Exclusive: Berkeley Breathed Speaks!

Berkeley Breathed, the reclusive author, illustrator and Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of "Bloom County," the uproarious and endearing sociopolitical 1980s comic strip, has just released a new children’s book, "Mars Needs Moms!," in which Breathed, in characteristically smart and whimsical fashion, addresses the powerful love that binds parents to their children.

Breathed, who turns 50 next month, has a pretty good track record writing for the grammar school set: he’s authored and illustrated seven successful children's books, two of which, “A Wish for Wings That Work” and “Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big,” were made into animated films. But “Mars Needs Moms!” is his first crack at writing a children’s book since having kids of his own (Sophie is now 7 and Milo is 5).

In addition to writing books, Breathed, who lives with his wife and two children in Santa Barbara, Calif., draws the Sunday-only comic strip “Opus,” which of course is named after “Bloom County”’s existential, lovably bemused penguin. While Opus’s popularity is apparently eternal, things have quieted a bit for Breathed since “Bloom County” appeared in more than 1,200 newspapers worldwide and Breathed, the former college newspaper cartoonist for the Daily Texan at the University of Texas, snagged the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning in 1987.

Evidently content throughout his celebrated career to snort dandelions with a coterie of talking critters and precocious kids on a grassy knoll somewhere far from the madding media spotlight, Breathed doesn’t do many interviews. But he agreed to talk to NEWSWEEK’s Jamie Reno about everything from his new book, his mother and his kids to Vincent Van Gogh, SpongeBob, and the state of American media, politics and the funny pages.

NEWSWEEK: Motherhood has been a recurring theme in your work, from Opus’s ongoing issues with his mom to your new book. Don’t want to sound like Freud here, but your mother must have had a profound influence on you. Can you share some of your experiences with your mom that have shaped you and your work?
Berkeley Breathed:
Absolutely. As soon as she's passed on and reincarnated as something incapable of calling me. I'm not being unpleasant. She could come back as a beautiful, gentle koala bear. They don't have hands big enough to hold a phone. Then I'll talk about how she threw away all my baby pictures.

“Mars Needs Moms!” is the first children’s book you’ve released since becoming a father. How has having children influenced your work?
It's influenced my work like schizophrenia influenced Van Gogh. An apt simile, and I've even felt like slicing off my ears while I'm trying to paint as my little boy is strangling my daughter over a peanut-butter cup. My post-child period resulted in one instant change: I write shorter books for kids. I was reading "The Last Basselope" to my daughter last night and I actually screamed out loud, "What idiot wrote 1,000 words on every page of a children’s book" several times before Sophie finally punched me and said, "You.”

How did the specific story for “Mars Needs Moms!” come about?
Last year we were at my daughter's softball game, and my 4-year-old son wandered away and found train tracks 100 feet behind the field. I heard the train and turned to see him heading trackward. I tackled him several feet shy of a real bad ending. I was astonished to discover that I knew, without pause or thought, that if he had been on the tracks, I would have pushed him across and caught the choo choo myself.

I was fascinated by this. We say—in song and poem—that we all are willing to die for the ones we romantically love. I think we're mostly being glib. But not about our kids. I love that built-in DNA trigger. But it occurred to me that children grow up fairly unaware that for only one time in their lives, other persons are living that would unthinkingly take a bullet for them. It's a powerful force and I set about making it the emotional hook of a fun story.

The interesting thing is that I have subsequently found out that it makes many people uncomfortable. It lets the book fall smack square in the middle of the ongoing “Mommy Wars” about work and domesticity and guilt and sacrifice. I can't escape my past.

How would you describe your main character Milo’s change in attitude from the beginning of the book to the end?
Milo starts out like many children do: seeing their parents in only one dimension. Tyrant. Or worker. Or food Nazi. In the end, he sees his mother as he should: a bottomless pool of unquestioning love.

Is this book parental wishful thinking, or do kids really have revelations about the unconditional and permanent love they get from their moms?
Most feel it intuitively, actually, but maybe not in a fit of pique, like my Milo. Max, in "Where the Wild Things Are," had the same problem, now that I think about it.

The illustrations in this book have an almost three-dimensional quality. Can you talk a bit about your illustration method for this book?
I paint digitally now. A pity, in some ways, as the biggest price one pays is that you no longer have a finished piece of physical art to hang on a wall. I miss that terribly. But I don't miss the three weeks that it used to take to paint what I can do now in three days.

OK, so there was “March of the Penguins,” then those sly penguins from “Madagascar,” then the Oscar-winning penguins from “Happy Feet.” How does Opus feel about penguins being the animal du jour in films these days? Is he seeking royalties, or cameos?
He seeks what he's always sought: respect. And his mother. See your first question.

Your work has always combined cynicism with sweetness. There is a joy present even in many of your angriest, most politically charged moments. Is it really possible to be deeply cynical and madly in love with life at the same time?
That's the conundrum of cartoon stripping, as opposed to political cartoons. When your anger is the driving force of your drawing hand, failure follows. The anger is OK, but it has to serve the interests of the heart, frankly. My least favorite cartoons are the ones where my dander was up.  The last five years have not been easy.

Penguins are so lovable, they obviously make it more palatable to make some pretty sharp points. Were you conscious of that from the very start?
Bingo. Double bingo. Slip your punditry under the door, greased by a bit of silliness. Worlds open up.

Speaking of silliness, your work has always been a wonderful blend of silly and smart. How does this combination push its way into your own life?
It's represented in some ways by my interest in children’s books. Cartooning is about deconstruction: you gotta tear something down to make a joke. A story for a child at bedtime, on the other hand, better damn well build something. That yin-yang balance in my art keeps me sane. I want my head clear when it's time to get hit by a train for my kid.

Are there still people who don’t “get” what you do?
Mom. Stop bringing her up for God's sake.

You’ve said before that you are more a libertarian than a liberal, but you’ve also called libertarians a bunch of tax-dodging professional whiners. Are you, then, a man without a political affiliation?
No, me and a few other desperately cold pragmatists are the founders of The Meadow Party. Remember that one? That's one where you don't support silly things not because they conflict with political ideology, religion or philosophy, but because they sound silly. Invading a Muslim country, blowing it up and assuming we could leave in a few months with it looking like Vermont was silly. Cartoon silly. Opus silly. Worse, Bill the Cat silly.

As an Iowa native, I’ve often wondered, is “Bloom County” REALLY an Iowa community?
They'd like to think so. Who am I to burst Midwestern bubbles?

Speaking of Iowa natives, are Bill the Cat’s political aspirations behind him, or will he be a late-entry candidate in the 2008 presidential race?
Rudy (Giuliani) is running: a man with a closet full of wives, frequently dresses as a woman and sports adult children who refuse to talk to him. Bill's redundant.

Is there a candidate besides Bill the Cat who Opus would feel comfortable supporting in 2008?
Winston Churchill. Or SpongeBob.

What does your Pulitzer Prize mean to you now?
I think they still actually want it back. It's been a while. Let's not remind them.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times, but of all the characters in your work, who are you most like?

Depends on the time of day. I wake up like Bill the Cat. I seduce my wife as inelegantly as Steve Dallas. At the end of the day ... well, check out some old “Bloom County”'s with Opus in the tub with a shower cap.

Despite winning a Pulitzer, you’ve said you don’t want to be on the editorial pages because no one reads them. But what is the future for the comic pages?
Google "newspapers’ future.”

If you showed up this afternoon at the offices of a national newspaper syndicate with a new comic strip called “Bloom County,” would they buy it?
Thbbft! That's the sound Bill the Cat makes, if you recall. It's not a sound of transcendent approval. Remember, I started when there was no Web. No Jon Stewart.  No Colbert. No viral videos. No "Onion." No vomitous avalanche of sarcastic, cynical snark that so infuses today's pop landscape. I had it by myself with Johnny Carson's monologue. A lovely, sweet time in America.

Can you give me your take on the news of the day? What current headline amuses or bemuses you the most?
"Rove on Hunger Strike at San Quentin: Says Toilet's Clogged." One can dream.

How do you feel about the state of American journalism in 2007?
Wobbly. There's some great people doing great work under brave and dedicated editors, but they're under siege.  I still buy newspapers and news magazines and subscribe to sites like Salon that are doing courageous, confrontational pieces. The terrorist won't implode America. Fox News—and its deafening silence—will.

Why have you been such a hard guy to find over the years?
My earlier e-mail address was always grabbed by spam filters thinking it was porn.

Say it isn’t so, Berkeley: contrary to the rumors, you aren’t really going to kill off Opus when you decide to end the current “Opus” comic strip ...  are you?
Oh right.  And get a call from my mother?

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