40 Years Ago: ‘Bloom County’ Begins Dissecting Politics and Culture
There's no comic strip that epitomized the '80s as well as Bloom County.
Launched on Dec. 8, 1980, it satirized – and reveled in – the fascination with pop culture, high-stakes but morally vacuous politics and immense self-regard that defined that decade. When cartoonist Berkeley Breathed penned the last strip of the comic's first run in August 1989 (he has since re- animated it in several other formats), the '80 were already on their way to becoming a thing of nostalgic mis-remembrance; it takes only a quick perusal of the old strips to remind oneself of how things really were.
The comic was initially centered on a boarding house in a mythical Midwestern land called Bloom County, based on Iowa City, Iowa, where the Texas-born Breathed had moved to follow a girlfriend. The boarding house was run by a doddering old couple, the Major and his wife, but its most important tenant was Milo Bloom, the couple's 10-year-old grandson. For the first few months of the strip's existence, the stories revolved around the various characters Milo ran into at the boarding house and at school, including his friend Binkley, who was burdened with terrible anxieties that would emerge from his bedroom closet at night, and local attorney Steve Dallas, who spent most of his time drinking, smoking and chasing women who wanted nothing to do with him.
But in the summer of 1981, the strip introduced what would become its most popular character: a penguin named Opus, who was meant to be just a temporary addition. Opus was brought home by Binkley in an attempt to impress his father – who thought the boy was a sissy – by doing an all-American thing and getting a dog. Soon Opus, with his boundless innocence and huge heart, had moved to the center of the strip, along with a burgeoning cast of recurring characters. This included Cutter John, a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran; Oliver Wendell Jones, a computer prodigy; and Bill the Cat, an inarticulate and disgusting parody of Garfield.
This satirical gang – at once both sentimental and cynical – catapulted Bloom County's popularity, and by the middle of the decade it was appearing in more than 1,200 newspapers nationwide, with a readership of more than 40 million people. By 1989, Breathed decided that the strip had run its course and moved on to something mostly new in Outland, a Sunday-only strip that ran until 1995. Although Opus was at first the only main Bloom County character in Outland, soon others of the gang began to appear until they dominated it. Breathed also ran a Sunday strip called Opus from 2003 until 2005, and in 2015 he restarted the official Bloom County comic on his Facebook page.
Read the First Bloom County Comic Strip
Through all of this, though, the comic has remained deeply tied to the '80s. Rereading the old strips now, one of the first things one notices is the heightened relationship with pop culture. One of the characters quotes from the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke in the third strip in the series, there are continuous references to everything from Star Trek to M*A*S*H to The Dukes of Hazzard and everything in between, and at one point the gang creates a heavy-metal band called Deathtongue that eventually became Billy and the Boingers.
Celebrities were also frequently name-dropped: Opus has a long-standing crush on Diane Sawyer, Sean Penn makes an appearance to beat up Steve Dallas (in a reference to an incident in which Penn punched a photographer during his marriage to Madonna) and there's a fake quote from U2 guitarist the Edge about Billy and the Boingers on the back of one of the early Bloom County compilations: "We think they're great. In a grand, mystical, neo-political sense, these guys have a real message in their music. They don't, however, have neat names like me and Bono."
Unlike current nostalgia-laden depictions of the '80s, what the comic highlights is how acerbically pop culture was riffed on at the time. In this way, Bloom County shares a lot of turf with the punk music and low-budget filmmaking scenes of the late '70s and '80s that spent a great deal of time tearing to pieces the glossy, depthless culture of the decade that is now so celebrated.
This sardonic take extends to Bloom County's political stance. President Ronald Reagan was a popular target of the strip, but so were both the political class as a whole and the national political obsessions of the time. It was a decade of self-impressed old men pontificating about how things like international relations were far too complex for ordinary citizens to grasp, which made for easy satirical pickings. It also assumed a politically and historically educated readership, to the degree that names like Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and the First World War British officer Field Marshall Haig were dropped without blinking an eye.
This broad reach resulted in reams of ironic strips in which the citizens of Bloom County gave in to scares about communist infiltrations or the mishandling of national drug policy. Major events like the Iran-Contra affair were also, in essence, directly reported on by Breathed, with the caveat that instead of giving his readers the facts, he pointed out their absurdities. When Bill the Cat and Opus "ran" for president and vice president in 1984, their campaign slogan was "This Time, Why Not the Worst?"
A good deal of the political disaffection of the '80s has since receded into the warm glow of false memory. What tends to get forgotten is the razor edge of a good deal of the counterculture in that time – the '80s were only lustrous in certain ways and for certain people. For others, the glossy sheen was ridiculous, and the politics were absurd. Bloom County serves as a great reminder of this.