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Note to Berke Breathed: Stop Opus Now. Please.

Note to Berke Breathed: stop Opus now. Please.

Ever since the latest resurrection of your eponymous penguin in the Sunday comics, I’ve waited, hoped and prayed that you’d recapture the madcap genius of Bloom County. My efforts have been in vain — Opus is a meandering mess, an effort that further dilutes the power of your previous works in a way not even Outland could.

I will say, though, that the artwork is more beautiful than ever. I wish you’d been able to devote this level of attention to detail to the things you did 20 years ago; gone are the color palettes only an EGA monitor could love, replaced with a wild visual flow that fans will appreciate.

But the art is the only thing to appreciate, as Opus is staggeringly unfunny. Reading it is like viewing a parallel universe where Bloom County struggled along with humor that makes Drabble and Marmaduke seem sophisticated.

And that is a great shame. Bloom County remains my favorite comic strip to this day. During its long and successful run, the cast of characters — cynical Milo, optimist Binkley, drug-addled politico Bill the Cat, insane genius Oliver, womanizer Steve Dallas and a host of others — were only outdone by a never-ending supply of manic storylines. Taking on the “war on drugs” by making Bill’s sweat the source of an illegal hair rejuvenation tonic? Inspired. Pitting Opus against Mary Kay by infiltrating a cosmetics lab full of Thumper-esque bunny rabbits blinded by Drain-O and Right Guard? A brilliance topped only by introducing a drunken and very feminine Spuds McKenzie as the possible father of Benjy’s litter.

These were the carefully illustrated ramblings of a madman, and they were a gift to every man, woman and child who enjoy politics with a dash of the macabre. When the strip shut down in 1991 in a poignant yet deeply satirical storyline about change (Donald Trump buys the strip to build a new casino, forcing the characters to find work in other successful comics), Breathed left at the peak of his career.

And he should have stayed gone. His triumphant “return” with Outland continued the adventures of Opus and a new cast of characters — characters that unfortunately were not engaging or intriguing in the least. Worst of all, without his rogue’s gallery, Opus was exposed as the painfully dull character he was, a revelation that made me revisit Bloom County to find that he was never funny.

Why base a strip around him? Because of the plush doll sales? Or is he simply Berke’s favorite character to write for?

I admire Breathed for his desire to move in a different direction, but it did not work and he realized that. Old characters quickly returned with no explanation, neutering any forward momentum they had when Bloom County left us. Outland became Bloom County Redux, without the wit, charm or dementia of the original. Some would say that Breathed’s politics had changed during the transition years, and that’s fine. But the primary goal of someone creating a comic strip is to be comical. When you cease to be funny, you start to be Cathy — and no one wants that.

Outland’s inevitable demise came as a mercy kill. So many things that had made Bloom County great were undone during its tenure (the only truly great moment was Steve Dallas’s outing, a moment so out there yet undeniably true to the character) that I’d wished it’d never happened.

But Opus makes Outland look like the Second Coming. Steve Dallas is back — except he’s been robbed of his homosexuality and misogynistic brand of humor. Bill the Cat is also there for some reason; a new addition is Steve’s illegitimate son who is nothing more than Milo and Binkley merged a la some horrific Langelaan-ian accident. It’s a combination so sad you want to cry at the Bell Curve of life thrown at this once glorious pantheon of insanity.

I have been waiting a year and a half for the comic to take shape; as a weekly, Opus‘s voice would rightly take some time. And those first two months chronicling Opus’s journey from the Antarctic to Bloom County were definite growing pains. Since then, there have been mini-arcs that make Prince Valiant seem easy to follow, but for the most part stand alone episodes define Breathed’s routine.

Every once in a while an attempt is made to show that Breathed still follows the world around him. They fail. I don’t know how someone could be so naturally gifted in drawing hilarious daily strips for years and yet now not be able to string together a coherent story for seven panels once a week. I can only assume that the artwork and coloring sucks up most of his time, because the humor factor certainly doesn’t enter the equation.

Berke’s complaints with daily strips are legion — no room for creativity, too hard to read, etc. But it’s time to rethink the “creativity” freeform Sunday strips he and Bill Watterson fought so hard for, too. All splash and no substance doesn’t equal fun. Beautiful to look at? Absolutely; some of the work done since panel restrictions were eased harken back to the Golden Era of comics. Enjoyable to read? Not in the slightest.

So I’m asking the publisher and Berke Breathed to euthanize this addition to the Bloom County “franchise.” It was practically stillborn as it is, but investing time and energy into something so devoid of the greatness its creator once had is pointless. Opus, in fact, only does one thing for me — it makes me reach for collections of Breathed’s earlier works to remember a time when he was relevant… and a sagacious wit.

Please, confine Opus to Antarctica or the occasional hardcover book. Haven’t you learned by now that penguins don’t fly?