Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, November 07, 2021

sunday best
I’ve finished reading “OPUS: 25 Years of His Sunday Best”, and as promised when I received this review copy, I’m posting my impression of it.

So welcome to the first-ever Population Statistic Book Review. Thanks again to Time Warner Book Group for making it possible.

Let’s start with what “OPUS” is not:

It’s not a quintessential slice of Breathed’s representative “Bloom County” work. The meat of that lay in the daily strips, where the edgier satire and complete story arcs were showcased more fully. It also resided in the other characters, like Steve Dallas, Milo and Binkley (who, more than anything, served as Breathed’s persona). They were the drivers of what “Bloom” came to represent: A mirror of the ’80s as a decade of transition.

For Breathed, Sundays were generally the days off from the rest of the week’s intense social examination. While the Opus character certainly dealt with weighty issues (especially after he became the focus in “Outland” and his current, eponymous strip), his role was more to serve as a release from the hard stuff. He was the reliable optimist in Bloom County, counted on to inject his simple and sunny disposition — and even rationality — into an otherwise gloomy and wickedly cruel world. And indeed, this collection of Sunday strips celebrates that.

Not that Opus’ optimism always triumphed. Even he would sometimes succumb to the absurd hopelessness found in runaway consumerism and political chicanery (along with some now-departed societal artifacts like restaurant no-smoking sections). But you got the feeling that, despite his look of quiet despair and resignation by the final panel, the penguin would beat a trail to his cherished dandelion patch, recharge his enthusiasm and once again face the world with bright eyes and a smile (and occasional indignity).

The strips here range from the very beginning of Bloom County’s run in 1981 through to the first several editions of the current strip. It’s not comprehensive, nor is it meant to be. Breathed selected these particular strips as his favorites featuring the penguin; it’s very much an Opus scrapbook. The cartoonist provides brief commentary for all three of Opus’ strips, none too enlightening but a good add-in nonetheless.

Despite the coverage of two decades, you don’t see much in the way of an evolution of Opus’ character, outside the early change in physical look. If anything, you get a hint of the evolution of Breathed’s cartooning style instead, from dealing with fairly fluffy material to more substantial fare throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s and the present day.

It’s been noted that Breathed’s satire portended the present pop-cultural landscape, and these Opus strips give a taste of that as well. The lampooning of the public obsession with “America’s Funniest Home Videos” 15 years ago brings to mind today’s fervor for reality television. Even further proof of how much things stay the same: A strip from the early ’90s targets Halliburton, which even then was making a name for itself in corporate malfeasance.

I found the run of “Outland” strips to be very illustrative of Breathed’s creative approach. “Outland” was Breathed’s first attempt at a Sunday-only strip, an attempt to focus his energy and avoid the burnout that comes from producing a daily strip. Yet despite the more favorable schedule and format — and intention of leaving behind the “Bloom County” trappings that had grown stale — you can see here how disenchanted Breathed became once again. The winding-down of the strip was marked by the re-introduction of practically the entire Bloom County cast, basically a re-hashing; and in the very last “Outland” strip, it’s revealed that, in fact, Outland and Bloom County were essentially the same place.

There are plenty of other examples in this book of how often Breathed dips into the same bag of tricks for story subjects. The “dial-a-mom” service that Opus calls, with basically the same punchline, is shown to be recycled several years apart. I’m a bit surprised that this, and other examples, would be included in the same collection.

There is a special bonus in these pages: A brief spread on “Walter & Jasmine”, a never-existed strip that was commissioned from Breathed for use in the movie Secondhand Lions. Unexpectedly, this faux strip served as inspiration for Breathed’s current comic strip work.

The book itself is a beauty, with high-quality slick paper that does justice to these full-color strips. The hardcover jacket design is also visually pleasing. Minor quibbles: I’d have liked page numbering, as well as the original run dates for each strip (the latter would have been especially handy for putting some of the humor in context).

I’ll also repeat my original critique regarding the “25 years” claim for this collection. As pointed out earlier, “Bloom County” first ran in 1981, with Opus making his debut in the strip’s second week. Since that makes it only 23 years, I anticipated some sort of earlier Breathed efforts that would have featured the penguin (or, at least, a likely ancestor). Alas, that wasn’t the case in this collection, and there’s no explanation for the discrepency. It’s pretty obvious — the 1981 start date is mentioned in the book — so I have to assume that this collection is simply being put out early to cash in early. (Is it possible that Breathed’s already decided that the current “Opus” strip won’t last until the real 25th anniversary? Just putting it out there.)

“OPUS” is obviously a must-have for Breathed completists. It’s also a nice addition for casual fans of both Breathed and Opus. It’s an exemplary look at one of the better practitioners of comic strip storytelling and comic art, often at his best. Even in excerpted form, the story of Opus thus far is a fun ride.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/07/2021 09:42:32 PM
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  1. […] receiving a couple of review-purpose books from Time Warner Book Group. I’ve since posted my review of the primary book, “OPUS: 25 Years of His Sund […]

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  2. […] Costa Tsiokos Friday, December 17, 2021 CRISIS IN A CAPSULE One down, one to go. Courtesy of Time Warner Book Group, the following […]

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