My first exposure to Berke Breathed’s sprawling Bloom County was, appropriately, through pop culture ephemera. My parents had an Opus plush toy which sat perpetually in their room, and my mother would occasionally wear a Cutter John Star Trek shirt. I was very interested in these objects, because they represented an inside joke that I wasn’t a part of – I had no idea what Star Trek was, much less why animals and a man in a wheelchair would want to act it out. This curiosity persisted, and I pestered my parents until, at age eight or nine, I was allowed to start reading Bloom County myself. Over the next few years, my access to numerous volumes of Bloom County meant access to a world of pop culture knowledge that I would not have otherwise had. My preteen years were marked by a distinct sense of cultural isolation, and I was ravenous for anything that would help me fill in the gaps of my pop culture fact base. Bloom County ended up serving as my Virgil, allowing me a safe and fairly homogeneous context through which I would be exposed to a substantial number of people and things that would help me better understand the world, and to feign a deep knowledge of popular culture that I did not actually have.
Growing up largely without TV in a family that did not value modern pop culture, I was always hard-pressed to keep up with my friends’ understanding of the world. In daycare I’d simply fake knowledge of forbidden topics; I’d flail around, miming Power Rangers episodes I’d never seen, describing them the way I imagined them to be. As I got older and that tactic stopped working I would try to find common ground with friends instead, groping to find a rough idea of what we had in common. This would sometimes have mixed results; I remember distinctly getting very angry at a friend because he called Wayne Boring’s Superman “fat.”
The discovery of Bloom County represented a giant opportunity in my ongoing quest to learn everything about popular culture. While it didn’t give me a lot of modern information, it gave me enough that I could speak contextually about many subjects, as long as I was able to reverse-engineer Breathed’s jokes well enough. For example, if someone were to bring up Michael Jackson, I’d know he sang Billy Jean, (and even be able to recite some of the lyrics).
Here, in no particular order, is a list of some people and concepts that Bloom County introduced me to:
-George Bush, Sr.
-The Police (especially Every Breath You Take)
-The FBI and CIA
-The word, ‘lust’
-Apartheid South Africa
-Sororities and fraternities
The list could easily go on for hundreds of entries, but you get the idea. Bloom County was effectively my only window into popular culture (outside of maybe Fox Trot and early issues of Mad) and I desperately tried to absorb every point of information Breathed provided me. A few subjects even still remain identified as “Bloom County facts” in my mind, just because I very rarely encounter them (for example, Mary Kay, Dan Fogelberg, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Betty Crocker).
Consuming Bloom County as a trove of popular culture to be mined obviously meant that I did not understand much of what was happening in the strip. It’s difficult to recognize an archetype being referenced when you’re seeing it for the first time, so there was a time when my understanding of the world became necessarily Bloom County-centric. Frosty relations between the US and Russia? As far as I knew, that was straight from Bloom County. The idea that a beer company would have a ‘cool’ dog for a mascot? As far as I knew, this was a hilarious invention on Breathed’s part. Unable to identify what Breathed was pulling from real life and what he was making up, Bloom County became intensely mythological, and seemingly limitless. I often found myself surprised to learn that certain things were real-life phenomenons rather than Bloom County eccentricities. I thought for a long time that Michael Jackson’s single glove was a hilarious Bloom County invention.
The obvious question remains: do I like Bloom County as an adult? While it’s difficult to see past the nostalgia, much of the charm has worn off. Occasional strips make me laugh (especially the early ones), but the strips that were most useful to me as bullet points about pop culture often seem the weakest, creatively. From a critical perspective, I find Breathed’s work the strongest when it’s at its most character-driven. As the strip aged, it seems like Breathed fell increasingly on dropping celebrities and pop culture into the mix, and while that made young, nerdy Jacob very happy, it makes for less interesting humor. Jaded as I am now, I’d rather read about Milo’s job at the paper than I would about Binkley in a Star Wars pastiche. The latter was perfect for me as a kid, but I already know about Star Wars now, and the gag seems obvious. Not quite “Ack! Thbbft!” but hardly “Tess Turbo” either. Cool kids will get what I mean.
The entire Bloom County roundtable is here.