Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bloom County: The Complete Library volume one

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Bloom County: The Complete Library volume one (IDW, 2009)

I listen through my CD collection in an obsessive-compulsive manner that nobody would understand, and one morning this week, an ABC compilation called Absolutely came up in the rotation. You remember ABC, right? British new-wavers led by Martin Fry, best known for their top 5 hit "When Smokey Sings," remember? Well, they had another song, which just dented the Billboard chart at # 89, called "That was Then But This is Now," and it's the most Reaganesque song you ever heard. I recalled that there was a lot of British pop music that explored life in the ugly end of the Cold War, with thousands of nuclear missiles ready to scream overhead as Reagan stared down Brezhnev / Andropov / Chernenko / Gorbachev, the best of it done by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And it is all so incredibly dated. Yet a sequence in this first nice collection of Berke Breathed's Bloom County has Milo and Binkley wandering into the Oval Office on a 1981 school tour of the White House, prank calling the USSR and nearly starting the Third World War, and it's positively timeless. How the heck did that happen?

Fans of Bloom County - they are legion, and Breathed jokes that they camp on his lawn - have been clamoring for a complete collection of the Reagan-era strip ever since it ended. And it was a very Reagan-era strip. John Lennon was murdered on the night that Bloom County debuted, and it ended about seven months after George Bush was inaugurated. Prince Charles and Diana were regular characters for a time, as was a caricature of Ted Turner, under the name Ashley Dashley, who was then making waves with his ahead-of-the-curve Superstation TBS. The Moral Majority, endlessly tiresome even to me as a middle schooler, is represented by Otis Oracle, who yearns for the days of Ozzie and Harriet, and if the belicose antics of the modern Tea Party movement sound familiar, it's because Major Bloom was spewing all that vitriol at his grandson Milo on the funny pages about thirty years ago. Yet it all seems incredibly fresh and exciting, and, more often than not, completely hilarious.

Bloom County has been collected before, of course, but never properly. Perhaps a quarter of these strips made it into a book called Loose Tails which sold by the truckload in 1983; a later book called Babylon found space for another hundred or so from this era. This scattershot approach gave readers glances about the odd, unfocussed early days of the strip, but hardly a chance to see it develop, as we now can.

It's really fascinating to see so many now-forgotten characters thrown into the mix in the hopes that some of them might stick. Breathed, who contributes several dozen footnotes throughout the book, is quite honest that he had no clue what his strip was actually going to be about. Until the cast that became the regulars coalesced, it went off into wild directions and dozens of characters drifted through, including a basset hound named Rabies and a pretty shameless ripoff of Doonesbury's Uncle Duke called Limekiller.

In fact, there's quite a lot that's pretty shamelessly ripped off from Doonesbury, enough to earn Breathed some long-lasting enmity from that strip's creator, Garry Trudeau. The most egregious is a recurring gag with Milo's bathroom mirror talking back to him about his self-doubts, which came straight from Mike's dorm room in 1970-72, but it's more than that; the pacing, the timing and the tone itself come from Doonesbury. Happily, Breathed has never made a secret of his admiration for Trudeau's strip, and has apologized, quite charitably and humbly, for his excesses. I can name a half-dozen people who work in the arts who could learn a good deal from Breathed's behavior.

Anyway, as imitations of Doonesbury go, Bloom County was by far the best of them even before Breathed found his own voice, by which time it was essential reading. Even though that time is towards the end of this book, around the point where Ashley Dashley is phased out and Opus phased in, it's still a very nice collection, which IDW has done a fantastic job producing. It's an oversized hardcover, the first of a planned five, which reprints every single daily and Sunday strip in order, along with annotations, footnotes and supplementary features. The retail price is a little high at $40, but it's a terrific book, on very nice paper, and everybody involved did a standup job. It's definitely one of the highlights of recent collected editions, and anybody who likes comics should find a place for it in their library.

Hmmm. I wonder how well Spitting Image holds up...

(Excerpted from Reprint This!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review. Agreed wholeheartedly. And I'm guessing SPITTING IMAGE, um, won't.

(Ironically, was just thinking of the SI scene of Pacino, DeNiro and Hoffman all jogging and getting each other's names confused....)