correctly after a bit of

investigation, then they're probably still an undecided voter.

 

Come to think of it, I've given a good clue in this interview.

 

For the old "Bloom County" fans who take me as a cold-

heart cynic about my cartoon, know that I made the

mistake of playing Puccini's "Madam Butterfly" at

midnight while I was drawing Opus for the very, final,

last time last week and I got rather stupid. I'll just

leave it said that way. It's an odd business.

 

Your new children's book, "Pete & Pickles," is getting

amazing raves; Publishers Weekly says it has a "a dreamy

intensity, a sculptural heft" you've never had before.

Is creating books just a more rewarding canvas for you right now?

 

I mentioned that the coming days will be in extra need

of sweetness, comfort, rationality and civility. I'm

like Warren Buffet with a drawing hand. I see an

undervalued market. As I did in 1981, actually.

 

"Pete & Pickles" made me smile while I painted it. My

kids found me constantly grinning like an idiot as I

drew. I often grinned drawing the comic strips, too. But

it was a bit like the Joker's in "Batman." It begins to

hurt after a while.

 

Stories for children are a refuge from the firefight

going on above the foxhole. "Pete & Pickles" is my take

on marriage ...  and the wonderful ridiculousness of the

concept. But come to think of it ... marriage is a

bigger firefight than politics. So much for the refuge theory.

 

What else do you look forward to doing -- professionally

and not -- without that weekly "Opus" deadline looming over you?

 

Writing smart stories that leave people -- OK, my

children-- feeling a bit better about the world at the

end. You asked.

 

Here's a question we asked the last time you spoke to

Salon, and it seems appropriate to ask again now: One

theme of your work seems to be longing for respect -- a

lot of Opus' story is about his uphill battle for

dignity, and in "Mars Needs Moms!" Milo starts out

frustrated at his "thundering, humorless tyrant" of a

mother's lack of respect for him, and ends up respecting

her more. Do you feel like you've gotten the respect

that's due to you?

 

You have to be bloody well kidding. I'm a walking

laughingstock, battered by ridicule from every corner. I

work hard and get paid back with utter disregard,

spitballs, jokes about my mustache and a lack of sex.

You meant around the house I hope.

 

Not having this regular gig anymore -- and not having to

keep up a respectable appearance for your hundreds of

client newspapers -- must be liberating. Is there

anything, in your nearly fully free state, that you're

dying to say to the world?

 

I like turtles.

_____________________________________________

 

1 comment:

Aaron said...

.............. WOW.

I don't know whether to weep for the impending loss of a national treasure or the certain fear of seeing Breathed sitting on a parkbench with Nader, smoking banana peels and arguing if trees dream.