Cartoonist Berke Breathed Feathers His Nest by Populating Bloom County with Rare Birds

updated 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the comic-strip world of Bloom County a churlish lothario named Steve Dallas lusts after everyone except the ingenuous wallflower, Yaz Pistachio. A swashbuckling Vietnam vet, Cutter John, takes his pals for wild rides in his wheelchair. Then there is an anxiety-ridden preadolescent, Michael Binkley, as well as Milo Bloom, the county's bespectacled intellectual. And don't forget Michael's and Milo's sidekicks: a penguin, Opus, who has a penchant for ordering herring wall-bangers in bars, and Bill the Cat, who currently is running for President with the slogan, "This time, why not the worst?"

This cast of cartoon crazies, besides being young, zany and prone to attacking the establishment, shares other similarities with the characters in Doonesbury. They are etched, for example, in the same spidery lines and speak without balloons. But any resemblance between the work of neophyte cartoonist Berke Breathed, creator of Bloom County, and veteran Garry Trudeau is only partly coincidental. "I was influenced by him," admits Breathed, 27, whose parents abbreviated his name from the more cumbersome Guy Berkeley Breathed. "But people who just see Doonesbury in my stuff aren't looking deep enough."

It helps that Trudeau has given them no new cartoons to look at of late. No sooner had Trudeau temporarily given up his strip in January 1983 to write scripts for plays and films than 200 newspapers picked up the fledgling Bloom County, then in 180 papers. Now the tally is up to 560 papers. Breathed's second collection of cartoons, 'Toons for Our Times (Little, Brown, $6.95), is holding firm on the paperback bestseller list with 300,000 copies in print. When Breathed's first book of cartoons, Bloom County: "Loose Tails," came out in 1983, the publisher printed only 27,000 copies, which sold out in 10 days. An additional 92,000 were rushed through the presses and snapped up.

To his fans Breathed's work has freshness and bite. But there are those who yearn for Trudeau's gently mocking satire and grumble that Berke is overly caustic. Some papers objected to a cartoon about Mariel Hemingway's breast implants ("They must've planted cantaloupes"), and there have been gripes about Breathed's drawings of Prince William with Dumbo ears. Breathed concedes that his cartoons are not for everyone. "A lot of people find my stuff either hopelessly unfunny or offensive," he says.

The controversial creations first appeared in the Daily Texan, the student newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin, where Breathed enrolled in 1976. Until then he had shown little interest in art. The son of an oil equipment executive based in Houston, Berke had majored in photojournalism and minored in practical jokes. To win a bet about the ease of spreading false information, he once leaked a story to the campus magazine, Utmost, recounting how he had hatched 356 baby alligators in his apartment and then released them into nearby lakes. The fabricated story was indeed picked up by the wire services and circulated.

His cartoons in the Daily Texan attracted a different kind of attention. An editor at the Washington Post Writers Group syndicate spotted them and offered Breathed a five-year contract. Bloom County was born on Dec. 8, 1980. Breathed constantly thinks about the strip, but he actually draws Bloom County in one intense 90-hour session a month. Working on a large drafting board in his Iowa City, Iowa home, he produces as many as 13 comic strips in one day. No Hogarth, Breathed doesn't have a passion to draw. "Cartooning doesn't come easy to me," he says.

But the profits make up for the drudgery. Breathed earns about $400,000 a year from the strip. Recently he has started to market some Bloom County products, including T-shirts and an Opus-the-Penguin stuffed animal. He would like to produce computerized educational adventure games and a movie. "My ambition," he says, "is to turn Bloom County into a feature film."

But he is settled in Iowa City for the present. "Well, I really like corn, so I wanted to be near it," he quips. "I'd heard Iowa City was an exciting place to live." The truth is that his girlfriend of six years is a medical student at the University of Iowa.

The city also allows Breathed to keep a low profile. Like Trudeau, he eschews publicity. Until recently he occasionally asked friends to stand in for him at interviews (some reporters were taken in by the ruse). And he terminated his tour to promote his first book after being booked on five TV and radio talk shows in one morning. "Seventy percent of the hosts had no idea why I was there," he complains. "I'd be shuffled on with six other writers, two football players and several transvestites. It was a humiliating experience." A far better one, from Breathed's point of view, is "if someone sticks my comic strip on their refrigerator door. It's like that person saying: 'This is my life, he's writing about me.' "

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