Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reprint This! Update on Bloom County

I listen through my CD collection in an obsessive-compulsive manner that nobody would understand, and one morning this week, an ABC compilation called Absolutely came up in the rotation. You remember ABC, right? British new-wavers led by Martin Fry, best known for their top 5 hit "When Smokey Sings," remember? Well, they had another song, which just dented the Billboard chart at # 89, called "That was Then But This is Now," and it's the most Reaganesque song you ever heard. I recalled that there was a lot of British pop music that explored life in the ugly end of the Cold War, with thousands of nuclear missiles ready to scream overhead as Reagan stared down Brezhnev / Andropov / Chernenko / Gorbachev, the best of it done by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And it is all so incredibly dated. Yet a sequence in this first nice collection of Berke Breathed's Bloom County has Milo and Binkley wandering into the Oval Office on a 1981 school tour of the White House, prank calling the USSR and nearly starting the Third World War, and it's positively timeless. How the heck did that happen?

Fans of Bloom County - they are legion, and Breathed jokes that they camp on his lawn - have been clamoring for a complete collection of the Reagan-era strip ever since it ended. And it was a very Reagan-era strip. John Lennon was murdered on the night that Bloom County debuted, and it ended about seven months after George Bush was inaugurated. Prince Charles and Diana were regular characters for a time, as was a caricature of Ted Turner, under the name Ashley Dashley, who was then making waves with his ahead-of-the-curve Superstation TBS. The Moral Majority, endlessly tiresome even to me as a middle schooler, is represented by Otis Oracle, who yearns for the days of Ozzie and Harriet, and if the belicose antics of the modern Tea Party movement sound familiar, it's because Major Bloom was spewing all that vitriol at his grandson Milo on the funny pages about thirty years ago. Yet it all seems incredibly fresh and exciting, and, more often than not, completely hilarious.

Bloom County has been collected before, of course, but never properly. Perhaps a quarter of these strips made it into a book called Loose Tails which sold by the truckload in 1983; a later book called Babylon found space for another hundred or so from this era. This scattershot approach gave readers glances about the odd, unfocussed early days of the strip, but hardly a chance to see it develop, as we now can.

It's really fascinating to see so many now-forgotten characters thrown into the mix in the hopes that some of them might stick. Breathed, who contributes several dozen footnotes throughout the book, is quite honest that he had no clue what his strip was actually going to be about. Until the cast that became the regulars coalesced, it went off into wild directions and dozens of characters drifted through, including a basset hound named Rabies and a pretty shameless ripoff of Doonesbury's Uncle Duke called Limekiller.

In fact, there's quite a lot that's pretty shamelessly ripped off from Doonesbury, enough to earn Breathed some long-lasting enmity from that strip's creator, Garry Trudeau. The most egregious is a recurring gag with Milo's bathroom mirror talking back to him about his self-doubts, which came straight from Mike's dorm room in 1970-72, but it's more than that; the pacing, the timing and the tone itself come from Doonesbury. Happily, Breathed has never made a secret of his admiration for Trudeau's strip, and has apologized, quite charitably and humbly, for his excesses. I can name a half-dozen people who work in the arts who could learn a good deal from Breathed's behavior.

Anyway, as imitations of Doonesbury go, Bloom County was by far the best of them even before Breathed found his own voice, by which time it was essential reading. Even though that time is towards the end of this book, around the point where Ashley Dashley is phased out and Opus phased in, it's still a very nice collection, which IDW has done a fantastic job producing. It's an oversized hardcover, the first of a planned five, which reprints every single daily and Sunday strip in order, along with annotations, footnotes and supplementary features. The retail price is a little high at $40, but it's a terrific book, on very nice paper, and everybody involved did a standup job. It's definitely one of the highlights of recent collected editions, and anybody who likes comics should find a place for it in their library.

Hmmm. I wonder how well Spitting Image holds up...

Normally, I suggest that you read more of what I've written about the creator or character or publisher at A Journal of Zarjaz Things, but in this case I have not.

Read other reviews of Bloom County volume one:

Greg McElhatton at Read About Comics
Chris Mautner at Robot 6
Scott Cederlund at Pop Syndicate
K.C. Carlson at Westfield Comics
Mike Russell at Ain't it Cool News, also including an illuminating interview with the book's editor, Scott Dunbier.

Friends and folks, I'll be blunt and honest with you: I have not been paying attention the last few weeks to the news and rumors about reprints that I should have. Guess I've been too busy watching Rockford Files or something. Anyway, one very important thing that did come out since the last news roundup in November was the release of Fantagraphics' spring and early summer catalog, which has all sorts of interesting news in it. This news is all more than a month old, but just in case you're relying on me and my opinions for this sort of thing, here are some highlights:

The eighth volume of the collected Love & Rockets in its 2008 trade dress style, Penny Century, collects a whole pile of Jaime Hernandez's Penny-centered episodes, carrying the story on through the older Whoa Nellie! and Locas in Love volumes and expanding on them somewhat. Gilbert Hernandez's The High Soft Lisp is in the older style dress and collects all the previously uncompiled Fritzi episodes. These are apparently both due in April.

If you're looking for a good entry point to Robert Crumb, they've got a new Book of Mr. Natural compiling twenty years' worth of material for twenty bucks in April.

There should be two Complete Peanuts this year: 1975-76, with Freida and her naturally curly hair on the cover, and 1977-78 with Peppermint Patty on the cover.

Willie and Joe: Back Home: Late '40s-early '50s work by Bill Mauldin in another lovely hardcover, definitely worth considering.

Four years of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy. Yeah, all of us still waiting for Fanta to start up Pogo will have to wait until at least September at the earliest; in the meantime, the first volume of Nancy is due out, and so is a volume of Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer. I'll probably be passing on both, but I am certainly glad to see so many interesting archival projects going on.

While those two rank as "probably not, but thanks for doing 'em"s, I really am glad to hear about a print version of Drew Weing's webcomic Set to Sea. $17 for the hardcover and worth every darn penny, this is definitely one you'll hear more about from me in the summer!

IDW's King Aroo collection should be out any day now. Man, I hope this is as good as I've been hearing! IDW is also reprinting Al Capp's Li'l Abner among other classic American comic strips, and the first volume of that is due in March.

DC, meanwhile, announced something genuinely odd for the summer: a pair of books reprinting the 1978 special Superman vs Muhammad Ali, in which the Man of Steel and the Sting-Like-a-Bee Guy team up to whup some alien ass. The 72-page story, by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, has long been a favorite with lovers of '70s kitsch, although the seven year-old me who took everything too seriously thought it was stupid when it was first released. Anyway, long out of print, the book's coming back in two editions, one with a big Neal Adams sketchbook and one which duplicates the original, ovesized tabloid dimensions.

Speaking of DC, it looks like they've pushed back that Steve Ditko Creeper collection yet again, and we might see it towards the end of June.

In May, Top Shelf is releasing a 144-page collection of Kathryn & Stuart Immonen's Moving Pictures, a strip set during World War Two, and the ugly relationship that develops between a German officer and a museum curator as the Nazis plunder Europe's art treasures. It sounds really interesting, and you can read more and see some sample pages over at Robot 6.

Dark Horse is bringing out a third volume of Chris Onstad's Achewood in those really lovely books they've been doing. I'm not a fan of the strip, if you believe such people as me exist, but I betcha that A Home for Scared People will be one of the best-looking books of the year.

I've got into the habit of writing up Rebellion's planned releases as my last blurb, and that's probably because I just like saving my favorites for last, I suppose. The company has four releases planned for February and March. These include a phone book-sized collection of Rogue Trooper (400 pages by Gerry Finley-Day, Dave Gibbons, Colin Wilson, Cam Kennedy and Brett Ewins), the first in at least two volumes of Judge Dredd Restricted Files, reprinting several one-off adventures from the pages of old 2000 AD Annuals and Specials, and the fifth volume of Slaine. Entitled "Demon Killer," this one should collect a pile of stories by Pat Mills with art by the likes of Nick Percival, Glenn Fabry and Dermot Power.

While these three books are available to American comic shops via Diamond, the distributor is not offering the fourth Button Man volume by John Wagner and Frazer Irving. Fans who'd like to read this collection will need to order it from a British bookseller or Amazon.

That's all for this month! See you in February!

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