Monday, June 11, 2007

Everything old seems even older, now

So I finally started to see some of Berke Breathed's most recent resuscitation of his comic strip franchise, this time just called Opus. Not because I managed to pick up a Sunday paper that was running it (like Outland, it's Sunday's only), but because they've started to post it on Salon, which I frequent as a non-paying reader.

Sort of an odd pairing, because Salon is comfortably left, and Breathed has always seemed more of a middle-America style Libertarian to me, but there it is.

Thing is, the strip is kind of lame.

I mean, don't get me wrong; I really like Breathed's drawing, and I always liked those Outland strips specifically because he tore away all of the lame soap-opera and comic page political 'satire' from Bloom County, and focused solely on drawing. You could see it was freeing for him - the art was genuinely fun to look at, and freed from the baggage of Bloom County (which was all ripped off from Doonesbury, anyhow), Breathed finally became his own artist.

Well, yes. He went from doing Garry Trudeau to doing George Herriman, but in this case, he made it his own - the edge of the 'Mortimer Mouse' character and Ronald-Ann gave the formalist humor some gravity. Of course, people don't like things that are different, so, before long, all the Bloom County cast crept back in, and the visual playfulness receded into boring, static layouts. His line was always nice, and the animation to the characters wasn't lost, but it was just more sub-Trudeau.

Ditto with Opus. And the tone of his humor hasn't changed at all in the twenty years since Bloom County ended. In fact, you can pick up any collection of late Bloom County strips, and I'm sure they'd read exactly the same as Opus. Same half-assed political observations, same fizzled broadsides on the character of the American male. Even the drawing has fallen back into boring-land, which I find especially odd, because Breathed's spent the last fifteen years writing and illustrating children's books. And if there were a last place in the world for completely free-wheeling illustration, it's in children's books. (I don't believe they have a category in the Caldecott's for "Best Illustrated Edition - Russian Literature.")

Of course, a lot of my complaint is based on the truth that I think Bloom County is terribly dated. Certainly, it hasn't held us nearly as well (in my estimation) as 80's newspaper comics Renaissance/Last Hurrah cohorts The Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes. Nor does it live up to the standard set by Doonesbury, which I'll admit to admiring more than actually liking. No, Breathed's Bloom County has turned out to be a curse for him - the juvenile work of a talented artist increasingly working against his strengths, forever held up as his masterpiece as he tries to leave it buried.

Certainly, I can't fault him for trying, and I'm even grateful that one of newspaper comic's latter-day stars has come back to the form that made him famous. Can you imagine either Gary Larson or Bill Watterson coming back? Given that they both seem to disdain what modern newspaper comics are (either out of genuine insight or just false nostalgia), and that they've both disappeared into their post-comics careers (as Jazz musician hobbyist and landscape painter hobbyist, respectively), I'd say the answer is a resounding "No."

But without trying to break beyond the toothless social and political commentary of the type that eventually sank Bloom County, the whole prodigal comic's son routine rings kind of hollow. I won't deny that the comics page could stand to have a left-leaning satirist with a wider range than Aaron McGruder and a greater populist's touch than Garry Trudeau, but Breathed isn't up to the task. And I guess the 'heir to Krazy Kat crown that he was angling for with Outland has been won by Patrick McDonnell with Mutts, (which I admit to finding really synthetic and charmless).

Really, he shouldn't even try. It's obvious that what the funnies really need is the return of Walt Kelley. And that's what Breathed could do with his eyes shut.

Let's see if he works it out.


Note: I keep wanting to shorten Bloom County to just B.C., but I'm afraid you'd think I was talking about Johnny Hart, instead.

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