Let’s start this review of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County: Brand Spanking New Day off with a truism known far and wide to fans of the world’ most recalcitrant cartoonist: we’re kinda surprised it even exists. While last year’s Episode XI: A New Hope brought with it just that – a new hope that this reactivated Bloom County might last a bit longer than previous attempts (*ahem* Outland, Opus), that it wouldn’t hurt to get our hopes up just a little bit. So far, so good.
Unlike last year’s celebratory return, Brand Spanking New Day doesn’t waste any time getting right down to business; there’s no intro paragraph, no salutations, no big message from the creator… just new Bloom County strips culled from its current homebase, Facebook. There’s nothing wrong with getting straight to the point, and it’s hard to feel wanting when you’ve got 140+ pages of brand spanking new Berkeley Breathed artwork to gaze and gawk over. Some will surely lament the lack of ultrathin and scratchy comics of yesterday (and to a certain degree, I do), but factor in the stunning, full-sized pages of digitally painted prints that rival – or best – most feature-length picture books.
It’s not even possible to draw easy black ‘n white vs. color comparisons because Breathed – thanks to the power of Facebook and digital printing – no longer worries about such distinctions, brandishing his new cartoons with just as much – or little – color flourishes as he wishes (it might sound offensive, but think Schindler’s List and little girl in the red coat). He shows an special affinity for the color purple (the actual color, not the Whoopi Goldberg movie; that’s two Spielberg references in one paragraph!), which gives many of the new strips a hazy, dreamlike quality we only ever saw in his illustrated books in the past.
Still, it’s infuriating, from a cataloging perspective, there isn’t any way to check the dates the individual strips were originally published…er, posted to Facebook. Bloom County has always been at its best when mocking/paying tribute to specific cultural or political events, and that’s true with this modern incarnation. One strip, for example, pays homage to the death of legendary musician Prince (who passed away April 21st, 2016), though exactly when the strip first appeared on Facebook is a mystery to readers. It’s much the same with a later strip saying a tearful goodbye to Carrie Fisher, complete with Opus decked out in one of the late actress’ most famous getups – the slave bikini two-piece from Return of the Jedi. Not that you needed that image, though something tells me Carrie would’ve approved.
Bloom County had always been one of the most indexable, searchable comic strips during its entire first run in newspapers, owing (not in the least) to the fact its publication was attached onto foldable paper that transmitted the news daily – and in some cities twice-daily. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that most comic strip collections still fail on this fundamental cataloging system when republishing strips from newspapers…but Facebook is Hell on earth trying to search for specific photos and images, let alone a modern comic strip without proper dating. And don’t get me started on the privacy concerns. Oy vey.
So what’s new in this second volume of brand spanking new Bloom County strips? In a word: Trump. In two words: Donald Trump! There’s more than just Trump, of course, but the very idea of Trump as the driving force behind many of these strips (indeed, and possibly the strip’s return) is Trump himself. More than that, even, is the very idea that we could live in a world where such a scenario was even possible.
Fun Fact: Breathed ended the strip’s original run with a bizarre storyline featuring a mortally wounded Trump’s brain being surgically implanted in the head of Bill the Cat, only to have the Bill-ified Trump (at that time certainly not a sitting US President) buy up the Bloom County estate wholesale, putting its cast out of work. That was back in 1989 – a mere 27 years before Donald J. Trump would become President and Bloom County was back in action.
Why it took this long for Breathed to take bring Trump back into the fold is a mystery, but here we are. While its disappointing the aforementioned brain-transplant story is never mentioned, he’s found plenty of new ways ridicule the current political circus we find ourselves in. True, much of this is a continuation he began with the last collection, but as it become more and more clear that Trump would become the GOP nominee (if not eventual winner) for the 2016 Presidential election it became obvious there were jokes and gags to be had. He couldn’t let this golden opportunity go to waste.
However, like everything else in this newer Bloom County Breathed never quite sharpens his fangs into Trump – or any modern politician – as some would undoubtedly like him to. For the most part, Trump is more a spectre here, a constant presence than actual character, one that exists to antagonize the crew – and country – by merely existing. Instead, Breathed uses the ridiculous of the whole situation to parody our reactions to Trump (as well as Trump’s reactions) to showcase just how nutty we (or most of us) have become.
As the majority of Trump-related strips take place before his election, I suspect we’ll see a more fiery, determined Breathed in upcoming strips, though his various visual riffs on the “grab ‘em by the p****” line are genius.
There’s more than just Trump, naturally, and longtime fans will smile seeing many of their favorites make appearances…sooner or later. We have Milo, Binkley, Binkley’s dad (of course), Oliver Wendell Jones and – because it wouldn’t work any other way – Bill the Cat and Opus the penguin. The brighter, more colorful Rosebud the Basselope manages to charm our hearts once again, as does a surprising turn from none other than Steve Dallas (see below). Not every fan-favorite has returned with this new Bloom County, of course, though I’m desperately holding out that Milquetoast the cross-dressing cockroach makes his debut soon.
Fun Fact: did you know that Milquetoast the cross-dressing cockroach was voiced by none other than Academy Award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman in the animated short “A Wish For Wings That Work?” Robin Williams was in the same movie, playing a crazed Kiwi. The more you know!
Among the funnier gags has Opus become the self-appointed policeman to combat “liberal schmiberal political corrective stuff” like gender-neutral bathrooms, or rather, “kitty only” litter boxes. No dogs allowed, apparently. Another has MetLife’s once-proud mascot Snoopy being tossed to the street “like a rotting carcass!”, which opens the floodgates for the beagle’s possible cartoon replacements – with perfunctory cartoon auditions, of course!
Other gags include the expected jabs at our insatiable addiction to technology, i.e. smartphones, though one of the best include a set where naughty words are made less so with happy emojis in just the right places – in what Breathed calls “vulgarizing with positivity” – works especially well, even if the jokes feel recycled. Who says you can’t cuss positive? Carpe damn diem!
Perhaps the best strips, for the longtime fans, of course, feature the glorious return of rapless, wimpless, boy dancerless, big hair, badass, head-bangin’, bull moose metal rock: Billy and the Boingers! Oh, and we can’t forget about those pesky Russians. Gotta have the Russians. Other bits include the return of The Bloom Picayune (now with tweets!) and Senator Bedfellow (30 years!), a quick nod to Bill Watterson’s Spaceman Spiff, and lots and lots of sexy underpants.
Those strips featuring a kinder, less malevolent Steve Dallas showing real affection for Sam the Lion (Jedi Sam for those who know), the sick young boy who virtually lives in the ICU. Usually under his ridiculous doppelganger, Sith Lord Sexypants, this new incarnation of the former playboy is most representative of the gentler Bloom County as a whole. Considering how many incarnations we’ve seen of him in recent times (older, gayer, etc) this might be the logical evolution of a character that was originally a satire of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury.
In a genuinely touching series Sam’s mom entrusts Steve to find a dog to keep her son company as he can’t be exposed to people germs, and only “the biggest, fanciest, silkiest, purebread beast” will do. What Sam gets, after one of the most impressive series of strips Breathed has ever drawn (ever), is a three-legged mutt with a sauce ladle tied on, a dog that fans will surely recognize. It’s in these moments that Breathed merges Bloom County with perhaps his best illustrated book, Flawed Dogs, in the most magical way possible. And just like that, Zulu the dog joins the family, and many tears were shed.
If nothing else, Bloom County: Brand Spanking New Day proves that more Bloom County in our world is a good thing, even if it’s kinder, gentler Bloom County. That being said, the looser format that Breathed employs may allow him greater freedom to create virtually anything he wants, but this can feel at the expense of the original strip’s appeal to punching upwards, targets be damned. For older fans, this can feel less angry or driven by anxiety than an older, hungrier Breathed would have produced. Though I suspect the tradeoff is a real buoyancy that better reflects an older, happier Breathed. Let’s just see how long this current run will last. I’m in no hurry.