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    Unhappy Opus Retires For Good

    Berkeley Breathed's Opus bows out

    Regan McMahon, Special to The Chronicle Monday, October 27, 2008

    This Sunday marks the last day of Opus in the Sunday comics. He's not going on hiatus, as he did when the strip's author, Berkeley Breathed, yanked Bloom County in 1989. Fans got lucky five years ago, when the beloved, bewildered and politically beleaguered penguin returned to star in his eponymous strip, along with some of the Bloom County cast.

    This time it really is the end, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and children's book author announced Oct. 6. And in his Oct. 12 comic strip, Breathed invited readers to guess Opus' final fate. A prize of $10,000 will be donated in the winner's name to the animal shelter of his or her choice.

    Reached by phone at his home near Santa Barbara, Breathed said he had been thinking of ending the strip for a couple of years. After he brought Opus back in 2003, he noticed that his core audience - readers 13 to 30 - was no longer reading the newspaper. "It wasn't just that the market had shrunk and some readers had left," he said. "They had virtually disappeared.

    "I hadn't appreciated that until I came back and realized that if I strolled into a college campus after three years of doing my strip, no one had ever read it. In fact they hadn't read anything, unless it was something from 25 years ago that their parents had given them the books of. So I already saw that the window was closing, that it was just a matter of a few years."

    Amy Lago, comics editor at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Opus, said that in Bloom County's heyday, the strip was in 2,500 newspapers. Today, Opus is in "just under 200." She noted that newspaper readership in general is down, and "there's a perception that it's older readers who tend to subscribe."

    Breathed thinks comics will be left behind when newspapers go "fully digital." He acknowledged that there will always be graphic humor around, but "the last cartoon character to have been invented that will have been a household name was Calvin and Hobbes."

    Breathed said his readership was 60 million to 70 million people in 1985, when Peanuts had a readership of 200 million to 300 million and Calvin and Hobbes, 200 million people. "That will never happen on the Web. Your readership drops to a couple thousand people - maybe, if you're lucky, 10,000."

    The Web is a dedicated viewership, he explained, meaning a reader has to type in the name of a strip to go to it that day. "You are no longer a found delight," he said. "You are a dedicated delight. And that's what changes the readership."

    Apart from changes in the newspaper industry, the other big factor in his decision to quit is the nasty tenor of the current presidential campaign.

    "What made it immediate and clear was the unpleasantness in our national discourse, which I get deeply sucked into because I'm far more of an editorial cartoonist than a strip cartoonist by nature. In my heart, I would rather be Charles Schulz than Michael Moore, but I've got far more of the latter big bastard in me. And he will not leave."

    Breathed doesn't think the nastiness will end when a new president is sworn in.

    "People are angry and frightened, and the things that they're saying are only going to get worse, because the problems are going to get worse. The election will not stop it. And I don't want Opus to succumb to it. I'm wanting to kill the penguin in order to save it. Although I'm not killing him. He's becoming part of the ages.

    "Now is the time to get out and leave the sweet little bastard the way people would like to remember him, and how I would like to remember him, before he inevitably gets drawn into my bitterness, which I cannot seem to divorce myself from in cartooning. I can do it in children's books, which explains 'Pete & Pickles.' There's not a cynical bone in that book."

    New children's book

    "Pete & Pickles" (Philomel; 48 pages; $17.99; ages 3-up), Breathed's eighth children's picture book, is the funny and poignant story of a lonely, stuck-in-his-routine widower pig named Pete, who finds an unlikely friend in a free-spirited flower child of an escaped circus elephant named Pickles.

    After they move in together, Pickles loosens up practical, predictable Pete, and they have a grand time until she oversteps her bounds and Pete tells her she must go. But when Pickles' life is threatened, Pete realizes how drab and unbearable his life would be without her, and the day - and Pickles - is saved.

    Might the pair live on in future books? Breathed says it's possible, but as with comic strips, one can't set out to create a star.

    "In cartooning, the holy grail is coming up with a character that defines your career and becomes a character that carries your work though not only years but decades. Setting out to invent a Snoopy will inevitably absolutely doom you to failure. They have to be accidentally discovered.

    Great name

    "Opus was a complete accident. I drew him as a one-off for a week and came up with a name that turned out to be a superbly good idea but one I put about two seconds of thought into. I could have easily named him something wrong, and it wouldn't have synched like these things do in a cosmic way we can't explain.

    "If Snoopy had been named Larry, I don't think he would have worked. If Opus had been named Gertrude, he might not have worked. It's a synthesis of things that you have no control over, and they have to happen accidentally."

    With Opus gone, Breathed will focus on writing children's books and developing feature films from them. "Pete & Pickles" and "Red Ranger" are going into development," as is a his forthcoming young-adult novel, "Flawed Dogs," based on his picture book of the same name. Robert Zemeckis' company is slated to begin production next year on "Mars Needs Moms" for Disney, using the same motion-capture system (half animation, half acting) that it used to make "Polar Express."

    "Change is always scary," Breathed reflected. "But then I'm leaving the comic strip for the third time. It's the first time I'm going to be without a regular paycheck."

    Regan McMahon is a writer and children's book critic in Oakland. E-mail her at datebook@sfchronicle.com.

    This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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    I will miss Opus... like I missed Bekerley Breathed's Bloom County strip. Some people (mostly the ultra right wing tin foil hat club) hated Bloom County as well as Opus. I loved the satire that they so vehemenetly hated

    Last Sunday's edition implied that he took the place of a puppy scehduled for euthanasia at a local animal shelter... I wonder what the final edition will show...
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    Opus rules! It's a shame that given the current change in the nation's political attitude that ol' Opus can't stay around for a while. I hope he's not gone for good.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ThNozzleman View Post
    Opus rules! It's a shame that given the current change in the nation's political attitude that ol' Opus can't stay around for a while. I hope he's not gone for good.
    It's not the nation's political attitude so much as a media-thing. Nobody really reads newspapers (and therefore comics) anymore.

    Its a shame that with a core readership in the 13-30 age range that they aren't looking at more of a digital presence. That demographic is increasingly getting all their information digitally. Humor and Satire included (aka Dilbert, TheOnion, Firehouse Forums..etc).
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    During the week at least I am always looking in on the comics page of SFGate. Mostly because other than the Toronto Sun, they are about the only ones who post the comics electronically.
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    Opus? What about Bill the cat? I miss him too. I don't know if it is a thing of my youth that I'm trying to hold onto, or just the fact that I could identify with the characters better than some of the other strips.


    I love to get the Sunday paper and kick back with coffee on the side. Lately, I've been trying crossword puzzles. I've always liked comic strips, with Garfield and Shoe being high on my lists. Dennis the Menance is still going along.


    Unfortunately, I don't subscribe to any papers. It seems that our local paper has gone so far Liberal in their reporting that I can't find much that I agree with when I do read past the sports page. Still, I find myself buying papers when I'm out of town, just to get a quick sense of the familarity that the comics provide.
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    Thumbs up Hey, RH??...............

    Bill the Cat is alive and well. He is in Wren, Mississippi, where he is quite active in the Wren VFD. Look up A.R.Haney, tell him I sent you........
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    Bill the Cat is alive and well, and campaigning for President of the United States!

    John McCain TotallyLooksLike.com Bill the Cat
    see more famous faces look-a-likes
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    It's not the nation's political attitude so much as a media-thing. Nobody really reads newspapers (and therefore comics) anymore.
    That's exactly my point; today's political atmosphere should provide more enough material of the type on which the original Bloom County thrived.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ThNozzleman View Post
    That's exactly my point; today's political atmosphere should provide more enough material of the type on which the original Bloom County thrived.
    It might be true that there is more "raw" material than ever, however eventually even the most tolerant person can become disillusioned and disgusted with the run of politics, in any country, and every language.

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    Tis truly a sad day. I remember my dad getting the books of the strip and reading from front to back. The satire will surely be missed. He was one of the only comics that I have been able to stomach for quite some time. Just about everything else is junk, with the exception of "Zits" and "Dilbert". The constant string of off the wall, bizarre characters (Steve Dallas, Milo, Sean Penn) to populate Bloom County, Opus, and the other incarnations of the strip were hilarious.

    http://www.berkeleybreathed.com/page...ite_strips.asp -A small snippet of some good ones.

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    I will miss Opus as well, although I'm not a huge fan of the more recent stuff. The old Bloom County dailies were pure genius...I remember in college that I sometimes would clip out a particularly funny one and keep it in my wallet for a while.

    I can agree with Berkeley Breathed when, by his own admission, he feels that the later stuff has become too political and cynical. When he changed from the freewheeling, narrative style of "Bloom County" to the more political and random jabs of his later work, it lost a lot of its charm.
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    Good-bye Opus. We'll miss you.

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    Quote Originally Posted by hwoods View Post
    Bill the Cat is alive and well. He is in Wren, Mississippi, where he is quite active in the Wren VFD. Look up A.R.Haney, tell him I sent you........
    I've poked and prodded in the Thread Killer forum waiting for him to do his talley of who opened the new pages. I even encountered him in the Mississippi Emergency Services Forum, but I think he spends most of his time on one of those "other" Forums. Wren is a nice community along a major highway.
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    Quote Originally Posted by CaptainGonzo View Post
    I will miss Opus... like I missed Bekerley Breathed's Bloom County strip. Some people (mostly the ultra right wing tin foil hat club) hated Bloom County as well as Opus. I loved the satire that they so vehemenetly hated

    Last Sunday's edition implied that he took the place of a puppy scehduled for euthanasia at a local animal shelter... I wonder what the final edition will show...
    Firstly, the tin foil hats belong to the lefties...

    I loved bloom county! It was funny. The naive liberal messages were harmless and naive...but they were funny!
    I am now a past chief and the views, opinions, and comments are mine and mine alone. I do not speak for any department or in any official capacity. Although, they would be smart to listen to me.

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    I enjoy reading the funnies and loved Bloom County before I realized the political bent of the artist.It didn't change to poke fun at the ones he didn't like and respect the politicians he did.
    Funnies belong where the kids can read and enjoy them with their parents.My oldest niece used to tell me "No,Uncle Doug.Don't read Papa's paypurrr!" when she was learning to talk and spending her days at my folks where I'd come and mooch Dad's paper before her could read it,but then she'd climb into my lap expecting me to read her favorites to her like 'Calvin and Hobbs' so she could explain what was happening.A lot of times,her ideas made more sense.Out of the mouths of babes,or something like that.
    If there's going to be an overt political bent like one character telling others who to vote for in the current real world election by name,it really should be printed on the editorial page that day and not where it can be mixed with fiction.
    Don't get me started on the trend of taking comics where the original artist has passed on and adding different captions to old cartoons.If you're going to continue "Peanuts",just as an example after Mr Schulz has passed,don't "update"it to reflect these times.Draw your own and make those reflect the views you want it to.I don't want to see Linus getting flipped off his blanket by Snoopy and see how Linus is threatening to become a corporate raider if he isn't influenced by the blanket's calming effect instead of using the reverse psychology that he did.
    Sparky must be rolling in his grave about that.

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