If you, the person reading this, happen to actually be Berkeley Breathed who was Googling his name and found this page, STOP READING NOW and turn around. We're going to be speculating about your deepest, most intimate issues and it'd just be awkward if you were really there. Thank you.
When you look through Berke Breathed's years of unrivaled magnificent comic strip work, and the many delightful story arcs throughout, there is one arc overall that stands out in particular, and I've avoided talking about it for a long time even though it's the most noticable thing there. The reason for this is, it looks to be so personal that I figure it's none of my business. But then again, it's not exactly a secret, is it? He laid all of it out like an open blog. So...I might as well bring it up, because he kind of told it already. Read on.
Like most cartoonists, Berke put a lot of his own life into his work. Anything that happened to Breathed happened to his characters. When he was injured in an aircraft accident, he was wrapped in the same full-body brace he later stuck Steve Dallas in. When Rev. Wildmon launched a crusade to get Bloom County pulled from every newspaper because it said the word "dreck," Wildmon himself made an appearance in the strip for one week. When the Pulitzer committee was publicly chastised by political cartoonist Pat Oliphant for awarding the 1987 prize to Breathed, Berke retaliated with "Ollie Funt," a parody of the duck character Oliphant slipped into all his cartoons.
Look at this little easter egg from an "Opus" strip. He still hasn't forgiven Oliphant.
In general, if you hurt Berke's feelings, you were going into that strip, like it or not. When you look through the entire span of his work, one overarching trend stands out above the rest.
1985: Opus starts dating.
1986: Opus meets Lola Granola, introducing a lot of strips about the relationship of an engaged couple.
1987: Opus gets married (well, almost).
1987 (later): Lola disappears.
Mid-1988: A story begins running about the strip being forced by law to introduce a female character. Several characters start muttering comments about how it will only lead to trouble and that women as a collective whole are inherently evil. At first glance it just looks like a tongue-in-cheek commentary on sexism, but stuff keeps happening.
1989: The last story before Bloom County winds down for good is about Steve Dallas putting all his trust in his new girlfriend despite everybody's warnings that she will absolutely, positively betray him, being a woman and all. She does -- severely -- and Steve reverts back to his old personality as a reaction. If that wasn't enough, we get it bluntly spelled out for us:
As the 80's turn into the 90's, it keeps going on.
Berke eventually introduces The Men's Kouch, the location of an Our Gang-style "He-Man Woman Hater's Club" where the characters who survived the Bloom County-Outland changeover go to squat in their underwear and rant about women. Given that not every girl in the world is into Italian food, they seem to be ranting about one woman specifically.
This all spells out one obvious deduction: Berke got ruined. He met the pesto-eating love of his life, she cheated on him, and there was an ugly divorce. And ever since then, Berke has developed a seething irrational hatred for women in general. Right? How else could all this be happening?
There's one problem with this theory. Even though there appears to be plenty of evidence for it in the strip, everything else suggests otherwise. In the book One Last Little Peek, Berke mentions at the time he wrote this Michael Jackson strip that got the lawyers nervous, he needed a date himself. "Fortunately, someone else agreed, and she married me," Berke comments.
Did he get married a second time by the time the book came out in 1995? No, he did not. From 1986 onward, every book collection has a photo of Mr. Breathed on the back that's credited to "Jody Boyman." Just a friend? Hardly. The first time this name appears in '86, it appears as "Jody Boyman Breathed." Berke says later in One Last Little Peek that at the time he was injured in the accident, he was engaged to Jody, and they in fact got married while he was in that brace. How sweet.....
Throughout all the years of female-bashing strips Berke wrote, there is nothing to indicate an actual breakup or separation between him and Jody. She clearly keeps taking his picture, and it'd be awfully awkward to hire your EX to do that. In fact, the Opus book released in 2004 is dedicated not only to Jody but to "Milo and Sophie." These are confirmed as the names of his children, and his previous book from 1995 mentioned he had none. Berke and Jody did not reproduce as naive young newlyweds, but many years later, meaning they were absolutely certain they would stay together the rest of their lives. They're happy as clams.
So....where did all this stuff come from?? What does any of it MEAN??
Am I just reading too much into it? Well, how can I not? Nearly every story Berke ever wrote was inspired by a real event, either personal, political or worldwide. The 90's cartoons are just drenched in anti-femme vitriol for no apparent reason, and no other era of his work is written this way. When it comes to Berke's life, why do the records and the strip suggest two completely different things? WHYYYYYY???
Making matters even worse, Berke has a habit of lying to interviewers. All us penguin-philes remember the 2007 interview where he claimed he was about to kill Opus, with perfect sincerity. He claims he and Garry Trudeau are best buddies in the second Bloom County Collection book, but that contradicts every other thing he's ever said about Trudeau (and this may be the lie; he also says in the same notation that he dated Garry's wife in college, and Jane Pauley didn't attend the University of Texas). If he ever gives an answer to this mystery, it can't be fully trusted either way. Just great, ain't it?
The closest way I can sniff out a satisfying answer is to look again at the body-brace arc. What did Jody do after Berke had the accident? She married him anyway. The strip depicts the opposite thing: Steve's girlfriend Quiche dumps him right on the spot, in as shallow and cruel a manner as possible.
Maybe, in regards to love, Berke never based his stories on what actually happened to him, but on his fears of what could. An impending marriage was thrown the wicked curveball of a debilitating injury, and the possibilities of getting dumped probably scared the heck out of him. He was giving the Ultimate Test to his future wife before they were even married. And so he put to paper the worst things in his anxiety closet.
Is this the truth? Have I figured out The Truth at last?
If you want to go to Berke's own website and bother him about it, I can't stop you, but...seriously, what do you say to a stranger that shows up in your inbox demanding to know your true relationship with your wife? At best you'd ignore him; at worst you'd report him to the authorities. It's just too personal a mystery.
The fifth and final Bloom County Library collection from IDW, currently scheduled for Christmas Shopping Season 2011, will reprint the Steve Dallas Betrayal Story. Whether Berke finally comments there and reveals the true meaning behind it is the big question.
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