"Arrested for spying, shot by a rambo-crazed lunatic, hooked up to a ridiculous fake honker, and then I received a new nose from the skin of Steve Dallas' thigh. And now, standing here like a dink with my honker in swaddling bandages, only one thing comes to mind... deja vu."

— Opus D. Penguin, Esquire

Bloom County is the fictional location for the comic strip of the same name. Bloom County is theoretically somewhere in rural America. This was the comic strip that defined the 1980s, much to the chagrin of the 1980s themselves. Created by Berke Breathed, Bloom County was originally only published in some american college newspapers, but by 1985 found its way to national syndication. To Breathed and his cast of characters, nothing was sacred. Be it discussion of music, movies, science, politics, religion, or plastic surgery, Bloom County humorously attacked everything with equal vigor and venom. And on more than one occasion, the strip bit the very hand that fed it: the newspaper industry.

The Characters

From the start there was Milo Bloom, reporter for The Bloom Beacon: Bloom County's local newspaper, whose name later changed to The Bloom Picayune. Milo is the alpha and the omega of Bloom County. Despite the popularity of other characters who rose and fell, Milo was the constant -- always small and in charge. He was the conscience of the cast, and often showed remarkable brilliance and maturity for a child of his age, not that he still didn't instigate his share of trouble. Milo's guardians were Major Bloom and his wife Bess. The Major became an important part of Bloom County in the first three years, but faded into obscurity. Apparently he never did very well in the exit polls once the strip went national. The Major was the owner of the Boarding House where most of the characters lived or at least showed up now and then. The Major was a major pain in the butt, and made Archie Bunker look polite at times, but he was a lovable old sot all the same. Bess had an affection for all living things, including cockroaches. Beyond that there was little remarkable about the Major's wife. She did as she was told and was a faithful and true wife to the old sot. Boring. The strip's creator spent little time with her at all. Also introduced very early on, when the comic strip was still published mostly in college newspapers, was Rabies; Milo's faithful dog. The dog smoked cigarettes. He talked. Talking dogs. Done before. Boring. By 1983 Breathed just sort of pretended they didn't exist anymore. Perhaps they all just died and the funeral was held off panel.

Now as I may have mentioned before this whole comic strip was taking place in a boarding house out in the middle of rural America somewhere. It took in many boarders who came and went throughout the series, including the Widow Ruby Tucker, the gallant Limekiller, Alphonso, Senator Bedfellow, The Reverend Otis Oracle, Cutter John, teacher Bobbi Harlow, Oliver Wendel Jones and his family, Tom Binkley, and his son Michael J. Binkley. Tom and his family are at first seen living in their own home, but a nasty divorce leaves the boys without shelter, and so become part of the boarding house's populace. Tom's son would come to be known to the audience as simply, Binkley.

"Binkley! Oh Binkley! We have a full menu of anxieties tonight! Please choose the nightmare of your choice from the following: A) Jessie Helms explaining at length how Martin Luther King was a communist. B) A Convention of PM Magazine Hosts. or C: A huge Binkley-eating python."
"I'll take the python... Heck, I'm no glutton for punishment."

Binkley.. well Binkley's a young lad with a major identity crisis, and so both physically and mentally he tends to metamorposize before our eyes, and we're always expecting him to become more of a butterfly but he seems to defiantly remain a caterpillar to the end. I'm speaking metaphorically of course. He fought his inner frailties with a sense of humor and a lot of fight or flight reactions. Oh, and he was quite mad but in the natural ordinary way that most young people are. He'd see monsters under his bed and Giant Purple Snorklewackers in his closet. The divorce and his father's rather conservative views early on were some of what led Binkley to be so scatterbrained and filled with anxiety, but I think he woulda been like that anyway.

Another guy who would inevitably find himself living under the old Major's roof was Steve Dallas, who in the words of Bobbi Harlow was "an elitist, macho big-mouthed, ex-preppie" who "wears too much Brut" aftershave. Dallas was an attorney; a very bad one. He partied too much, couldn't hold his liquor, foolishly mistook himself for someone women actually liked, and he had a sister named Kitzi Dallas who we saw briefly once. After the first year or two of the strip, Dallas is pretty much there until the end. Unlike Binkley he makes no dramatic physical or mental changes. Except for that one time when aliens zapped his brain.. admiralh:"what about when Oliver turned him into a black man?" ..Oh yeah.

In 1981, Berkeley Breathed introduced a little penguin into the comic strip. He was originally Binkley's pet. That would soon change. Opus eventually got his own room at the boarding house, several odd jobs including working with Milo at the Picayune, he dated semi-regularly despite the fact his breath smelled like fish, almost married Lola Granola, went on soulsearching excursions in search of his long lost mother, daydreamed about flying while relaxing in dandelion fields, failed to achieve the vice-presidency of the United States of America twice, allowed his brain to get fried on overexposure to television commercials and children's television, joined a heavy metal rock band, and generally did all the funloving things that all hardworking talking penguins do at his age. By the end of Bloom County, Breathed could have just as easily called the new Sunday strip OPUS instead of Outland, and most everyone would have been happy, but that's probably exactly why he refused to do so. However, the public outcry had already been heard. Opus the penguin was and is the most loved and adored character Berkeley ever created. When people think Bloom County, they think that penguins can't fly, but they can terrorize a Mary Kay cosmetic research laboratory if they put their mind to it.

Still more characters included the death defying Bill The Cat, Hodge Podge the rabbit, Portnoy the middle-aged groundhog, Milquetoast the cockroach, Quiche Lorraine, Blondie, Lola Limekiller, Alf Mushpie, Banana Junior 6000, and the basselope Rosebud. Ronald Ann, Truffles and Mortimer Mouse later took over Breathed's attention and the new strip Outland where Opus arrived later after a bit of a break.

The Running Gags

There were some things that Berke Breathed just couldn't get enough of. Cockroaches for example. From the very beginning he'd repeatedly doodle a few dark spots on a countertop, and there was yet another character. Maybe he did this cuz they were so easy to draw. Some characters liked feeding these cute little disease carrying varmints twinkies and wheaties. Other characters liked squishing and stomping on them with their feet. Breathed often equated cockroaches symbolically to leftist terrorist activity in the current events of the 1980s. Little did we know how prophetic that would become. Despite America's loud stance against terrorist activity, no matter how much they squish and stomp, the little buggers just won't go away. The message, though laced with humor and sarcasm, was clear: terrorists are like cockroaches. Killing one every once in awhile doesn't do anything. Sometimes it seems to only make them stronger. Bloom County was infested with cockroaches, and towards the end of the series, Milketoast the cockroach was finally given a supporting role. If you can't beat them, give them a place at the table. I think Malcolm X once said something like that.

"Thus did Earth narrowly escape alien annihilation when Jim and Tammy (Fae Baker)'s comeback was accidently viewed by an attacking Zortian Commando whose stomach-- already upset by lightspeed travel -- blew up."

Another fun running gag throughout the series was Bloom County's fascination with anyone who had achieved Celebrity Status and the power of the media to cause people to go all higgledypiggledy. Opus had a crush on Diane Sawyer, for example. Bill the Cat had a mad love affair with Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Sometimes it seemed that every time Madonna sneezed, the boys of Bloom Meadow stood up and took notice. Elizabeth Taylor at the Betty Ford Clinic was always just a phone call away. Perhaps the most often used individual of celebrity status though, was the famous CBS anchorman. Oliver Wendel Jones and Milo Bloom both found themselves sometimes transfixed by the magical voice of Dan Rather. Breathed also liked to explore the more excessive and darker sides of Hollywood and public exposure. Bill the Cat's story of life and death and life and death and cloning and joining religious cults and ..well you get the idea.

With Opus, the problem was always Penguin Lust and the fact that conservative fundamentalists found such things as interspecies dating to be sinful and disgusting. This was one of many ways in which the strip would return to the courtroom for Bloom County on Trial. Opus was often on trial for some reason, and Bill the Cat found himself before a judge occasionally as well, as did other characters. Steve Dallas was always their defense attorney, and they invariably always lost. Opus worked for Steve for awhile, so even when he wasn't on trial Opus was often somehow involved.

Then there's the what really scares people nowadays running gag. Binkley had this anxiety closet. In the closet lived the Snorklewacker who was an employee of whatever it is that runs all the Things That Go Bump In The Night. It was the Snorklewacker's job to feed on Binkley's anxietys and fears and somehow get a rise out of him. Sometimes he succeeded. Usually he just got a punchline out of the kid. This was a continuous theme throughout the run of the strip, and occasionally the snorklewacker even appeared for other characters. The thing was though, snorkle had his work cut out for him. Normal run of the mill monsters with fangs and bad skin disorders didn't faze Binkley after awhile. What would get him would be threats to once again change the recipe of the New Coke, or force him to listen to economists arguing all night long.

If something worked, Breathed would go back to it. Occasionally he'd mix two or three running gags together just to break up the monotony. By the time Outland was in full swing however, it was obvious he was reaching. There's only so many humorous variables a single man can keep juggling in his head without having to just put down the pen and grab a Bud for the last time.

"Happens to the best of us eventually, Binkley..."

There was a time towards the end when Breathed only wanted to make the Sunday color strips because he had made lots of money by now and was aiming for early retirement. He called those Sunday strips Outland and this was his way of trying to wean us obsessed fans by letting us go gently. Outland was still Bloom County but it wasn't really. It was Breathed politely saying, "I'm rich now so screw off!" Bloom County started in the rural countryside, with rich dandelion fields, babbling brooks and streams, and old smelly men on front porches holding their guns and reading Field and Stream magazine. Somewhere in the ten years or so of Bloom County's existence, it slowly moved closer and closer to the inner city. The characters didn't exactly move literally. It was more like the big city was slowly closing in on the quiet innocence of Bloom County. Then Opus packed up his suitcase and almost followed Ronald Ann through the door to escape the metaphorical symbols of juxtaposed-- ..Oh but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Along with Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury, Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, and a little doodle I once saw in a men's restroom back in '74, Bloom County will for me forever be one of the greatest works of art in all of mankind's history. Yesiree.

Update 02/06/05: Berke Breathed's Outland has come and gone, and Breathed took another sabbatical, only to return to make yet another Sunday paper series of comic strips called, appropriately enough, just "Opus." I don't know much about it myself because I stopped getting newspapers years ago, but I've seen a couple and it looks like Steve Dallas grew up and had a kid and became a nerd. Or something.

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