I was one of those kids who read a lot. Less so these days, but in grade school I had my face firmly planted in a book most of the time. I was especially fond of comic strips, though looking back I can’t say I firmly grasped the humor inherent in a lot of what I read; Calvin and Hobbes, for instance, is timeless and ageless yet still resonates on a whole different level with older readers.
That pales in comparison, however, to looking back at young Cory trying to make sense of Bloom County. Yes, for whatever reason, 12-year-old me would read the ever-living crap out of Berkely Breathed’s brainchild. It’s not exactly a kid’s strip; Bloom County was, at heart, a strip about 1980s politics and I wasn’t even alive for most of that decade. I loved it regardless and have been a fan of Breathed’s work ever since, so I jumped at the chance to check out Berkeley Breathed’s Academia Waltz And Other Profound Transgressions. To my knowledge, this is the only complete collection of Breathed’s pre-Bloom County Academic Waltz strip, which feels a bit like discovering one of Bill Watterson’s old sketchbooks.
What we’ve got here is a good 300 pages of proto-Bloom County strips from a college-aged Breathed. Many of the same themes are present and accounted for, in particular the political essence that powers the strip. The difference is, of course, that we’re talking about the 1970s, a decade that I’m even further removed from than Bloom County’s ’80s. I’d like to say I’m in a better position to look at the issues that faced that generation and laugh…but that’d be completely wrong, because if my generation tried laughing at any other, we’d quickly be wedgied and sent packing to our safe spaces.
Young Breathed was completely absolved of political correctness, a fact which shouldn’t surprise any long-time fans, and the strip reflects this in spades. He was also firmly steeped in the culture of the University of Texas while writing this strip, so there was more than one occasion while reading this collection where I ran into a joke or two that simply didn’t carry over to a University of Maryland student. Still, the majority of the book is comprehensible even for a Millennial who’s never set foot on UT, much as Bloom County was for a kid who really should have been doing his homework. As for the art, it’s the typical Breathed style we’re all familiar with, if unsurprisingly less mature than strips like Outland and Opus.
Bloom County readers are likely familiar with the fact that many of that strip’s more famous characters got their start here. Steve Dallas serves as a sort of protagonist, for instance, though I don’t think anyone would consider that guy a hero what with the frat-boy shenanigans he gets into even at this early stage of his “career.” His foil, Cutter John, here known as Saigon John (and eventual stand-in for Breathed himself), shows up as well to impart a little ’70s liberalism. Opus had yet to exist, of course, and sadly we’re left without Bill the Cat, but it’s still nice to see some old friends before they’d hit their stride.
We’re not exactly hurting for Breathed collections these days. That’s kind of what happens when you go through four strips, and we’ve already seen complete collections from Bloom County, Outland and Opus. Heck, Breathed reactivated Bloom County again only recently, so we’ll probably see collections of those new strips, too. Still, a new book from a great artist is always a nice find, and packing all the impossibly difficult-to-find Academia Waltz strips into a single book is a treat.
Berkeley Breathed’s Academia Waltz And Other Profound Transgressions is a well-bound, heavy, and nice-looking book at that, one that’s sure to impress precisely nobody when you sit it up on a bookshelf after finishing it. You will finish it, though. That’s the important part. Berkely Breathed fans should check this out for sure.