Dispatches | November 01, 2008

My apologies, folks. My TMR blog this week was going to be a comic strip, but Berkeley Breathed — my favorite cartoonist ever — is retiring his Opus character tomorrow, and, frankly, I’m just too sad.

If I may, a few words in remembrance of a beloved friend. Image by Berkeley Breathed

Farewell, gentle penguin. Many will remember you as funny and a little shy. Those who really knew you will remember you as existentially troubled and frequently conflicted, but always modest, concerned, and supportive. During the last three decades, you showed us how to hunch down and waddle along in a world where everyone else is louder, taller, and pushier. Through your exploits, we learned that when life hands us lemons, we should make lemonade and pretend it tastes like herring slurry. 

But wait. It gets sadder. Breathed says he’s not only finished with Opus, but with comic strips, period.

It’s easy to see why he’s bummed. Few among us can fathom the ambivalence of widespread exposure and accessibility in a time of widespread indifference and amnesia. On second thought, maybe many of us can imagine it; Pushcart Prize nominees, for instance, who have to explain repeatedly what the Pushcart Prize is, what small presses are, and so on.

For sure, Breathed knows all too well how demoralizing it can be when the hard work of creating satire goes largely unnoticed and the very source material on which it draws is instantly forgotten. Here’s a perfect example. Close to the wrap up of Bloom County in 1989, Opus somberly declared that the strip, like the late comedienne Gilda Radner, wasn’t supposed to end. Today, Breathed’s target demographic — 13-30-year-olds — for the most part neither remembers Gilda Radner nor recognizes Opus the penguin.

Breathed told Salon that he doesn’t want his disenchantment with American political rhetoric to poison Opus, whose innocence and naiveté are the qualities that make him enchanting. Therefore, he’s leaving comic strips and moving to creating books and films for children — a move I can only view as disappointing, similar to the speculative withdrawal to Canada many say that they’re considering from time to time. But we all know any such exodus to Canada would leave the U.S. populated exclusively by jerks. The same applies to the landscape of national rhetoric. If the political climate really is getting ornerier, as Breathed believes it is, how unfortunate it is to lose Opus, who has long been good company in bad times — a source of comfort, sweetness, and meek optimism. Likewise, if national discourse is growing more garbled, how terrible that a clear, confident voice should go silent.

So in a sense, farewell to you too, Berkeley Breathed. Good luck on those children’s books of yours, and on the upcoming non-Opus animated film with the Polar Express motion capture technology … hopefully minus the Polar Express creepiness. You want to prevent the venom of the current national discourse from spreading to your cherished character — which is less cherished than ever since newspaper readership has withered so much in the last decade and a half. Who can blame you?

I can’t blame you, but I also can’t help but think that Opus isn’t supposed to end.