Having nabbed a 1987 editorial cartooning Pulitzer for his satirical strip Bloom County, the onetime Austinite went on to write and illustrate kids’ books as well as the widely syndicated Sunday funny Opus. His new book, Mars Needs Moms!, is aimed squarely at the OshKosh B’Gosh crowd.
Mars Needs Moms! is geared for the four-and-up crowd. Why kids’ books and why now?
Berkeley Breathed: Your question possibly presumes you don’t know of my six other picture books, going back to 1991. Have you seen?
Ah, I remembered the collections but forgot the kids’ books. Rewind. Do kids’ books require a different mind-set than newspaper strips?
BB: The methodology in arriving at ideas for either is the same: staring at the ceiling and trimming my nails. Here the similarities stop. Writing a gag has little in common with writing a story whose emotional mission is to enter a vulnerable young brain.
Do you exorcise your cynicism in the strip and revitalize your optimism in the books?
BB: Bingo. It’s the yin and the yang of it. Although, due to the sober realities of the fading newspaper business, I will soon be left with only the yang.
What are your thoughts when you consider the evolution of your strips from The Academia Waltz for the University of Texas student paper through Bloom County and now to Opus?
BB: It’s like looking at a musty family photo album filled with past experiences—good, bad, deeply embarrassing—and dead relatives who seem far more ridiculous now than they seemed at the time. I’ve never reproduced any of the work done at UT because I’d like to avoid being shot by a disturbed member of any one of the scores of aggrieved groups that would be rightly offended.
So maybe I shouldn’t ask about the baby alligators in Lake Austin?
BB: I paved the glorious path for Jayson Blair and his lying press brethren over the past 25 years, yet I never get credit for this. The only alligators that ever existed were the two confiscated by the federal authorities from an aquarium in my dorm room. To this day, I have no idea why people got their knickers in such a twist, just because land values around Lake Travis dropped 62 percent for, you know, a while. Did anyone stop whining and consider the tax advantages? No.
Given your early dalliance with media hoaxes, should I ask for proof of e-identification? Like a scan of your ACLU card or something?
BB: A perfectly sensible concern. I once seriously considered sending a doppelgänger to take my place on the Today Show in 1982. As Bryant Gumbel put a permanent ban on my reappearance on that show minutes after my drugged performance, I probably should have.
This is getting slippery. Now do I say “Confess, Mr. Breathed, you’ve never even met Bryant Gumbel!”?
BB: If you’re going to question my celebrity encounters, choose a better celeb. In 1983 I discussed King’s Row with Ronald Reagan (his favorite role) and then later debated the efficacy of “edgy” comic strips with Nancy in the White House Blue Room (After we had all been given monstrous post-dinner cigars, which I stuck behind my ear like a pencil). I have more.
Did the Pulitzer give you elbow-rubbing privileges with a fancier breed of cat?
BB: It gave me the first words of my obituary.
Fill in the blanks: “If I hadn’t ____________________, I wouldn’t _____________________ today.”
BB: If I hadn’t dropped a photograph into the “public submissions” basket at UT’s Daily Texan in 1977, and then woken the next morning to find it taking up nearly a quarter of the front page, I wouldn’t probably be anywhere but working as a clerk in a Captain Video store today. Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight—today, finally—that that photo was completely doctored to make it interesting. You sense a pattern here, don’t you. You understand, possibly, why so many people were upset when I was given a Pulitzer.
In a parallel universe does your obituary begin “Twice-convicted plagiarist and alleged black-market leopard shark kingpin . . .”?
BB: No, it begins simply “Video-store clerk and contributing cartoonist for the Dubuque Auto Advertiser …” It ends with “… died of gunshot wounds inflicted by any one of several pissed-off, disgraced editors.”
The artwork in Mars Needs Moms! is great.
BB: ’Twas my first fully digital paintings. It’s a revelatory artistic experience, making a computer create artwork, but a deeply distressing one as well, as at the end of the day, you’re not holding a painting. It is only light. I haven’t quite come to terms with this.
Is the story line inspired by any mom-related incident?
BB: My daughter’s birth. I looked down at Sophie, and it occurred to me that, for the first time, I had met a person who I would die for. Not just say it, like in a Prince song, but really do it. I started blubbering, then had the annoying realization that Sophie would never wake up each day and offer to wash my car in exchange for my willingness to die for her.
Is Sophie old enough to appreciate your devotion—or at least wash the low bits of your car?
BB: They never are. It only gets worse. In her teens, she’ll probably ask if I might indeed die for her so that she can have my Volvo.
What interesting projects are on your horizon?
BB: Three: a novel; two of my books are in development at Disney; and Opus’s death, which approaches.
Has Opus, the penguin, been a fixture in all of your strips? I don’t recall, and I’ve been in Austin since your The Academia Waltz days. And, assuming you mean the death of Opus, the strip, will that be the last we see of B. Breathed, newspaper cartoonist?
BB: Opus has been in all my cartooning post Academia Waltz. I mean the death of Opus literally, as told in the comic, which means the suspension of the feature (no dates set as of yet). Newspapers may indeed fade from our lives, but childrens’ books may yet have a future.
Are you serious about killing off Opus in the strip?
BB: Yes, but my wife would leave me, she reports. I have to factor this in.
Do your publisher and newspapers know this?
BB: They know that all good things come to an end. I’d like to see Opus go out with George Bush, both headed into the sunset.