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Bloom County The Complete Collection Vol. 1: 1980-1982
posted November 5, 2009
 

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Creator: Berke Breathed
Publishing Information: IDW, hardcover, 288 pages, October 2009, $39.99
Ordering Numbers: 1600105319 (ISBN10), 9781600105319 (ISBN13)

I can't tell if it's my current state of mind or some element of the work itself that I've read this book twice and I've failed both times to fully engage the work as comics. I'm going to guess door #2. Bloom County is such an interesting example of comic strip development, and such an interesting item of 1980s popular culture, that it's easy to become lost in just how it operates, what characters it emphasizes and when, what it deigns to find funny even as you're excusing yourself from the reaction of laughing. For instance, I was stunned to learn that Bloom County existed several years before I remember it coming along. I think like a lot of people I assumed that Bloom County was plucked from its college newspaper roots to replace Doonesbury during its 1983-1984 hiatus. That may have been when it started appearing in a lot more papers, as a kind of temporary substitute while the kids at Walden College graduated, but the strip itself as can be seen above had been operating since 1980. In fact, it got its anchor paper, the Washington Post, when Doonesbury moved across town, not when it left the papers altogether.

Berke Breathed was in his early- to mid-20s when the strip debuted, and it shows. I don't think I've ever read a comic strip this all over the place in its first couple of years. The early Bloom Countys are anchored by Milo Bloom, in a lot of ways Breathed's most poignant creation, with several other regulars slipping into place one by one just outside of Milo's inner world -- no one gets close to that guy, not really. One gets the sense from first reading Breathed's introduction where he discusses the strip being created at odd times of the day and then scanning the strips themselves that the misery of the early 1980s -- nuclear dread, the heave and collapse of the '60s, the lingering and collective embarrassment over the previous decade's bankrupt and backwards-looking culture, the traction-less feeling of how to stake any position against the dominant media culture -- would at time squeeze jokes out of Breathed like the last week's worth of toothpaste from a tube. More frequently than I ever found comfortable, it's as if the characters deliver their jokes by crying out the words rather than simply stating them.

IDW did a fine job with producing what must have been occasionally difficult material. I had a reader ask after a couple of seeming archival missteps. As editor Scott Dunbier was nice enough to contact that person directly, an article on those elements became a low priority. I should mention it here, though. IDW did their due diligence on Bloom County. They worked with Breathed's originals as much as possible -- they even have his original substitute run of strips that never appeared but served as insurance against a young cartoonist dropping his deadlines -- and accessed the appropriate newspaper and syndicate archives where and when they could. They do miss a couple of the optional buffers, extra panels designed to give newspaper layout folks as much leeway in finding the strip a place in the paper. In most cases, they just continue over with a nearby graphic element; it doesn't ever have an impact on the reading of the strip, but I think some fans with their own clippings or the ability to check against a couple of scans might notice as the one CR reader did. The strips themselves sometimes vary in line weight, especially with the lettering and particularly in the early Sundays. While I'm not exactly the pickiest person when it comes to that sort of thing, so my judgment might be suspect, I have to say it worked fine for me. A well-publicized element of this collection is that Team IDW (with Breathed's assistance) footnote several of the jokes. For example, they note fact there was a Dr. Pepper commercial campaign with the slogan "Be A Pepper" when a riff on that slogan is at issue in a daily. I thought they did this deftly, and without being intrusive. The type they use on the footnotes is just a little bit faded, so you can actually sort of visually check out of looking at that material if you want to. I was able to, anyway. I'm told Breathed is happy and he should be. I'm having fun so far, and I look forward to the next volume featuring mid-1980s, pre-Pulitzer material where I believe the feature hit its stride and gained so many young fans who look back on it fondly.