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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 10/22/2008

The Interview: "Opus's" Berkeley Breathed

By Michael Cavna

For a fella accursed with wings that won't work, few creations have soared as creatively high as Opus the Penguin. And joining him for that three-decade ride in such rarefied air has been his creator, BERKELEY BREATHED (who, we should note, has had his own sketchy adventures testing the stratosphere).

Berkeley Breathed with his beloved creation. (AP)Enlarge Image

These two fearless males -- Opus and Breathed -- have sometimes seemed an inseparable comedic duo, of sorts. Yet on Nov. 2, this pair will separate for good, as Breathed concludes his Washington Post Writers Group strip "Opus." (We have seen the final panel and are sworn to secrecy, so be assured: They'll be no plot-spoilers here.)

The Pulitzer-winning Breathed first burst on the national scene during the Reagan years with "Bloom County" (which was born out of his "Academia Waltz"). Opus lived on in the follow-up Sunday-only strip "Outland" in the '90s and returned to the funny pages in 2003 -- his figure a little different, his color a little more saturated -- with the "self-titled" strip that soon bids adieu.

Breathed's children's book "Pete & Pickles."Enlarge Image

As Opus prepares to pack his trunk, Comic Riffs caught up with Breathed to discuss his farewell to the strip -- and his next adventure, the brand-spankin'-new children's book "Pete & Pickles."

MICHAEL CAVNA: Can you speak to how you felt saying "goodbye" to Opus for the last time? As you physically drew his farewell, was there emotion attached to it?
BERKELEY BREATHED: I drew the last image ever of Opus at midnight while Puccini was playing and I got rather stupid. Thirty years. A bit like saying goodbye to a child -- which is ironic because I was never, never sentimental about him as many of his fans were. I think "Madama Butterfly" pushed me over the top, though. He suddenly seemed alive, really. Rare for me.

MC: Was it difficult to decide how to conclude the strip, or not so much?
BB: His Final Place came very naturally, without great consideration. The picture popped into my head and I smiled. Always a good indicator of a wise idea.

MC: Do you rule out Opus ever appearing in a children's book?
BB: No, I don't plan on seeing him in a book. He should remain a memory at this point -- unless a film ever emerges that I will have control over. Unlikely.

MC: You've said as a writer-artist, you're part Michael Moore and part Walt Disney and Charles Schulz. As you retire "Opus," will you miss anything about largely silencing your politically satiric, "edgier" Michael Moore side -- or do you embrace leaving that behind as you create tender and soulful books such as "Pete & Pickles"?

BB: I'll miss it like hell. But it's the kind of longing one has for crack cocaine, I would guess. The fact that the newspaper audience has shrunk to a fraction of what it was 20 years ago makes it easier to accept, frankly. Less to miss.
Keep in mind that in 1985, I had a potential readership of over 50 million Americans. At that time, a good portion of those were under 30. Gone.
On the other hand, I'm happy to report that the people who pursue picture books and novels for young readers are ALL under 30. My crowd.

MC: I really appreciate how in the new book, you mix pen-and-ink drawings and painterly "virtual" illustrations. The art in "Pete & Pickles" resonates with joy and engagement -- how has your art changed as you've produced children's books over the years?
BB: Kind of you to say. It was a huge challenge to learn digital painting well enough so that computers don't pop into mind when one sees one. The funny thing is that they look EXACTLY like the art I used to do with acrylics and airbrush -- the very thing computers reproduce the best, ironically. Lucky for me.
It used to take me 9 months to paint a book. Pixels have cut that to 3, bless their little souls.

MC: You've said that too many children's books don't like to deal with tragedy. I confess: Your harrowing moment of truth in "Pete & Pickles" took me aback and moved me some. Can you speak to why such moments are important to you as an author? And do you think Dr. Seuss's works -- "Horton Hears a Who" or "Grinch" -- had such moments?
BB: Horton and Grinch were spectacular bits of storytelling for that very reason. A children's story without a Moment of Truth is useless to me. For precisely the same reason a movie without the same is rather listless. Very, very rare in children's books. In fact, strong narratives in any sense don't seem to be a great virtue in picture books. A day at the beach with Tom and Sally doesn't do it for me. Harry Potter shouldn't be children's first experience with suspense and plot turns.

MC: Your new book includes artistic nods to such great paintings as Hokusai's woodblock "Great Wave" and Hopper's "Nighthawks" -- and well as a seeming cinematic nod to Disney's "Dumbo." Can you speak to what artists you admire, and are there any you draw inspiration from?
BB: I love any image that evokes story: Mystery. Character. The past. The future. Danger. Reflection. Sadness. Joy.
The great pictorialists of the 19th century did this. Their goofball abstractionists that followed had other missions. And that's when -- to their joy -- they lost the general audience. Paintings were once the movies of their times -- anticipated like the biggest blockbusters today. What a great time to paint, eh?

MC: Any passionate opinions you'd like to share on cartooning today as a changing business -- be it about newspapers, the Web, online animations, books, prime-time TV shows or Pixar-like films? And is there one "best" way today for a cartoonist to have a real voice and reach a worthy audience?
BB: The last newspaper cartoon character invented, destined to be a true, ubiquitous American household word, was done so 23 years ago. Calvin & Hobbes. There have, and will be, no more. This speaks to technology and culture, not talent. As newspapers make their painful transition to Something Else, I don't see the Comic Page going with them. Not in the way we know it -- something allowing the entire nation to be reading the same features at the same time ... in the millions.
There will be great cartoons. They will have a fraction of the public profile as in the past. Under a fraction. It will be boutique entertainment. The masses will be elsewhere.

MC: As we follow the next phase of your career, is there anything you'd like to say to your fans, as well as to devoted comics readers?
BB: Fans. Great things, those. Finicky and rather insistent ... but splendidly gracious always. Opus has the best quality fans, of course. Madonna, for instance, can have hers.

MC: And any advice for rising cartoonists?
BB: Cartoonists? There will be great need for wonderful artists and graphic writers. New technologies and opportunities are showing up all the time. Look what Hollywood is making movies out of now. Go. Be fruitful. Just probably ... don't aim for becoming the next Calvin and Hobbes. Unlikely is the gentlest term I can think of.
A strip for your local paper? Great idea. Great fun. But keep your 401(k) funded.

By Michael Cavna  | October 22, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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Can we anticipate a 'Bill the Cat' Book and a Star Trek years book?

Next time you see Watterson twist his arm to publish some new material.

Posted by: Lizardo | October 22, 2008 11:37 AM | Report abuse

"Next time you see Watterson twist his arm to publish some new material."????

Gee, Lizardo, that's like meeting the Beatles and asking them to bring the Rolling Stones around to play a few songs. :)

Posted by: f2 | October 22, 2008 12:43 PM | Report abuse

In a way, its somewhat sad to read this interview - more a wake than a post-mortem, as memories surface throughout, much like the conversations about a dearly departed one over their casket.

The one thing I disagree with is Mr. Breathed's claim that the last newspaper cartoon character invented was Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. Surely he did not forget Jef Mallett's Frazz?

Posted by: fourducks4 | October 22, 2008 10:01 PM | Report abuse

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