|MY NIGHT WITH BERKELEY BREATHED|
This picture appeared in the
Sunday Oregonian alongside an article about
Berkeley("Berke") Breathed, my all-time favorite
cartoonist (and if you don't know what HE'S famous for, you haven't read enough of the site). Of all the professional
influences on my career, Berke is #1. And when the end of the
article mentioned Berke would be IN TOWN on November 18, 2004 to autograph
copies of the new Opus book, I completely flipped. This is one of
the most talented people I can think of, he's a huge influence in
my life, and I get to MEET HIM AT LAST!! AAAAAAH!!
He was going to be at the Borders in Downtown Portland. Since I had minimal experience with navigating Downtown Portland (I try to avoid it, there are a lot of bums and the prospect of getting mugged is of little comfort), I had to string my parents along to let me know which way to go. My big fear was that they would embarass me in front of Berke, but they went somewhere else after I found Borders, which was a relief.
I asked where the signing would be. "Right here at 7; you'll need a book and you'll need to purchase it before he signs it. Choose from these." She pointed to a coffee table just recently stocked with copies of the new Opus book as well as Breathed's picture books Flawed Dogs and Edwurd Fudwubber Fibbed Big. After I snapped up an Opus copy and paid for it, I heard "Sorry, we're sold out of those, but we do have Flawed Dogs" about a million times from all different angles until the show started. I had really lucked out and come at the right time.
Luck is fickle, however. I didn't see any crowd by the coffee table so I went over to the magazine section and picked up the obligatory open issue of Official Playstation Magazine with the disc stolen out. I had 20 minutes to kill, so I skimmed it throughly, even reading EVERY WORD of what Zoe Flower had to say that month. When I finally put it down at around 7, I decided to try looking around the coffee table again, since people were heading toward it. It was then I discovered that when the lady had mentioned "here," she didn't mean the coffee table area. She meant the part beyond it I did not see, with a podium and large amount of chairs, which were all now completely taken. I had to settle for the B.O. filled back of the crowd, and I had been plenty early enough to have the front. It was embarrassing all right, but still not as embarrassing as last Fourth of July when my family was sitting at the park in the dark wondering where the fireworks were, then turned around and saw that they'd been exploding on the opposite end of the sky.
The manager, or someone of importance, came up to the podium. "I have to say, this is the biggest crowd we've ever gotten in the 7 years this branch has been open." Lots of applause. "And now here's the Pulitzer-winning author of three comic strips and six children's books, Berkeley Breathed!" More applause, and a confirmation for me that Berke's name is pronounced "Berk-A-Lee Breath-Ed."
Berke began the evening by commenting that usually book signings begin with a reading from the selected book, yet reading from a book of comic strips is foolhardy. "So, um, there's this member of the Hare Krishnas, and there's this penguin who thinks he's saying 'Hairy Fishnuts,' and...." *huge audience laughter* "See, it doesn't work."
Instead, he went into how he got into cartooning in the first place: "because I was fired from everyplace else in journalism." In his early days he was a reporter for his college newspaper, and he mostly made up the events he reported on, though no one figured it out...until one week when he "brought the scoop" on baby alligators being illegally dumped into a nearby lake. Everyone bought it, the authorities went nuts, property values went down, and when it all was traced back to Berke, he nearly wound up in prison. Needless to say, the only job left there was comic-stripping, and so his "true" career began.
For two years he drew The Academia Waltz for the Daily Texan, which starred a younger Steve Dallas. At this point Berke mentioned that in two weeks, Steve Dallas would return and start appearing in the Opus strip, which was met with huge applause. The last time Steve Dallas had ever appeared, which was back in 1995, he was suddenly gay and eloping with a Doonesbury character who was also gay. When Berke initially wanted to draw the new Steve strip, however, his editors told him he couldn't have a gay character in "Opus," nor even say the word "gay" regarding a major character. Rather irritating...yet Berke relented, went a different direction and has now drawn a strip which reveals that in his absence, Steve was ambushed by a horde of clergymen who "degayed" him through electroshock therapy.
Berke mentioned other shocking things....he is also no longer allowed to say "damn". He theorizes that censorship in comic strips has become 1,000 times tighter because it's become a lot easier for old cranks to send angry letters. Now that only a few buttons have to be pushed on a keyboard, editors have become more cautious and hence nothing in "Opus" will come near what Berke got away with in "Outland," at least for now.
"In 1981 when Bloom County really took off, I was absolutely startled...I really didn't see it coming. And then I was invited to speak on the Today Show, and that was unreal. I remember Bryant Gumbel called me out, and I sat there with all the cameras on me and he started talking...have you ever seen Broadcast News? There is that one part where the sweat is just pouring out of that guy's head...well, for me it was like this only it was from every part of my body. And after he was done talking, he had asked me a question and I hadn't even been paying attention--all I could think about was, well, you know, that I was there in the spot. So he asked me again and I said, 'Um, yeah, sure.' That was pretty much my reaction to everything." *audience laughter* "When the whole ordeal was done, the producer said to me, 'You did a great job, now GET OUT OF HERE AND DON'T COME BACK!!' If you have a copy of that incident, if you happened to be recording it for whatever reason..please do me a favor and destroy it, thank you very much."
"After I had done Bloom County for nine years, I was worried about creative burnout...I retired that strip and began Outland, a Sunday version. People ask me why I keep quitting and coming back; I point to Charles Schulz. The guy drew Peanuts for almost 50 years and I had a talk with his wife once and asked her, 'Why does he still do this?' She told me it was because he couldn't imagine doing anything else. And there were plenty of other things I wanted to do with my life; I had no desire to run a strip into the ground."
Berke closed by saying he got back into cartoons for many reasons(all of which are already printed in the new Opus book, bue he recounted anyway). One reason was when he was hired to create the fictional comic strip "Walter and Jasmine" for the movie Secondhand Lions, he looked at his drawings and suddenly thought, "Why did I quit again now?" He said that he had tried as hard as he could to make "Walter and Jasmine" look like he had not drawn it, but to no avail...it looked exactly like Bloom County anyway, and so many fans wrote in to him saying that they spotted his work, he jumped back into cartooning once more.
Berke opened the floor to questions, and a man wanted to know if he'd be seeing Milo again soon. Berke's answer was that the strip takes place many years after the end of "Outland" and that all the children characters are teenagers now, and he has no desire to draw a strip about teenagers. "Teenagers don't read comic strips. The current audience is largely above 30. The audience for comic strips can't identify with teenagers and doesn't want to read about them, and besides I can't do anything with them. Someone else can do teenagers. If you can make it work, yay for you." ....That remark must have been destined for me alone. Ironic comments like this are magical moments.
Another person asked what the biggest influence on Berke's career was. As he's stated before, Berke replied that it was Garry Trudeau and he had read a lot of Doonesbury cartoons prior to starting his own career. "Unfortunately, many of the elements from those cartoons blatantly found their way into my own, some directly lifted. It wasn't really my fault...well, not totally. Some of the ideas I was getting, I had already read in Doonesbury and then forgotten that was where I picked them up. My cartoons eventually broke out of Doonesbury and became Bloom County, but for the past 25 years, Garry Trudeau has gone out of his way to NOT run into me or cross my path in any event whatsoever. It even extends to his wife...when I was on the set of The Jane Pauley Show, she saw me coming and just totally turned around." *audience laughter* There was room for one more question.
A little girl asked why Opus's eyes now have a line between them. Berke said that the line was the result of trying to animate Opus as a CGI character for the feature film. The 3D model ultimately had to have that line down the middle to separate the eyes and allow for more expression, and so Berke revised his paper penguin to reflect that. However, he said that "Flawed Dogs will probably become a movie before Opus ever does, at the rate it's going."
Finally, the book signings began and the line formed...or rather, tried to form from a large circular gathering into one horizontal plane. The end result was two lines smashing into each other and from where I was standing no one moved for at least 45 minutes. There weren't just recent books being held among the crowd...there were out-of-print books from the past, Opus dolls, homemade T-shirts, just about anything. Many people had brought more than one book for Berke to sign and he had no problem singing multiples (I had no idea I could do this...another D'OH moment).
The guy ahead of me was formerly in a band and mentioned to Berke that he and his group had sent an entry for the "Billy and the Boingers World Tour Contest," the grand prize of which would be inclusion as a "Billy and the Boingers" song in the plastic record that was inserted in the "B&B Bootleg" book. He brought the rejection letter his band had been sent back, and Berke remarked, "Yeah, we had over 17,000 entries in that thing." Man, the stuff I was picking up...I had no idea what the process was behind that record previously. Maybe I should have asked how in the world Berke got Gorbachev to write the preface for the book after that one.
But I didn't. There were a million things I could have said, and I could have kept him there all night, but when it came down to my minute, I couldn't resist choosing to tell him his ironic his comment was and that I was going to be the one to make teenagers work. Then I brought out this:
I had an ulterior motive the moment I walked in: to somehow get Berkeley Breathed to draw Mulberry. I passed him this drawing and asked him to draw it himself on the same piece of paper. How cool would it be to see a character of my own drawn with his hands?
I got the answer I was half-expecting, yet had faith that I would somehow not get: that if he drew a picture for me, he would have to draw a picture for everybody. Berke has a bleak view of comics at the moment, so I think I chose the right choice when I got my moment to talk to him: to tell him a little hope was on the way, no matter how small. I've wanted to make my contribution to comics all my life and I'll be pretty dedicated to getting Mulberry in there.
He signed my book and said last, "Nice to meet you too, Peter." I walked out the door and back to the bus fully enjoying that this was one of those nights I'd always remember. Though I figured so anyway, events this special don't happen very often. When Gary Larson retired I was a little depressed. When Bill Watterson vanished I was distraught. But when I lost Berke, I was waiting like an abandoned puppy at the comic strip curb, hoping for several weeks after the last "Outland" strip that Opus would suddenly come back on the page and say "Fooled you!" I never would have thought I'd see another thing from Berke again, let alone get what I recieved tonight:
Ahhhh. I can now cross meeting Berkeley Breathed off my list of "Things to do before I die." It feels good.
And by the way, I was right about not letting my parents anywhere near the event. After I got back home, my mother asked to see the book that he signed. The following conversation is 100% true, Boy Scout's Honor:
"Ooooh, it's an Opus book!
Who's the author?"
"It says right there."
"Oh, so his name is...Edwurd Fudwupper?"
She turned to the spine.
"His name is Little Brown?"
"Breathed?" (said in the normal pronunciation, not the correct one)
"Just give me it back."