Berkeley Breathed: Rolling through life at 56 mph

If you’re of a certain age, you enjoyed the last fleeting gasp of newspaper funny pages in your late teens and early 20s. Gone were the days of the goofball comedy strips and epic soap opera strips writ large; the halcyon days of the funnies were in the rearview mirror and fading fast.

Still, it was worth it for many post-baby boomers to grab a newspaper and flip past the sports scores and political scandals to read what really mattered: Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury and The Far Side. These comic strips were equal parts comedy, absurdity, satire and social commentary, enough so that two of the cartoonists – Bloom County’s Berkeley Breathed and Doonesbury’s Gary Trudeau – found themselves recipients of Pulitzer Prizes. Both men won their Pulitzers, Trudeau in 1975 and Breathed in 1987, for editorial cartoons – that is, cartoons aimed squarely at the social, political and economic constructs that make the United States what it is – despite their material appearing on the funny pages.

Berkeley Breathed and friends on his 2008 R 1200 GS; Illustration used with permission of Berkeley Breathed.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes ran for ten years, ending its tenure in 1995. Watterson dropped out after that, rarely giving interviews and even more rarely making appearances. Gary Larson’s The Far Side ran for 14 years, ending with his retirement on 1 January 1995. He produced precious little art for the next 20 years, perhaps satisfied to engage his lifelong pursuit of jazz guitar. Trudeau’s Doonesbury has been running since 1970 and doesn’t show any signs of slowing.

Breathed managed to balance the characteristics of his contemporaries, most notably continuing to produce cartoons and books while refusing most opportunities for interviews or public appearances. His groundbreaking strip Bloom County, with its often bizarre collection of humans and anthropomorphic animals like Bill the Cat and Opus the Penguin, involved situations ranging from giving impassioned speeches about the environment while running for local political office to touring in a rock band called Billy and the Boingers while fending off evangelical groupies. Bloom County ran from 1980 to 1989, whereupon Breathed drew Outland as a Sunday-only strip until 1995; it was a Bloom County spinoff more bizarre than Bloom County. After a break from cartooning, Breathed brought Opus back for an eponymous Sunday strip from 2003 to 2008, after which he stepped away from cartooning again to focus on writing children’s books such as Mars Needs Moms! (which Disney turned into a movie in 2011) and Pete & Pickles.

Fans of Bloom County were understandably surprised and excited when Breathed brought the strip back in July 2015. Since then, he has published on a more or less daily basis – but with a twist. Each new strip debuts on his Facebook page, and he wrote in an email to the New York Times that “silliness suddenly seems safe now” as his justification for bringing back his popular strip. (Gary Larson followed suit, bringing back The Far Side in 2020. –Ed.)

Discovering that Breathed enjoys powersports and rides motorcycles was enough inspiration to reach out to his publisher, IDW Publishing, with an interview request. Breathed shuns most interviews, but agreed to an email exchange between BMW motorcycle enthusiasts.

“My father slipped $100 out of the family account in 1967 and bought me a Taco mini-bike, the attainment of which consumed my every thought for a year,” Breathed explained. “Thus began almost 50 years of two-wheeled riding. A Honda 100 (legal to ride at 15 in Texas at the time) and a Honda XL 250. Then… to the horizon.

“I didn’t discover BMW until a friend had enough of watching me ride a Honda Trans-Alp – a laughable excuse for an adventure motorcycle – and actually showed me the first GS up close in 1995. It was like getting that Taco mini-bike in 1967. The world was a bit different after that. I’ve owned a GS every year since – often parked in my garage alongside Ducatis and other largely unridden gorgeous bikes, but always there.”

When it comes to his style of riding and his R 1200 GS, Breathed said, “I’ve had them all, really. Sport bikes beckon early death. The RR never pulled me to it. I am a Zen rider, although I hesitate to use that word. My preferred speed is 56 mph through an empty rolling landscape with a butte on the horizon and a few historical markers to force me to read and annoy friends foolish enough to be riding behind. If it wasn’t so dangerous, I’d be on those back dirt roads on the GS all alone.

“I say dangerous because BMW failed me once very big time when my GS decided – after I parked atop a Utah mountain range 100 miles from any road – that its stupidly over-designed anti-theft system didn’t want to recognize my key anymore. It chose not to let me start my own bike. After a panicky hour as the sun descended and threatened death by freezing, the GS decided it finally liked my key again and I returned to sub-10,000-foot elevations. I’ve forgiven it and we’re back in a healthy relationship, but I would have shot it in its left boxer cylinder at the time.”

Now that his relationship with his GS is back on steady ground – “My 2008 GS is the bike I most admire, ever,” he said – Breathed has given up chasing accessories, saying, “I went down the farkle path with add-ons in the past. Little aluminum covers for everything. It’s quite funny. I’ve been in recovery and no longer give in.” His willpower is certainly stronger than many of us.

When it comes to riding gear, Breathed called my attempt at an amusing question about color-matching his helmet to his jacket a “dangerous question for a satirist” and said, “I counter color match. If anything happens to match accidentally, I will stop by a Target in the town I’m going through and buy something clashing. I know this isn’t kosher BMW, but really, it’s better for the soul. I should but do not wear riding pants. No special boots, just stout army boots usually. Unless it’s over 100 degrees, I do wear a jacket with some armor. The letters BMW will only appear across my body on clothing when the company decides to pay me for the privilege, as any company should do. I’m funny this way.”

On the subject of motorcycles and safety, he said, “The safest riders I know are BMW, usually in very well matched clothing and helmet colors, come to think of it. The least are on sport bikes. The scariest are on Harleys, as normally their girth won’t allow rapid movement of any of their limbs sufficient to activate controls in an emergency situation. As the bikes really won’t lean whatsoever, an emergency situation tends to be ‘curves’.” He added as a caution, “Remember, I make comments like that for a living, so allow some room here.”

Breathed is intimately aware of gear and safety issues. He survived (with a broken back) a 1986 crash in an ultralight airplane, and a few years later survived a boating incident. He was working on a report about the Navy SEALs; he took a boat propeller to the head and one of his arms was nearly severed. “Fifty years of motorcycling has left me largely unscathed,” he said. “Hence my choosing to eschew sport bikes and 180 hp temptations. I have fallen off at speed only once, in Seattle, pulling out hard from a green light and having to lay it down when a shitbird rolled through a stop. Sore shoulder – that’s it – but it taught me that disaster was always only a single moment of lazy attentiveness away.

“A few miles from the house in which I sit right now, original Mercury astronaut Pete Conrad simply missed a turn on one of our favorite, easy motorcycle roads and dumped his Harley over on a curve. He got back on and continued riding. That night he died from internal injuries.

“[Motorcycles] are not cars. I print this on my cerebellum each time I pull away from the house.”

Regarding Breathed’s view of the future of motorcycling, he said, “Hardly threatened. Future of comic strips – now there’s something to wring hands over.” This was a good excuse to transition to some questions about his professional life despite our focus on motorcycle matters. He cited Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird) as a source of inspiration, saying, “Bloom County existed because of Maycomb County in Mockingbird. How odd, you will see, that she later became a vocal Opus fan. Beyond that, my creative heroes were Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson and Ray Bradbury.”

Writing and motorcycling can both be solitary pursuits, yet ones which their aficionados often approach with near-obsessive levels of passion. Addressing that topic, Breathed said, “I write and I think of stuff to write about. This happens most acutely when alone on my GS in a canyon. Pondering and adventure biking are one and the same for me.”

When it comes to the state of cartooning in the 21st century, Breathed said, “I have to be more careful now, as I haven’t an editor beyond my very smart wife. It’s liberating and dangerous at the same time.” He concluded the interview with, “The checks are wholly non-existent now. Literally. I’m cartooning for free. Welcome to the new world. Enjoy. But I need to fill my GS tank so what the hell am I supposed to do?”

Despite his clear enjoyment of motorcycling – or perhaps to keep some part of his personality and private life to himself – motorcycles never made an appearance in the run of Bloom County cartoons. Readers can see a love of adventure and even speed in the character Cutter John, a Vietnam veteran confined to a wheelchair who often engaged in Star Trek fantasies (as the “Starchair Enterpoop”) with the animal residents of the strip. Breathed made one mention of motorcycles in a strip featuring C. Everett Koop, the Surgeon General during the Ronald Reagan administration, on Sunday, 12 February 1989.

This article was originally published in February 2016 and updated in December 2021.