When Anderson Cooper’s mother, the designer and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, reached her 91st birthday, they began a correspondence, breaking a wall of silence between them. This 2016 conversation covered life in the spotlight, suicide, money, and grieving for a parent and a child. Vanderbilt Died in June at age 95.
At the height of its popularity, the comic strip “Bloom County” was followed by more than 40 million readers in 1,200 newspapers. The strip’s creator, Berkeley Breathed won the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 1987. But just two years later, Breathed ended Bloom County and stopped drawing the much beloved characters “Opus” the penguin and “Milo Bloom.” Then last year, after a 25 year hiatus, Breathed revived the beloved comic strip by posting it on Facebook. Diane and Berkeley talk about bringing back Bloom County, his new “Bill the Cat” book, and his correspondence with one of America’s most reclusive authors—Harper Lee.
- Berkeley Breathed Creator of the comic strips Bloom County, Outland and Opus. He is a screenwriter, author, cartoonist and illustrator. He was awarded the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for cartooning. He is the author of numerous books for young and old, including: "Bloom County Babylon: Five Years of Basic Naughtiness;" "Opus: 25 Years of His Sunday Best;" "A Wish for Wings That Work;" and, "Red Ranger Came Calling."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In 1989, cartoonist Berkeley Breathed stopped drawing his Pulitzer Prizewinning comic strip "Bloom County." At the time, it was read by 40 million readers in more than 1200 newspapers. In the years that followed, Breathed worked on several children's books, movies and other projects. Then, last year, after a 25 year hiatus, Breathed revived his beloved "Bloom County" strip on Facebook. He says the decision was partly inspired by fan letters he received from another Pulitzer Prizewinner, the late Harper Lee.
MS. DIANE REHMHis new book is titled "The Bill The Cat Story" and Berkeley Breathed joins me in the studio. We are video streaming this hour so you can see Berkeley Breathed for yourself. Watch the conversation. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, what a great pleasure to see you, Berkeley.
MR. BERKELEY BREATHEDI am so happy to be back. It's like coming back home, Diane.
REHMOh, I'm so glad you feel that way. This book is fabulous. Not only in its storytelling, but in the art which is part comic strip, but also beautiful in its rendition of some of the characters.
BREATHEDYeah, I had to go counterintuitive, go to my usual style over the years of painting children's books per the demand of the publisher. He was totally right. We were doing a "Bloom County" book. I've had Opus in children's books before and I approached it as a children's book and not as a cartoon book. And he lived in his own world. It had nothing to do with "Bloom County" and the attitudes and the snark and the attitude and the point of view of a cartoonist.
BREATHEDAnd this time, we wanted to try a pure "Bloom County." This is the first "Bloom County" children's book, picture book with the last predictable children's character probably that I could've concocted, which is a lobotomized cat. So I laid down the challenge for myself and I couldn't help but do my usually painterly thing, but this time, readers will see -- they should have an organic experience from reading the new collection of my comics to going right to this book and see that it comes from the same universe.
REHMBut Berkeley, take us back to the '80s when, you know, this strip was so popular. I mean, I could not wait to read it each day.
BREATHEDWell, you're very sweet.
REHMWell, I mean that. And then, all of a sudden, you decide, I'm out of here. How come?
BREATHEDYou know, it was funny. It all happened to the three of us, Gary Larson and Bill Waterson and myself. I was the first and then shortly after, they all quit as well. And I think it was a combination of -- but we realized that the '80s were ending, an era was ending for the comic page that was attached to the era ending with newspapers. And I think we sensed that. But we also -- we had introduced sort of a new wave of attitude and approach to comic strips that didn't lend itself to decade after decade after decade production.
BREATHEDYou know, "Blondie" was started in the '30s and it may still be there today. I don't know.
BREATHEDIs it really?
BREATHEDWell, we were destined not for that future and I think we knew it and our stuff was so immediate that if we weren't charged every morning to do it, it wasn't going to get passed onto our kids and family members or passed on like they do in the corporate circles, they give it to other people to draw. That wasn't going to happen. So inevitably, after ten years, for all of us, we had, I think, exhausted our enthusiasm level and our fans were going to sense that. I think all of us thought that.
REHMExhausted on a political level, exhausted on a...
BREATHEDOn a creative level. On a creative level. It was -- we were cartooning on an intensity that, you know, when you're writing -- most of these cartoons used to be done six months in advance. The cartoonists hired writers and they had boxes of gags they would pull out and they would execute them. It was like electricity being dumped in people's homes. And the rest of us were picking up the day's paper or, in Bill Waterson's case, exploring childhood. And you can do that for so long.
BREATHEDI think he sensed -- he can speak for himself one day. He was -- he had probably explored childhood to his extent that was going to start repeating itself eventually. His strip was really narrowly focused on a life of a little boy and the pressures and the fantasies involved. Mine was more political and whatever else, but I think we all had a time -- we all had a maturity date and I sensed that I was reaching mine, at least for a 25, 28-year-old, which is what I was at the time.
REHM28 years old, you were at the top.
BREATHEDSo I left the child.
REHMExactly. And then, you start receiving several fan letters from a very famous recluse.
BREATHEDYeah. And I like this because I'm a narrative freak. I love story. It's probably why -- it's one of the reasons I did quit the comic strips. I wanted to get into storytelling medium that was more adept at storytelling than a comic strip, which is slow motion storytelling. And I got into children's books and movies and such. Um, but I love a great story. I love a great circular story, beginning and middle and a great ending. And I got in the middle of one myself for a writer with this.
BREATHEDAnd this is the story. In 1967, a ten-year-old boy who fancied himself a future writer and an artist, maybe, wrote a fan letter like everybody else in the world to a Harper Lee who he had been assigned to read in his fourth grade class, fifth grade class. And I -- that letter was returned to him. And inside the letter -- and I still have it because it was returned by the publisher of Harper Lee, she was not accepting fan mail and never answered it -- he wrote not only did I love your book, but please give us more "Mockingbird."
BREATHEDWhen are you going to do the next book? We want more. I would like more. What's going to happen to the characters. Please don't let them die. That letter came back to me and the rest of the class. We got all the letters back because they sent them back. Jump ahead 15 years and I'm drawing a -- I'm facing having to draw a comic strip and they tell me, draw whatever you want. I went back to the biggest influence I had as a child, as a creator, as a writer and as an artist, which was "Mockingbird."
BREATHEDSo I designed "Bloom County" as a reproduction of Macon County, Alabama.
BREATHEDSo it's why my action didn't happen in a city. It didn't happen in an urban environment. It happened in my version of her town with children, with father figures, the rest of that. She totally informed "Bloom County." Jump to 40 years...
REHMDo you think she had any idea of that?
BREATHEDNo. I don't think she was a creature of irony.
BREATHEDSo 40 years after I wrote her that letter...
BREATHED...and it came back to me, I get a fan mail and it's signed "with love, Harper Lee," and in it, she says, this is a message from a dotty old lady. Please don't let Opus die. We want more Opus. So 40 years later, the woman who inspired and informed my art, who wrote nobody, wrote me 40 years later saying whatever you do, don't stop your characters. Let them live on. And to this day, I don't know why I didn't write back a very gentle nudging her as to I'll bring back my characters or keep them going if you bring back yours, Ms. Lee.
BREATHEDAnd I didn't think to do that. And we carried on conversations for the next ten years.
REHMSort of writing back and forth.
BREATHEDWe wrote back and forth. She was imploring me to go back to "Bloom County" to make it live again and not to let my character die.
REHMAnd what happened to you when the prequel to, we assume, to "Kill a Mockingbird" came out?
BREATHEDThat's exactly the instigation for my return, is when that happened, I found it outrageously offensive that they were doing this. I knew that she wasn't in a position really to probably make an informed decision on that. I think she was -- a kind word would be inspired to do it by less than savory sources. And she was -- what they were doing, what the publisher was doing was risking her entire franchise of characters, all of our love for these characters with something that all writers know, which is our sketch tablet that's not supposed to be published.
BREATHEDShe drew -- she wrote all this before she was ready to and her editor knew it and she -- he told her to go back and redo the book and she did and she came out with "Mockingbird." Great movies all have pre-versions of them that we don't need to see, either. And what it was going to do was leave a new generation of people with the wrong impression of what these characters were.
REHMDid she ever talk to you about that prequel she had in her drawer?
BREATHEDNo, no. And I think at the time, if I'd even asked about it, she would've said, without a doubt, no, this is going to remain in my drawer, as it should. These characters live on in people's imaginations the way that they came put.
REHMSo when you and she began corresponding, it really changed your outlook to a certain extent. And we're going to talk more about that when we come back after a short break. Berk Breathed's new book is called "The Bill The Cat Story." Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. I am so delighted to have Berkeley Breathed here in the studio with me, and you can actually watch our interview. We've got streaming live on our website, just go to drshow.org, where you can watch live. We also have at that website the letters from Harper Lee that you and I were just talking about, Berkeley, but we are also talking about that Bill the Cat story and the fact that you have begun re-doing your comics strip.
BREATHEDYeah, the grand -- the grand experiment, yeah.
REHMA grand experiment, and you're putting it on Facebook. How come?
BREATHEDIt's the -- it was the only option. It was interesting, the causation of this was the combination of Harper coming out with that -- with an unfortunate book, which made me think about my own characters and her previous imploring of me not to let them go too easily, and as well Donald Trump's return. It wasn't just because I wanted to draw about Donald Trump, which I'm not doing anymore, but the swamp from which he rose is so interesting that I didn't want to miss out on that. And on top of that, a -- an interesting of the result of the book that we were here talking about last -- a decade ago, that I did called "Mars Needs Moms," and that was turned into a $160-million movie by my favorite studio, Walt Disney, that directed -- or produced and made by my favorite filmmaker, Bob Zemeckis, and turned into one of the worst catastrophes in Hollywood history.
BREATHEDSo those three things came together in a perfect moment of synchronicity.
REHMOh my gosh, oh my God.
BREATHEDAnd I decided within about five minutes to do what I had pledged never to do, ever, ever to do, is to go back to Bloom County. And suddenly it seemed like a good idea.
REHMSo what's been the experience so far?
BREATHEDIt's been extraordinary because it's on Facebook, which is hugely limiting and an opportunity.
BREATHEDIt is a strange combination of yin and yang of -- it's created a community that I never had before with my readers, an organic circle of creativity, where I post something, within minutes I'm hearing from people how it affected the, how it -- how they thought of their parents when they read the strip and how -- maybe a joke that they -- that they used to share with them of my old characters.
BREATHEDAnd those responses, that feedback, is immediate, which is brand new. In the old days, I didn't hear from my readers. I barely knew intellectually, emotionally, that they were there. I sent them off from my den in the mountains of Colorado, and I might see them on a book tour, but that's as close to meeting them as I had. Now I hear from them constantly, and you can see it affect my writing.
BREATHEDI mean, you wonder how Dickens would do if he was -- he used to write his novels in serial form and post them.
BREATHEDWhat if he heard from his readers immediately upon posting that chapter?
REHMWell, but are you saying that hearing from those readers somehow changes...
BREATHEDIt does, it's both -- and as you can imagine, both dangerous and an advantage.
BREATHEDYou don't want them to inform you the wrong way, and you might take a larger import from a comment than you should and then adjust something emotionally about the next time you go back...
REHMAnd that's going to affect your creativity.
BREATHEDBut you know what? Their enthusiasm is what -- is what the artist in me is feeding off of. They -- when they respond to something -- for instance when I drew Opus for the first time in 1982...
REHMThat sweet thing.
BREATHEDI did it as a throwaway gag for three panels. I didn't hear until six weeks later, until some mail came to me, that the -- that the character meant anything to anybody out there. And suddenly I was going -- and then I was going backwards and trying to catch up. Well, you listen to your readers, and as slow as that was, you don't ignore that kind of response.
REHMSo Opus is back.
BREATHEDWell, Opus is back, and I didn't know when I dragged those four panels out from 25 years ago whether I knew how to fill them again. That four-panel structure of writing was something I hadn't approached since I was 27. And it was -- it was both terrifying and intriguing because I didn't know that I could do it, which is why I did it quietly. I -- there was no press, there was no interviews. There was -- you know, it drove my publisher crazy that I didn't do what classically you would do, make a big deal out of this.
BREATHEDI just posted on Facebook, wondering if anyone was going to notice, and a few people noticed.
REHMA few people noticed, and we should say that Opus makes a very, very sweet appearance in this book, the Bill the Cat story.
BREATHEDYeah, I couldn't leave him out entirely.
REHMYou couldn't, of course you couldn't. Tell us about this story.
BREATHEDIt's -- it's an origin story for one of my odder characters, and he's probably the least predictable character for a children's book because he has no personality due to the fact that he was lobotomized as a young cat.
REHMHe's sort of like Chauncey the -- Gardiner.
BREATHEDChauncey Gardiner from "Being There," one of my favorite movies.
BREATHEDProbably the inspiration for Bill the Cat, which few people would probably guess. I'd loved the book, I met the author at the time and realized that he had stumbled on a paradigm that works, that we're almost living through right now, is a blank -- a blank slate that is being put in a position of incredible power and opportunity due to the fact that we project everything on top of -- onto him. And that's where Bill the Cat came from. He was meant to be a cypher, an absolute zero that everyone else responds and reacts to and projects everything that they expect onto him.
REHMSo dear Bill the Cat is adopted.
BREATHEDBy Binkley, yes, as a -- he's a little boy, this is a pre-story.
REHMHe's such a darling little boy, and he's so happy, and...
BREATHEDBill gets yanked away from him.
REHMWell, but wait a minute.
BREATHEDOh, am I jumping ahead in the story?
REHMYes, you're jumping ahead. I want to read this first page.
REHM"Once in a little place called Bloom County, there lived a little boy named Binkley, who watched our very large world and thought a very smart thought. This weren't place to be a'riding lonesome. He needed a best buddy. So dad took little Binkley down to the Best Buddy store to choose one, which he did. And the place he chose from is called Pedigree Schmedigree Animal Shelter. Pals now. And he chose a cat in a garbage can."
BREATHEDRather than all the dogs.
REHMRather than all the dogs. So that's where the adventure begins, but it's very short-lived.
BREATHEDYes, he's taken away, and may I say that all children's books should be read by you, Diane, and not by me. I would have added all the "Bloom County" attitude to it, which you didn't need.
REHMOh, no, it didn't need that at all.
BREATHEDYou did your sweet readings. So I need you to tour with me from now on, okay?
REHMI promise I will be with you in spirit. I must say, what Opus does is to try to help this kidnapped cat. Why does the cat get kidnapped?
BREATHEDWell, he's a little -- he's a little late to the show, and someone else has spoken for adopting the cat, and he gets shipped off. Now I'm not going to spoil it, this huge moment for the readers, but he goes off on a lifetime of adventures away from Binkley, who spends the rest of the book pining for the cat that was not to be his.
BREATHEDAnd Opus comes in and plays a vital role at the end in bringing him back, like all of us, back to "Bloom County." Who would've thought that that's where everybody ends up? And so it's a metaphor and an allegory to me, maybe. I'm back to -- someone's brought me back to "Bloom County."
REHMAnd how much emotion can you put into a book like this?
BREATHEDWell, I can't leave it out. That's the -- that was the challenge was that you could certainly write a comedic book for children. I -- that's what this was speaking of is I'm a narrative freak, I love story, and story is meaningless without a bit of emotion in it. So if you read any of my children's books, there's a moment that was all written backward from.
BREATHEDI thought of the great emotional moment at the end. How do I best get there? And this one was about Bill the Cat being delivered to Binkley at the end of the story, and how do I make it work -- how do I make this character work that actually has no emotion built into him, which is the opposite of what you do to a children's character.
REHMAll right, here's an email from Mike in Delaware. He says, I've spent the past two years trying to find the script -- the strips, pardon me, where Bill and Socks are shacked up together in a cheap motel.
BREATHEDWell now we're in trouble with the children's publishing industry.
REHMRight, he says, I'd make a nice donation to charity of choice if you can help, and in parenthesis, he puts, hunting liberals still causes me to fall on the floor and roll around laughing.
BREATHEDHe's quoting a 29-year-old comic strip. Do you know how amazing that is that people remember lines that you wrote from a lifetime ago?
REHMThat's amazing, absolutely.
BREATHEDAnd I get that all the time. I can't remember anything I wrote three days ago.
REHMAnd I walk out of the studio and can't remember what I did 15 minutes ago.
BREATHEDWell, we're in the same boat, Diane.
BREATHEDBut it's like having your listeners quote a line, something you said, you know, a lifetime ago.
BREATHEDAnd you -- and that's part of the -- part of the realization I had just a year ago that that -- that the person that wrote that -- that email, they're out there, and they -- if they have those lines of -- your writer's lines from such a long time ago still in their minds, who am I to dismiss that too easily?
REHMSo how can he find those strips?
BREATHEDGee, it's actually a perfect plug for me. There's -- the last few years we've come out with the entire collection of my strips, nothing left out, everything, that I've ever done, every sketch, every painting, every drawing.
BREATHEDIt's from IDW Publishers. You can find them online. Go to Amazon, and it's called the Bloom County Library.
REHMSo there you are, Mike, you don't even have to make a donation, and here is an email from Leslie in North Carolina. She says, my husband and I still watch every Christmas the DVD of "A Wish for Wings that Work."
BREATHED"A Wish for Wings that Work."
REHMWe watched it our first Christmas in 1991 and look forward to watching it every year. Thank you for that special story.
BREATHEDSee, now those comments mean a lot more to me now than they might have 25 years ago, believe it or not. I wasn't -- I needed a little -- I needed a little maturing, I think...
REHMWas there a little arrogance going on there?
BREATHEDNo, it wasn't arrogance, it was -- and it wasn't aloofness. It was not enough distance to get a perspective over, one, what a blessing it is to create characters that have any meaning to people's lives. At 25 and 23, I don't think, short of "To Kill a Mockingbird," there weren't any characters that meant anything to me, and it wasn't until I had some perspective and got the letters from Harper that I thought about what her characters meant to me, how precious I thought they were and how rare it was, and I'm sure she came to appreciate it, which is probably why she never tried to write again, because you'd be in terror of hurting that legacy.
REHMBerkeley Breathed, his new book is titled "The Bill the Cat Story," and it is a Bloom County epic for ages four to 33, and 36 to 89. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm going to open the phones. Let's go first to Rob in Franklin, Kentucky. Hi, you're on the air.
ROBI'm glad to hear you back on the air.
REHMWell, so am I.
REHMThank you so much.
ROBMr. Breathed, I have to admit I'm kind of a fandom -- fanatic about Bill the Cat.
BREATHEDOh, we have a book for you.
ROBWell I'm looking forward to getting my hands on it because I have a Bill the Cat tattoo, I have a cat, a real cat, he's named Bill, and I also have an Internet radio station that I run, and we're currently running the "Bloom County" campaign, Bill the Cat for president.
BREATHEDNow you're scaring me, Rob. That's -- that's fantastic, and, you know, you're -- you're the reader and the fan that I suddenly came to appreciate later in life, and it's why it's fun to do it now, because I know you're out there.
REHMOh, that's just terrific, Rob, good for you. And someday I bet he wins. Here's a tweet asking whether Berkeley Breathed is going to bring back Rosebud the Basselope.
BREATHEDWell, it's there. They need to check it. In the last couple of weeks I brought back Rosebud, and that was one of my favorite characters because I'm an animal lover and a dog lover. So Rosebud is -- is a dog that can't quite be a complete dog, as being half wild animal. And he'll no doubt show up in the Pedigree Schmedigree Dog Pound, as well, looking for adoption. So the answer to that is catch it on Facebook because he's there in the next couple weeks.
REHMAll right, and to Mark in Lenore, North Carolina, hi Mark, you're on the air.
MARKYour show is wonderful, thank you so much.
MARKBerkeley, I think about your ending the comic strip kind of like the day that John Lennon was killed. I cried. It hurt that bad.
BREATHEDWell thank you for that.
MARKI mean, I truly did. It and "Calvin & Hobbs" were the only things I read in the Sunday paper, and I've got clippings from both you and them at home, the colored clippings, stacks of them that I've got in boxes somewhere, and just -- I love "Bloom County." It actually helped me be who I am, I think, in a sense.
BREATHEDWell, that's a lot of responsibility.
MARKYou know, well, I mean, it helped shape my ideas and thinking because I'm -- I'm a tradesman, but I'm a progressive politically and socially and that kind of thing, which is kind of an anathema within the construction trade. But it just -- Opus, I used to get, on birthdays, friends would give me stuffed animals of Opus and, you know, well, stuffed Opuses.
MARKAnd I had one for years, I don't know what's happened to it. I had all the books with all the strips.
REHMWell, you certainly are a collector, and what Mark wants you to do is put the comic strip back into syndication.
REHMNot likely, not likely soon.
BREATHEDNot likely, no.
REHMOkay, Berkeley Breathed, "The Bill the Cat Story" is out now. But his comic strip is now back up on Facebook. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Berkeley Breathed is with me. And you cannot only hear him, you can see him. We are video streaming live this hour because of his new book, "The Bill the Cat Story," a beautiful book, in addition to being a "Bloom County Epic." And I really think you're going to enjoy looking at it, as well as reading it. It's certainly a story for all ages, including mine. I just turned 80 last week.
REHMI did. And I feel so great about it.
BREATHEDWell, you look great.
REHMThank you. Except for…
BREATHEDYou sound great.
REHM…a broken foot, I'm fine.
BREATHEDI think your voice is stronger than it was a decade ago.
REHMWell, it's strong now because I just had a voice treatment.
REHMAll right. Let's go back to the phones and let's go to Steven in Wake Forest, N.C. You're on the air.
STEVENHello there. This is a great day for me. Diane Rehm and Berkeley Breathed, thanks to both of you for all of your work during the years.
ANNOUNCERDiane, your eloquence. Berkeley, you got me through the Reagan administration. But anyway I wanted to tell you about…
BREATHEDI keep getting that comment. I get that all the time.
BREATHEDI get - and it wasn't like I was spending the decade going after Reagan. In fact, I had dinner with him. So I considered him sort of a friend. But if…
STEVENYou were the perfect foil, I mean, you know. That's just the way it was for me.
BREATHEDGentle foil, maybe.
STEVENYeah, I understand you gave him a picture of - that you drew of his wife.
BREATHEDWell, he called me out of the blue because I had put - in those days I used a Xerox, a little picture, little portraits in the background.
STEVENI remember it.
BREATHEDAnd put Nancy from an old campaign postcard from, you know, 1975 or something.
BREATHEDAnd she looked young and good. And he called me the next morning in Iowa City, to tell me how much he appreciated seeing his beloved in my comic strip.
BREATHEDAnd I thought it was a joke. And if I could Reagan's voice, I would do it. But I'm not gonna try it on the radio. But it sound like an imitator was on the phone. And the - this is a - became a legendary story and, Steven, I'm stepping on your call, but it's a good story worth telling. I was - I had just gotten - I had just woken up and gotten out of the shower and before he could keep going I said, "Mr. President, I think you show know I'm not wearing any pants."
BREATHEDAnd if anybody comes to a presentation I'll show you the drawing that Bill Waterson drew of his response to hearing that story. And it is a drawing of Ronald Reagan standing at a phone in the White House completely naked saying, "Berkeley, I've got something to tell you."
REHMOh, that's wonderful.
BREATHEDSo, boy, I got away from your call.
REHMYeah, okay. Go ahead, Steven.
STEVENCan I tell you about my favorite strip?
STEVENNot only of yours, but of all time. Opus walks into the boarding house, one of the animals - I can't remember his name - the rabbit walks up and says, "By the by, Portnoy kicked off last night. We had him freeze dried and put on the mantle." So Opus walks from the living room and there's Portnoy, you know, up on - this crazy look on his face standing up on the mantle. And then Opus was, you know, standing there withering.
STEVENAnd all of a sudden, Portnoy just jumps down and says, "Ah, you Fish," and goes to pet him. And then the last panel is when Opus is leaned up against a chair, got his hand over his heart and he says, "Friends can be such a mixed blessing." And that, I mean, that was one of my favorite all time. I just wanted to thank you for that, man.
BREATHEDAnd what's - that was what, 25 years ago?
REHMYeah, I mean, see, how it sticks?
BREATHEDI am astonished.
BREATHEDYeah, it does.
REHMAnd it's wonderful that it sticks. Let's go to Tampa, Fla. Hi, Margaret, you're on the air.
MARGARETGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Berkeley.
MARGARETI started at the University of Texas in 1979. And I just wanted to let you know just how much we loved the Academia Waltz in "The Daily Texan." You…
BREATHEDDiane's looking at - she's looking at me like what's that.
MARGARETHe was the cartoonist for the University of Texas newspaper, "The Daily Texan." And while there wasn't a whole lot to read in the newspaper, we loved the cartoon. We would pick up the cartoon every day to see what Steve Dallas and Kitzi were doing that day.
BREATHEDWow, those are names from the past.
MARGARETAnd it got a bunch of us that were theater majors through college…
BREATHEDOh, that's sweet.
MARGARET…living in a house right in the middle of Fraternity Row.
BREATHEDThat was pre-"Bloom County." That's where I got my chops. That's where I figured it out.
MARGARETWe loved you. It was wonderful.
BREATHEDThat's very sweet.
MARGARETThank you so much for everything that you gave us.
BREATHEDOh, it was my pleasure.1
REHMAll right. And, you know, Berkeley, when you hear this stuff, I mean, you really know that people are not only remembering, but also yearning for more. Is there any indication inside your soul that you might want to go back into a syndicated strip?
BREATHEDIt's a technical issue. It - I had to make the decision quickly a year ago. Do I go into syndication, which would have been lovely because you get instantly wealthy again. Or do you do it for free and put it on Facebook and do it with a whole different paradigm. If I had gone into syndication I would be in - I couldn't do both. I'd be in newspapers.
REHMYou could not do both.
BREATHEDNo, no, I couldn't do it both.
BREATHEDNewspapers wouldn't allow me to be posting it anywhere.
BREATHEDSo I'd be in a format that is declining, is diminishing. It will disappear soon. It's got a readership that is declining as well. I'm certainly not gonna get a new generation of readers discovering it in the newspaper. It just doesn't happen. I'm getting it now on Facebook. Parents are showing them - their Facebook - the Facebook page. And I had, like, a couple little boys at the book festival in Washington, DDC, two days ago. And I'm not used to having children come up to me.
BREATHEDThey might be holding one of my children's books, but they were holding my cartoons that they had printed out from the Facebook page. And they were looking up at me with that glazed look that all authors wish for from their readers. And calling me, sir, when they should have been calling me knucklehead. And I knew that I probably made the right decision 'cause they were not - they had never seen a comic page on a - in a newspaper before.
REHMHere's an email from Lynn, who says, "I love Bill the Cat. He was my answer to all the Garfields that people stuck to the windows of their cars. I bought a stuffed Bill and glued the stickers onto his paws, rode around with Bill the Cat stuck to my window in the 1980s. So glad to hear he's back.
BREATHEDSo he was a response to Garfield, who, by the way, shows up as a cameo in this book, as a pivotal story moment in Bill the Cat's story.
REHMI love it. Here's an email from David. "Just want you to know I still have my Bill the Cat buyer's club certificate, having sent a self-addressed stamped envelope in response to one of the strips. My question is did you really expect people to respond to the comic strip about the buyers' club or did you have to scramble to prepare the certificates because people unexpectedly responded to them?"
BREATHEDTook it serious? Yeah. I - in those days it was so much fun. I was playing with the medium. No one had ever done that before. So I put a coupon in my comic strip to clip out and send to me and I'd send them back a certificate. This is pre-digital. This is pre-everything.
REHMYeah, how many did you get?
BREATHEDI personally stuffed about 25,000 envelopes. I didn't have anything else to do in 1984,
REHMYou had to do it.
BREATHEDYeah, I did.
REHMYou had to do it.
BREATHEDNo, it wasn't a gag. I expected some sort of response. But it was a test, like, no one had ever done this. That sounds like fun. No one had ever put out a record in a book, like I did. No one had ever asked, like I did, in the late '80s for all the garage bands of the country to send me their version of the Billy and the Boingers, "Bloom County" song that they could write and submit and I would put it in my next book.
BREATHEDWhich they did and my garage was filled with over 40,000 cassette tapes of these things. And we eventually made a record in a book. So how much fun could it be playing with a medium that no one had ever messed with before? The comics were waiting for someone to come in and mess around.
REHMYou know, the difficulty that so many people had getting into the comic strips…
REHM…did you have that ambition forever and ever?
BREATHEDNo. I started - I was fired from every position in "The Daily Texan," which the young lady was talking about, when I did "The Academia Waltz." I wanted to be a photographer. I wanted to be everything. I got fired from each position until there was nothing left to do. 'Cause I kept making everything up. I couldn't do a photograph without manipulating it in the darkroom. I couldn't write a story without making up facts. They didn't like that in newspapers for some reason.
REHMDo you think there's something wrong with you?
BREATHEDYeah, the universe was pointing me at the cartooning table. It was like, get your butt there now. And I finally did. So I started to comic strip, 'cause there was nothing left to try in the newspaper. And that worked. And magic synthesis of a drawing and a word together, put it together in an amalgam that has a power that still today is astonishing.
REHMSo you made a lot of money with that comic strip. And now you're making no money…
REHM…with the strip up there on Facebook. You're gonna make some money with this book, I do predict.
BREATHEDThe bookstores need to come back first, please.
REHMOh, listen, try Politics And Prose.
BREATHEDOh, they've sold them a couple nights ago at the fest. Yeah, they're…
REHMAbsolutely. They're fabulous. They're fabulous.
BREATHED…a great bookstore. A great bookstore.
REHMOkay. And Ashley, in Louisville, Ky., writes, "I loved 'Mars Needs Moms.'"
REHM"I give it to all my pregnant friends. I can't read it aloud without crying."
BREATHEDYeah, that was my - that was written from - we may have told that story 10 years ago, to you, Diane, when we were talking about the book. I wrote the book from that night that I listened to my son say something terrible to his mother at five years old. And his name was Milo. And I wrote a story about Milo doing that to this own mother, who was then kidnapped that night by a Martians who didn't have moms on Mars, and whisked her off to Mars and he followed and broke his space helmet and the mom that he had so diminished with his language earlier in the evening, came over to him, took her helmet off and put it on him and saved his life while she died or she began to die.
BREATHEDAnd suddenly Milo and the Martians learned what moms were really for. That was the story that I wrote as a response that night. And that's what got made into a movie so poorly.
REHMHow did your son react?
BREATHEDYou know, he knows about it now. He was so close to it then that he didn't - I think that it's absorbed in him now the lesson there. And the lesson was great. I was just a new parent. The point was children are going to grow up and possibly never appreciate that it was only - they will be lucky if they ever meet another person that would be willing to die for them. And the only ones that will are their parents, and they take them for granted.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to go now to a call in Michigan. Patrick, you're on the air.
PATRICKOh, what an honor it is to talk to both of you.
PATRICKAnd I'm driving down the street giggling as I was trying to recall my favorite comic strip. And I'm not sure if it was Death Tongue or Billy and the Boingers…
BREATHEDThey were interchangeable.
PATRICKWhere - I'm gonna start laughing again. When Steve Dallas meets with the record producer and he reads them the lyrics to "Let's Run over Lionel Richie with a Tank." "Middle of the road, man, that stanks, let's run over Lionel Richie with a tank." And it cuts to the next panel of the producer sitting in front of an eight-foot signed picture to him of Lionel Richie.
BREATHEDIt's terrible that we laugh at our own material, Diane. It's…
REHMI mean, it's great.
BREATHEDActually, it's probably as it should be, but it's still a little bit embarrassing.
REHMIt's absolutely great. But, you know, I am wondering where you think this Facebook strip is headed?
BREATHEDWell, we've got a find a way to find - to get to readers who aren't on Facebook. And we're gonna be exploring some other options. And it will never be able to get to the place where we could reach them in the newspapers each day, but the newspapers aren't existing anymore. And the readers, listen, if they were seeing "Bloom County" on the back of a newspaper page, it's now, what, 13" wide, the strips would be so small and it would be depressing.
BREATHEDAnd I'd have, once again, 500 editors, which I had at one time. And trying to please 500 editors was a daily nightmare. So Facebook is still a good way to do it. They will - if people don't know that and they - if they try it, they will see that there is a reward to being with other people of like minds. Patrick just called. Meeting other people to get just that same jazz of an old line from 25 years ago, and now he can meet them and talk to them and share it with them. And it - I'm not to be a promoter of Facebook, but it really works. It brings an element to an appreciation of a medium that was not - that couldn't exist before.
REHMHere's an email from Scott that really touches me. He says, "Some time ago, there was a fire in a comic book store in the Pike Place Market."
BREATHEDMarket, oh, yeah.
BREATHEDSure, I know it well.
REHMI know that market.
REHMOne of the survivors of the fire was a "Bill the Cat" stuffed doll. Sorta. Bill was quite a bit singed. And the store kept Bill in a place of honor. After all, Bill has always been a bit singed."
BREATHEDA bit singed.
REHMIsn't that darling?
BREATHEDThat's a great story.
REHMI love that. I love that.
BREATHEDHe's mentally singed, emotionally singed, and now physically singed.
REHMWell, but Bill the Cat is also on a life journey in this book.
BREATHEDAnd I found a life journey for him. It was a self-challenge of mine. And you can tell me, Diane, did it work?
BREATHEDI'm having so much fun. And this is the first time I've had fun doing it. I was not having fun in the '80s doing my strip. It was a weird experience having it respond - the response that I had with it, but it was a task that was - I didn't bring a lot of joy to. Which explains why I probably left it after a decade.
REHMSo now what's next?
BREATHEDNow, I wake up each morning, I can't wait - I wake up thinking about it. I never did that before. And I'm enjoying the characters. And I love all that Patrick and Scott, and the rest of these folks have been calling in, are closer to enjoying it, too. So - and that's as it should be.
REHMThat's terrific. Berkeley Breathed. And his new book is titled, "The Bill the Cat Story: A Bloom County Epic for all ages." And, of course, he's doing his strip on Facebook. So good to see you. Congratulations.
BREATHEDThanks so much, Diane. It's been a pleasure.
REHMAnd thank you. And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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