This website has exalted the work of Berkeley Breathed many times over the years, one reason being his exceptional and inventive art skills. This, however, was not always the case. If you go far back enough with Berke -- and with most other artists way above your skill set -- you can find quite a few early humble scrawls not unlike your own. Usually this takes the form of a college comic strip, like The Academia Waltz:
IDW printed a collection of some of Breathed's earliest work, and there are strips in it that look even worse than this: experiments from the VERY beginning, when he was just trying to figure out how to hold a pen, and drawing blobby ugly men with sharp protruding noses:
Another respected artist is Jeff Smith. Everybody wants to be Jeff. When Jeff walks in the club, he gets instant attention -- free drinks, hordes of admirers, phone numbers from the ladies. He lowers his sunglasses, cocks a blinding white smile and says the phrase they came to hear: "Stupid Stupid Rat Creatures!" And the ladies swoon on the floor. He too started with a humble college strip, telling basically the same story as the first few chapters of Bone, only with cruder art:
Throughout his time at college, though, Smith's art style refined itself quickly. This later strip comes pretty close to what his professional comics would ultimately look like:
To find truly bad art from Smith you have to go VERY far back. This is one of the first comics he ever drew with the Bone cousins, at around age 8 to 10:
The point is, no matter how discouraged you may feel when staring at your own drawing's imperfections, take comfort in the fact that the people who seem to tower above you started out just like you. No one gained flawless art skills overnight. Everybody's human. Except for Frank Cho.
THIS is what Frank Cho's college strip looked like:
Frank Cho is living proof that mutants not unlike those found in X-Men comic books exist. How is it even possible for a college comic strip to look as good as University2 without divine intervention, a massive leap in human evolution, or actual magic powers? Cho has never made a bad drawing in his life. He fingerpainted the Sistene Chapel on construction paper in kindergarten. The doodles he makes on his shopping list are better than Renaissance paintings. You can aspire to be Berkeley Breathed or Jeff Smith, and possibly get there if you work hard enough. But you can NEVER be Frank Cho.
Well, you could be on Cho's level, but you would have to attain the powers of a god, which would require the Infinity Gauntlet. And if you were wearing the Infinity Gauntlet you wouldn't be able to hold a pen, so....you can never be Frank Cho.
Every artist has another artist whom they admire and aspire to -- a role model, a benchmark they work to improve toward. What does Frank Cho do in this situation? He's as high as it gets. No one draws better than this guy. Jeff Smith confessed he had trouble keeping realistically-proportioned characters like Thorn on-model, and you can see it in some places. It wouldn't be a problem for Cho. Cho is a better artist than Smith, better than Breathed, better than Watterson, better than Walt Kelly, better than Al Capp or Windsor McKay. There is no known point past him.
How lonely must it be at the top? if you asked him, would you get a reply like what Duke Phillips gave on The Critic? "I envy no one. I envy you for having me to envy."
University2 revolves around five characters, all basically the same college fratboy in varying degrees of severity: Frank the neurotic duck, Dean the literal male chauvinist pig, Leslie the talking lima bean, Ralph the giant gerbil, and Tony the grotesque unshaven walleyed human. Gags revolve around pranks, pratfalls, obsessions with beer and girls, just your basic undergrad male reading material. I don't normally go wild for such things, but it's enhanced so well by Cho's unmatched expressions that it puts Animal House to shame.
So yeah....some of these lines have obviously been pilfered. But Breathed stole quite a few punchlines from Garry Trudeau in his early years, so turnabout is fair play, I guess.
University2 shows off a side of Frank's brush we haven't seen since. Everyone pays him to do pretty drawings, but he can do UGLY pretty darn well too. Ugly designs were very much in vogue during the mid-90s; not so much today. I haven't seen anything in his professional career that looks like Tony here. Shame.
Most of the cast consists of cartoony, bug-eyed animals, but Frank has a hyper-realistic human girlfriend named Brandy. The contrast of this character's design works wonderfully at illustrating Frank's perspective and predicament in the strip: he's landed a bombshell way before he has the emotional maturity to handle it, and lives in constant fear of screwing up and blowing it. Cho, of course, can handle both styles without a sweat because Cho can do anything.
As a result of his neuroses, Frank is a complete pushover. At one point Brandy actually cheats on Frank with Dean, and after a couple weeks with Frank in tears, Brandy just shows up at his door saying "take me back" and Frank is like "okay."
Brandy gives off somewhat of a sinister vibe in University2, like Jessica did in the first act of Roger Rabbit. But there's no way to really tell if she's good or evil, because she isn't that well-defined as a character. Storywise her sole purpose is to amp up Frank's insecurities, because Frank just doesn't know how to deal and that's where the humor is. At this stage, the life of a wild college-age boy was the only world Cho knew, and he couldn't really flesh out any other kind of character. This is why Brandy comes across as flat (character-wise) and her dialogue is based on distant theories on what women might talk about, like weight concerns or whatever.
Frank didn't draw very many "movement" lines here and yet your eyes still see Dean performing all these moves at 24fps. When you think about it, the Watusi dance is hard to communicate as a still, because it's so abstract. There's no mistaking it here.
Most of the best strips involve Dean (naturally the worst-behaved character is going to be the funniest), and most of the best strips involving HIM were his disastrous efforts as a PUA. This formula never stopped being funny no matter how many times I saw it. His horrible lines were funny enough, but the payback panel where he got his comeuppance was always ten times as outrageous. Above may be my favorite moment in the entirety of University2.
University2 only ran for a little over a year, and its entire contents fits into one book that runs a lean 80 pages. Despite this, it manages to fit in several character arcs and running gags. Occasionally we'll just see Ralph standing somewhere telling a random "yo mama" joke. Whenever this happens it is explained that Cho was "overwhelmed with schoolwork" and had to take the day off. But just LOOK at that background. Almost every single "yo mama" padding-strip had a unique, detailed nature scene like this. How long would it have taken YOU to draw that? It would have taken ME so long I'd have no time for school. You realize that, in the context presented, that is the kind of thing Cho draws when he has no time. He sneezed that strip out in ten minutes like it was nothing.
Like I said, Cho is a mutant. Marvel owns the printing rights to his likeness and 20th Century Fox owns the film rights to his body.
The final University2 strip is Frank proposing to Brandy, and things are left there with the hook that readers will have to buy the book if they want to see the resolution. A few months later the University of Maryland Student Store was filled with copies, and Brandy's answer WAS......
.....NO! (insert sad trombone here)
By this point Cho's college strip had attracted enough attention that newspaper syndicates were banging down his door, begging for him to sign a national contract. This was exactly how Garry Trudeau and Berke Breathed got started....was Cho about to follow a similar path and repeat their super-stardom?
.....NO! (insert sad trombone here)
Despite having many of the same characters, even PRETTIER visuals, and an extremely loud attention-grabbing name, Liberty Meadows never reached the heights it looked like it was going to inevitably reach. It contained elements of every successful strip that had come before it: the wild detailed backgrounds of Calvin and Hobbes, the irreverence of Bloom County, the animal artistry of Pogo, the cartoon anarchy of Looney Tunes, and the exaggerated drama of classic soap opera strips...all wrapped up in a package drawn by the best artist in the entire universe. It seemed like the safest bet in the world at the time, but papers didn't bite and the strip never received a wide circulation in its five year run.
And yes, people still cared about the newspaper funny pages at this point. The true greats like Watterson had jumped ship, but Scott Adams' Dilbert was rising into a merchandising powerhouse and Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks premiered around the same time as Liberty Meadows. McGruder would eventually draw his way into landing an Adult Swim series. And then another one. Cho got no show.
Look familiar? Pretty much every University2 strip that could be sanitized into a newspaper format was redrawn for Liberty Meadows in its first few months. The new premise is that the characters live in a nature preserve, which is called Liberty Meadows. Brandy was graduated into central character and mascot for the whole strip, and thankfully was revised into a much better, less evil, more three-dimensional character, as well as a more accurate representation of a woman (though this is a Cho production, so expect some eye candy).
Frank only made the transition in a sense. There's a human here wearing glasses named Frank, but he's nothing like Duck Frank -- Duck Frank had his anxieties but they didn't consume him constantly. At the end of the day he was just another one of the guys. Frank Mellish, on the other hand, is a timid, isolated, quivering pathetic mass that spends all his time pining for Brandy and....that's about all he does. He's a one-track Brandy-lusting machine. (Neither of them are Frank CHO -- Cho appears in the strip all the time, but as a monkey.)
The world still has a duck, but it's not the same duck....it's an adorable little duckling named Truman, to rope in that crucial senior citizen demographic newspapers salivate over. Leslie became a frog, Ralph's species was changed to a bear (he looks more like a bear anyway) and Dean gained a pair of sunglasses to make him even more like Steve Dallas than he already was. The truth is, Dean's actual inspiration was a fratboy bunkmate, also named Dean, at the University of Maryland. Breathed says Dallas was also based on someone he knew in college. It lines up as a coincidence, but Cho definitely knew what Bloom County was.
Also, they HAVE appeared in the same room together.
Speaking of cameos, if you like them, boy is this the strip for you! Copyrighted corporate characters make unauthorized appearances in Liberty Meadows constantly. This is something newspaper strip artists have been historically able to get away with as long as the words "Apologies to (rights holder)" appear in the strip. Cho abused this privilege like mad. Sometimes the "joke of the day" will simply be that a character showed up.
MEMBER STAR WARS?
MEMBER PIKACHU AND TERMINATOR AT THE SAME TIME?
MEMBER STAR WARS AGAIN?
Reference humor has gotten a lot of flak lately, but like all forms of humor, it depends on what you do with it. At one point there is a double reference where Brandy crashes through a plate glass window and inexplicably lands onto the bed of Beetle Bailey, who declares "THANK YOU GOD!!" That got a laugh from me.
Rarer were references stretched into entire story arcs, like this one here where "Marc DeRail" visits. Every legacy strip that had to share the page with Liberty Meadows was lampooned at some point. Cho ran into trouble when one week of strips involved Frank being stuck on a blind date with someone named Debbie who looked exactly like Cathy, to the point that anyone could be fooled into believing Guisewite drew her into the strip. Cho was ordered to cover her up, which he did clumsily:
Frank was told by his editor that if Cathy appeared in the strip for longer than a cameo he could be accused of "trading on the popularity of the character" and sued for it. What I don't understand is why Cho didn't just go the Marc DeRail route and draw Debbie differently? Very few parodies look EXACTLY like what they're targeting -- it's not the point, mockery requires exaggeration. Marc DeRail looks similar to Mark Trail, but he's not the spitting image, so there was no issue. Why didn't this come to Cho's mind with Debbie?
The original storyline as-written was that Debbie was going to develop an obsession with Frank after this blind date and stalk him over the next few weeks, but due to pressure from the syndicate, she was written off-screen after her first week and a different sequence had to be thought up quickly.
This brings me to the strip's fatal flaw and a possible big reason why it never caught on. Liberty Meadows is the best LOOKING strip of all time, but it's not the best STRIP of all time. The art is second to none, but the writing is often half-baked. Leslie, Ralph and Dean are trapped on a rowboat in the middle of the lake. They had an oar, but they were fighting and Leslie dropped it! Now Dean is so hungry that -- get this -- he's hallucinating the other characters as food! And now he's going crazy and saying he can't take one more minute, but you'll never guess -- he's only been on that boat for a half-hour! The scene is drawn amazingly, but the material's hardly fresh.
The reason there are only a handful of truly admired comic strip artists is because the ability to write impressively AND draw impressively, on the kind of grueling schedule that a newspaper gig demands, is very rare. Most people can draw well, but not write, or vice-versa. I've always known how to write, but my journey to learn how to draw was a strenuous, painful, vertical climb up a jagged mountain, much of which you saw in real time on this very website. It's only in recent years that I've heard compliments directed at my art, instead of "How about we cover this with a blanket in case company comes over?" Even today, I couldn't draw a Liberty Meadows if you pointed a gun to my head. But I could write a Liberty Meadows pretty easily:
Frank sees Brandy in the
FRANK: I wish I had the courage to ask Brandy out. Today I'll do it.
Frank looks again and she's no longer there
FRANK: I missed my chance. It'll never happen. I'll die alone.
BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER APPEARING FOR NO REASON: You're pathetic, Master!
If Cho had found a separate writer for the strip, one as gifted with natural wit as he is with an ink brush, this could have ranked in the top five greatest newspaper strips of all time. Instead we have butter-smooth, impossibly gorgeous lineart illustrating weak stuff yoinked from another comic strip or an old Saturday Morning cartoon.
So getting to the soap opera part. While these crazy animal antics are going on, the humans in the strip are in the midst of their own relationship drama. You're aware by now how much Frank pines for Brandy, correct? What he doesn't know is that Brandy likes Frank back. But she's never said anything about it, because HE'S never said anything about it to HER and he therefore must not be interested, she figures. You see, Frank and Brandy are soulmates destined to be together forever but EVERY FORCE IN THE UNIVERSE is conspiring to keep this from happening, from Brandy's mom to Brandy's roommate to Brandy's ex (Frank is his own worst enemy).
Everything about this is calculated to be as irritating as possible. A ridiculous amount of coincidences keep Brandy and Frank's status static; one of the most egregious is posted up above.
All of this would at least be thrilling if there was any substance there. But there isn't. No natural chemistry is ever established between Frank and Brandy -- no meet-cute situations, no adorable banter, nothing that indicates this would work and you should root for them. We're not asking much and we need something. Pacifica Northwest gave Dipper Pines ONE hopeful glance and it spawned ten million shipper fanfictions. These characters haven't done even that. They just wallow in their own angst.
So which one is the donut in this scenario? Frank and Brandy are both donuts. The strip is constantly YELLING at the reader that they BELONG together, yet provides next to no evidence for the case. It is all tell and no show. Frank and Brandy are both each other's plot devices, nothing more, and if their sexual tension was ever resolved in any way, Cho would be absolutely stuck. What would a Frandy couplehood look like? Probably much like their relationship is now, which means Frank would just constantly get his miserable butt into all sorts of bad situations and Brandy would have to dig him out, over and over and over. It just wouldn't work.
As the years went on, the soap opera elements grew more prominent and threatened to take over the whole strip. At one point Brandy's sociopathic roommate Jen comes into the picture, and GREAT GOOGALY MOOGALY, does this get awkward. Jen has no romantic interest in Frank, but his patheticness delights her, so she decides to play around with his feelings for her own amusement. At a New Years party, Jen simply walks up and frenches Frank square on the lips. He instantly forgets about Brandy and starts following Jen around like a puppy dog. She treats him like manure and makes out with other guys in front of him, yet he's still convinced she is his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Brandy is beside herself with rage, but it's directed at poor Frank and not toward the psycho she inexplicably still lives with.
Eventually the animals can't watch this anymore and they demand that Frank man up and dump Jen immediately. They get him pumped to do this, but being Frank, he chickens out at the last minute....and Jen finds out about his plans from Dean. "NOBODY DUMPS ME!" Jen growls, and stomps over to Frank's....where she plows her body right into his and heavily seduces the poor boy until right before they're about to do it, Jen screams "I DON'T WANT YOU!!" and tosses him out the door, where he lies in the cold, buck-naked all night. It may be the most cringeworthy story arc in all of comic strip history.
Meanwhile, Frank's apparent rejection has driven Brandy to run back to ex-flame Roger, where she accepts his proposal of marriage, all the while looking at the camera with pained glances that telegraph "I'm settling."
Remember this stunt? It's back...readers will get deja vu as, once again, Cho quits the strip via cliffhanger and a pitch for an upcoming book. To make matters worse, the book that contains the resolution to this storyline (The Wedding Album) has never been reprinted anywhere in anything, so you're pretty much forced to track down this 32-page comic book for any sense of closure. Fortunately, multiple copies of the comic are listed on eBay at reasonable prices.
The plan was to transition Liberty Meadows into a comic book from this point. But to this day, the only new Liberty Meadows work Cho has done past The Wedding Album is this one strip created as a stretch goal for a crowdfunded "How To Draw" book. The reason for this broken promise? Money. According to Cho, I thought I could do Liberty Meadows and my Marvel and outside work but I cant. I have a mortgage and child support that I have to pay each month. As much as I want to do Liberty Meadows (believe me I want to), the other jobs pay better."
The question is, for how long? The skills that got Cho's foot in the door now have the potential to get him blacklisted. The comic book market in the 90s was aggressively laser-focused on lonely teenage boys, and with Cho's natural gift for cheesecake, he fit into the industry like a glove. The comics market has become considerably less pervy in the years since, and targets a wide and diverse audience now. In an age where the Miss America pageant no longer has a swimsuit competition, Cho's pretty girls could be taken by some as an intended throwback to a Mad Men era of degradation and objectification. Especially when he's used the strip's brand to sell products like this.
Not that I'm worried about the guy in general. Cho could live off Tumblr art commissions if he had to. He could charge $5000 per brushstroke and someone would always pay. He is Frank Profanemiddlename Cho. He's the best there is. Where are you going to find someone better?
As for his library of work, how do you find that? Well, that's the hard part. There are four versions of Liberty Meadows in existence:
THE ORIGINAL CENSORED NEWSPAPER VERSION: While the strip was originally running, many papers switched to a digital archive, meaning the strips they ran can't be accessed with Google Newspapers or any microfilm. This version will probably never be seen again.
THE LIBERTY MEADOWS BOOK COLLECTIONS: Printed by Image in the form of four paperbacks, this version of the strip is uncensored, but omits EVERY Sunday page and several scattered strips throughout the run. The entire last month of the strip is also missing.
THE GOCOMICS VERSION: The entire run is free to access, but many of the strips are censored, and the malfunctioning robot that posts them often runs them out of order. The reason some of the LM strips were scans here is because I couldn't track them down on GoComics -- it's a mess.
THE COMIC BOOK VERSION: Self-published by Cho independently through Insight Studios in Maryland, this was the first Liberty Meadows collection available. Each 32-page issue contains seven or eight weeks of the strip, in chronological order WITH the Sundays (some are even in color), plus commentary and behind-the-scenes tidbits from Monkey Boy himself. 37 issues cover the series, not counting The Wedding Album. This still remains the best way to read Liberty Meadows, but it's also the hardest to track down.
To borrow a catch phrase from University2, this sucks pipe. It would be lovely if a company like IDW would untangle this mess and thud down a definitive hardcover volume like they should. There was an attempt to START a proper collection back in the day (Liberty Meadows Big Book Of Love, Insight Studios, $49.95 HC) but it evidently didn't sell strongly enough to result in any follow-ups.
So which is better -- University2 or Liberty Meadows? I'm gonna have to give the nod to Cho's first effort. It's not very long, but it somehow avoids the mistakes Cho would make later...needless drama is kept to a minimum and there isn't a single reference gag in the entire run. It's tight, short and consistently funny. Put simply, it is one of the greatest college strips of all time and the book belongs in every serious cartoonist's collection....if you can find it.
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