Sunday, 8 February 2015

2Kill 2Mockingbird

 Exciting news from the world of publishing this week! No, really. Where are you going?

On Wednesday it was announced that Harper Lee's sequel novel to perennial classic To Kill a Mockingbird will be published this July. Or maybe the novel to which To Kill a Mockingbird is the prequel, depending on how you look at it.

Anyway, this news perked my interest for two reasons. Firstly: I love To Kill a Mockingbird. Read it for my GCSE English and loved both that and the movie with Gregory Peck.

Secondly: It reminded me of the other sequel that was once produced.

Okay, not really. I'm talking about Outland, a Sunday newspaper strip by Berkeley Breathed which spun off from Bloom County, one of my favourite things in the world.
Breathed started his cartooning career as a student by creating a strip called The Academia Waltz for The University of Texas' paper The Daily Texan. The strip satirised social morays and political opinions in a way Breathed cheerfully acknowledges was completely ripping off Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury.
 Between 1980 and 1989 Breathed produced the daily strip Bloom County which became a deservedly big hit (at least by the standards of daily newspaper strips) even winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

Bloom County was originally about a small group of people in a boarding house in a small town and filtered the politics of the day through their opinions, particularly cynical child Milo.

Then one of the characters, Binkley, got a pet penguin as way to highlight how weird he was, driving his divorced father to despair. It was meant as a throwaway joke but the penguin hung around. Breathed let him talk to a Hare Krishna and the resulting strip proved wildly popular.
Soon Penguin Opus rose to become the star of the strip, just like Popeye in Thimble Theater. Breathed found he could use his as a mouthpiece for his own opinions or as an everyman character he could drop into bizarre situations. And his nose got bigger.
Then another joke got wildly out of hand. Bill the Cat was introduced as a comment on the then-ubiquitous merchandising of Garfield. In 1982 Jim Davis' loveable lasagne-eating moggy was everywhere and would continue to dominate the 80s. Bill was brought in to satirise that. He was the worst possible cartoon cat. Mangy, scrawny and vomiting, he was pushed by the characters desperately hoping to sell some cuddly toys.
The joke was, of course, that no-one would want to buy such merchandise. The irony was, of course, people did. Bill the Cat dolls (and Opus) became a bit of a hit. Not Garfield-level hit, but they kept Breathed in speedboats.
When Bloom County ended in 1989 Breathed wanted to make a clean break and do something new. A new set of characters were introduced in Sunday strip Outland, where he could indulge his greater artistic whims.
However it wasn't long before that penguin waddled back into the picture.
Outland soon turned back into Bloom County as all the popular characters squeezed out all the newer ones.
All of which brings us to this. In October 1994 Outland tackled the thorny issue of movie violence. Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers (among others) had inspired a fierce debate about the relationship between cinematic bloodshed and real-life copycats.
So Breathed chose to use the book and film he loved with its perfect moral centre as the most inappropriate story to sequelize  this way. This is probably the least subtle work he ever did.
We start with Opus, our everyman, enjoying Lee's prose.
Before his peaceful bliss is interrupted by the news of Hollywood's pending bastardisation, as pictured at the top, which will be filming in Bloom County. Note the direct blaming of Quentin and Oliver.
I have to admit, I like that drawing of Bruce Willis as Atticus Finch. Opus gets a job as an extra. 
Like I said, not subtle.
This is a weird snapshot of the time. The movie violence debate was such a hot topic then (see also Ben Elton's Popcorn, no, really, it's better than you'd think, this was a long time before The Wright Way) but with the benefit of hindsight we can view those works by those filmmakers as they were meant to be seen. Pulp Fiction will always be regarded as a true cinema great. I have more problems with Stone's work but they shouldn't cause moral panic. 
This story ran over three weeks and led into a story about Bill being prosecuted for assault and his lawyer (Steve Dallas) blaming the film industry. It seems so archaic now. 
 So that's that. If this is the first time you've seen Breathed's work this probably wasn't a good place to start. You can go an read the archive over at GoComics if you are interested or get the brilliantly-produced hardback books from Fantagraphics.

Also worth ignoring: Breathed's children's book Mars Needs Moms was turned into movie which is claimed to be the fourth-biggest flop in film history. But he can't be blamed for that.

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