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Bloom County: Best Read on the Throne (2018)
Book Reviews

Bloom County: Best Read on the Throne (2018)

The third collection of Breathed’s resurrected Bloom County comics is his best – and strangest – yet.

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I guess what they say is true: ask and you shall receive. One of my (very) few complaints about the last collection of Berkeley Breathed’s resurrected Bloom County strips – Brand Spanking New Day – was the glaring omission of one of his comic strip’s most defining moments during its original run back in the 1980s: it’s end. It takes nearly 100 pages to get there, but a small sequence collecting a trio of one of the strangest storylines ever, where (then not-President) a wounded Donald Trump’s brain was transplanted into the cranium of Bill the Cat, effectively closing out the original Bloom County run, leading to a literal exodus into the Sunday-only rebirth called Outland.

Yes, one of the original strips has been modified (i.e. upgraded) slightly to fit with the times, but it’s a welcome change as it lands Breathed’s best-yet “grab ‘em by the p****” jokes yet, which I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of. Also, it’s a look back at when Breathed would sign his name backwards on strips; these days, he doesn’t sign them at all.

Bloom County: Best Read on the Throne, the third and best collection of new Bloom County, is a huge (or should that be yuuuge) step forward in terms of hi-jinks and crass. Let’s be honest: Breathed has layered his new Bloom County with a protective coating that, often, bordered on saccharine sweetness; the kind I’m sure an older, more content cartoonist would feel immense pride in, but given BC’s lineage with a cocaine-addict vegisexual braindead cat and obsessive-compulsive penguin mascot, saccharine isn’t a proper substitute for raw sugar.

Like an athlete finding his bearings, three years back in the saddle appears to swept out the cobwebs and worked wonders for Breathed, who draws with a sense of spirit and vitality the previous two collections (slightly) lacked. Not that the reactivated Bloom County hasn’t been a total gas and quite good at times, but there’s a spontaneity present we haven’t seen since the final days of Outland, not so much a retreat from the “anything is possible” excesses – and paradoxes – of a daily comic strip that’s not quite daily and not quite a strip anymore, but a cementing of purpose.

Another big surprise, easily this collection’s best – though not biggest as it’s merely collecting strips fans have already seen (but you get my meaning) – happens right near the beginning, around page 10. And it’s a doozy. It’s something hardcore fans of comic strips, especially 1980s comic strips – the last Golden Age we’re likely to get – have been waiting their whole lives for. Bigger than Batman vs Superman, more exciting than The Avengers and a heck of a lot cooler than Freddy vs Jason: it’s Berkeley Breathed vs Bill Watterson, i.e. the notorious cartoonist behind Calvin ‘n Hobbes.

It all began with an innocent April Fool’s joke back in 2016, of course, which led to rampant speculation that something, possibly something magical, might be brewing in Comic Book Fantasy Land. After all, the world’s biggest recluse (i.e. Watterson) did temporarily grace comic book panels a few years back in the unlikeliest of places, Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, for a great cause. The “rivalry” between the two 80s giants makes a lot more sense, however, especially for those familiar with the bonus material of each strip’s original paper collections.

Though Watterson kept churning out original Calvin ‘n Hobbes strips, Breathed would retreat from the daily grind, reconfiguring Bloom County’s premise into the Sunday-only Outland spinoff (see explanation above). Eventually, both Outland and Calvin ‘n Hobbes would end their runs in 1995, which would make Breathed’s second retirement – and Watterson’s (as of this date) first and only. Incidentally, this was also the year that Gary Larson (The Far Side) would hang up his pens and paper, truly signifying 1995 the final year of the comic renaissance.

It seems the “joke” may become a mainstay, as the Breathed/Watterson mashup has continued every April 1st since, though only the 2017 “Calvin County” appears here. And it’s a real treat for fans who’ve wanted to see Spaceman Spiff “return” in some form or another. I wouldn’t expect much in the way of a dignified return, of course, though Breathed is such a gifted artistic mimic it’s unclear who drew the art here. It’s a perfect blending of both cartoonists’ style and wit, though, and fans can expect to see at least one more collaboration in the next collection. If you simply can’t wait that long, however, there’s always Facebook.

Speaking of Facebook, where all of these new strips originate, you may want to keep a browser handy if you want to see Breathed’s most stunning artwork in all their digital Photoshopped glory. The strips may be state-of-the-art, but the offline content delivery system – paper printing – not so much.

Standard “daily” strips, mostly rendered in glorious black ‘n white (with the odd color flourish – just because he can) look fine in printed form. As do most of the colorized Sunday(?) strips, as long as the coloring work is fairly simple and straightforward. But once Breathed goes Full Breathed, i.e. when he really struts his Grade-A illustrator skills, things go straight to H-double hockey sticks. Despite the best intentions by IDW Publishing to make it work, their paper stock and printing methods simply can’t make some of Breathed’s most elaborate and complex coloring work reproduce correctly. Sorry, purists, but there are limitations to paper.

Almost all of these deal exclusively with a new character, Frank the Janitor, in a series I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here – except to say the artwork is outstanding. Though even this has a silver lining: Breathed seems to be aware of the *ahem* limitations of what paper has done to his artwork and is offering deluxe print editions in a series called (what else?) “The Frank Print Series”, which is now available. Better still: ten percent of proceeds will be donated to the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, a worthy cause in keeping with the series’ message.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, so what better time to help spread the word and make a difference at the same time? Did we mention there’s Bloom County comics involved? Some of those Frank prints would suuuuuure look great on your wall. Just saying.

So apart from Donald Trump and Bill Watterson what else should fans expect from this collection of new Bloom County strips? Well, a lot more Trump, that’s for sure (you didn’t think he’d ever let his muse get away, did you?). Look for more pussyhat jokes, Twitter ribbings, and more Russian innuendo that a Kremlin cookie.

While Frank is a fantastic new addition, Abby, another of the newer characters, never quite works as Breathed probably intended. Here, she represents the all-too-familiar overly sensitive feminist idealist; think Lisa Simpson, but with more rage. The problem is that we see real versions of this ‘character’ on a daily basis that it dilutes our interest for a fictional one. Unlike the rest of the cast, Abby seems off-limits for truly mocking and ridicule, reducing her comedy usefulness even further. Ronald-ann, she ain’t.

So what else? Steve Dallas gets booted from the strip, Netflix-style, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, because of course he did. Speaking of ghosts of Steve Dallas’ past catching up to him, none other than Lola Granola makes an unexpected return, though not in the way you’d think. Other bits include standard Bloom County political hi-jinks, more Bloom Picayune puns (now with personal offenses!), and even a little intergalactic brain snorfling. What, you don’t want know brain snorfling is? Breathed coins at least five new words here, maybe more, so better update your little dictionary while you still can.

As we’ve come to expect, there’s not much else to Best Read on the Throne, other than a collection of brand new Bloom County comics in the age of Trump. There’s really no way to tell exactly when these strips were posted to Facebook, but I’ve come to expect such an omission at this point; if Breathed doesn’t care to list the dates I’ll stop worrying and just enjoy the ride. Three collections in and we’ve got the best Bloom County in decades – certainly the best its been since its Trump-induced ending back in 1989. Let’s just hope Breathed can hold off the fourth retirement a little while longer. There’s still work to be done.