Let’s talk about a book of comic strips, folks! Yes, in another example proving that I’m only able to read media accompanied by pretty pictures, I’m going to take a look at a rare thing in 2016: a collection of honest-to-goodness newspaper-style comic strips. The book in question is Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope, the latest collection of Bloom County strips by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed. You might remember him from when we talked about The Academia Waltz last year. Well, he’s back, folks, and so is Bloom County itself.
A bit of history: the strip originally ran throughout the ’80s before being retired and its characters moved into several successive comics – Outland, Opus and so on. Breathed recently revived the strip as a Facebook-based comic and it’s this new material that comprises this book.
Something must first be said for the book’s foreword, a page-long statement from Breathed about the strip’s demise and revival and, more importantly, about his friend Harper Lee, legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird (and, more controversially, Go Set A Watchman). Lee and Breathed were mutual admirers of each others’ work, and her influence is strong throughout the book; one strip in particular is dedicated entirely to her after her passing. It’s an interesting and touching look at the personal views of a cartoonist who’s generally known to keep to himself, allowing his characters to speak for him instead.
What about the strip itself, though? Well, for the most part, Bloom County is back in fine form. Opus’ naivete still serves as a contrast to his unintentonally perceptive quips; Milo and Binkley’s political plots are still as hilarious as ever; Steve Dallas is still a lovable (?) scumbag; Bill the Cat is still unsanitary. A few new characters join the cast as well. The most memorable is Abby, daughter of Cutter John’s new squeeze, who herself is a love interest for Binkley but more significantly provides a hilarious new-age spin on the comics’ events. Modern Bloom County makes extensive use of Abby, to the point where she overshadows some classic characters, but she’s interesting enough that her inclusion isn’t detrimental to the strip.
Sure, not every new Bloom County strip is perfect. For instance, the political discourse loses a lot of its charm against the background of an election season that has itself been a joke, and I’m led to wonder if other readers felt the same during Bloom County’s original ’80s run. More notably, Breathed falls back at times on tired, lame comedy cliches of the modern age. “A lot of people sure do have cell phones!” cries Bloom County 2015 every so often, as Abby and Binkley go through the all-too-familiar motions of righteous indignation at a family using their portable devices at the dinner table. ‘Twitter is a thing that exists,” it sagely proclaims at other times, and “paper media is being replaced in large part by digital content!”
These (blessedly rare) strips end up feeling a little out of place in the otherwise witty context of Bloom County, though again, I wonder if the same thing happened back in the strip’s original run and resulted in the same reaction from readers of the time.
By and large, though, this is the same Bloom County that you read and loved back in the day. Much of the content is similar; pop culture, politics, and in particular The Donald (who headed up one of the last storylines of classic Bloom County and whose return to the public consciousness served as an impetus for the strip’s revival) are all favorite targets for Breathed’s skewing. That’s all great, and when he’s not talking about cell phones like every other comic strip has for the last decade, Breathed makes it work as few others can, even if the strip overall still has its rad ’80s shades on.
More importantly, at its highest points, the strip’s musings on life, people and the experiences that connect us are reminiscent of comics genius Bill Watterson, whose timeless works continue to appeal to all ages. It’s no coincidence that we see Calvin and Hobbes guest star in the final strip of Episode XI, after all.
I’m not the sort to write expansive essays about how anything is “art” or a masterpiece or how the landscape of society has been changed by any given work. Even if I was, modern Bloom County as exhibited in Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope is still firmly grounded in yesteryear even as the world around it continues to grow and evolve. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; even with some flat notes here and there, Berkely Breathed’s…well, Opus is still a great comic strip that’s fun to read for young and old fans alike.