The End Of "Opus"
dialogue led him to end his strip. But what fate awaits
our beloved, big-nosed hero?
By Kerry Lauerman
Oct. 18, 2008
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,
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
"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
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
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?
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 clichÃ© 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
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
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
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
clichÃ©s 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 "
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!"
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.