Will the last penguin
to leave the building please turn out the lights?
By Fred Mills
Early on, they said that Berkeley Breathed’s Opus was but a pale imitation of its legendary
predecessor from the ‘80s, Bloom County.
The award-winning cartoonist quickly proved the naysayers wrong, crafting an
edgy, frequently rapier-sharp strip that benefited in particular from being a
Freed from the punchline constraints of the 3- or 4-panel
daily format, Breathed was able to form narratives that, true to all great
literature, had lift-off, trajectory, arc and landing – and sure, sometimes
that landing was rough, as no satirist can be expected to hit the mark each
time out. Bur more often than not he was right on the money, skewering week
after week the more ridiculous elements of our culture, with the Republican Party
and conservatives in general comprising the lion’s share, natch. Between Opus and of course Doonesbury, you could reliably open up the Sunday funnies each week
and be guaranteed of getting some real food for thought in between the mushy
sentimentality of, say, For Better or for
Worse or the dumbass anthropomorphism of Sherman’s Lagoon.
Like Bloom County (1980-89), Opus was pointedly
political, and as befitting its namesake, had a soft, squishy middle within
which beat the heart of a true romantic, a soulful cat (penguin, actually) who
cared so deeply about life and the people and animals who populate our lives that
he sometimes couldn’t bear it all. Not for nothing did Opus have to shove
everything into his anxiety closet from time to time.
However, compared to Bloom
County‘s visual style, Opus was
rendered in virtually 3-D terms, something that also put folks off initially
but which came to be a genuine signature, one which leapt off the pages of the
otherwise flat, 2-D Sunday comics page. (Breathed’s Bloom County successor, Outland,
ran from 1989-95 and shared some of the Opus visual trademarks, and of course the Opus character became a mainstay of Outland, too.)
You’ll notice I’m using the past tense. Yesterday, Nov. 2, marked the final Opus strip – it started in 2003 – and it was put together, starting
a few weeks ago, as a kind of cliffhanger, with Opus sequestered in a cell at
the city pound while his human foil Steve Dallas tried to track him down. I
won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that after you look at your newspaper
you’ll have to go to the following website for the final panel: www.humanesociety.org/opus. It’s
done in conjunction with the Humane Society, which has declared this week
National Animal Shelter Appreciation Week.
For more details go to the Humane Society site HERE.
For more of Berkeley Breathed, go HERE.
Why did Breathed decide to retire his popular penguin? In
one sense, doing it on the eve of this year’s election couldn’t be more
appropriate, and with any luck, come Wednesday morning, Opus will be able to
wake up wherever he is, take a look around, and say to himself, “We won.” Maybe
he’ll get that trip to a paradise island he’s dreamed about for so long after
Breathed himself had commented as long ago as last year how
he’d like to see Opus and Bush both head off into the sunset at the same time.
He elaborated this week to the Los Angeles Times, “30 years
of cartooning to end. I’m destroying the village to save it. Opus would
inevitably become a ranting mouthpiece in the coming wicked days, and I respect
the other parts of him too much to see that happen. The Michael Moore part of
me would kill the part of him that was important to his fans.” In an interview
with the Washington Post he added,
“With the crisis in Wall Street and Washington, I’m suspending my comic strip
to assist the nation. The best way I can help is to leave politics permanently.
… I call on John McCain to join me.”
It’s telling that Bloom County, beloved of college
students throughout the ‘80s, and Opus (which was set in the fictional Bloom County) both appeared during the most
relentlessly conservative periods – borderline fascist, even – of recent
American history, the former during the Reagan years, the latter during Bush
II’s reign. Those are the kinds of periods when we desperately need the voices
of satire and reason, such as Breathed’s, and we can only hope that when we’re
forced to endure the next such period that Breathed, or someone that grew up on
Bloom County and Opus and shares his
particularly twisted yet poignant outlook, will create yet another memorable
Good night, Opus. Sweet dreams.