opuswithhatAs the first piece I sold to what-was-then-the-Entertainment-section-of-MSNBC.com, I did a mostly-factual piece on the return of Berkeley Breathed and Opus the Penguin to the funny papers, in the format of a fictional interview with the fictional waterfowl. The editors of this officially-journalistic site didn’t quite know what to do with it, so it was labeled “PARODY” (as my other most humorously-bent articles of the next couple years were… I didn’t know whether to feel honored or annoyed)

Here is the article at NBCNews.com/Today.com or just read it here, plus details on the ‘brush with fame’ it led to…

America’s favorite penguin squawks out about his comeback project

The comic-strip world was rocked when Pulitzer-winning “Bloom County” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed announced he was returning to the Funny Pages with a Sunday-only-strip starring, and named after, his most beloved character, “Opus”.

MSNBC MANAGED to get a few minutes to talk with the star of the strip.

MSNBC: Opus, what have you been doing since your last stint in the comics?

Opus: I’ve done three children’s books with Berke (Breathed) and Bill (the Cat). And a Christmas TV special, “A Wish for Wings That Work”.

I was in a studio full of fake snow for so long I thought I’d gone home to Antarctica after Global Warming. Now, Berke wants to do a movie, but this time I’m insisting on location work in Spain.

MSNBC: So you haven’t spent all your time in the dandelion patch?

Opus: Those rumors about my dandelion addiction are nothing but media confabulation! I own my own meadow now, and I always find time to enjoy it, but I haven’t snorted a dandelion since ’88.

MSNBC: Anything in your personal life?

Opus: I admit I was devastated when Diane Sawyer married that Nichols guy. But I’ve found inter-species relationships too difficult and now I’ve got a thing going with a lovely young penguin. She’s the co-host of “Good Morning Antarctica”.

MSNBC: So what motivated you to return to the comic strip biz? The money?

Opus: Who says there’s money in comics? Besides I invested in herring futures and did quite well. I’m just happy to work with old friends again.

MSNBC: So the other “Bloom County” characters are coming back?

Opus: Some of the old cast for sure, but I hear the negotiations with Bill are not going well. He got a raw deal the first time around: he was paid per word, and all he usually said was “Ack!” and “Thppt!” And Berke’s trying to bring in some of the mutts from his new book, “Flawed Dogs”, but apparently they’re in a different union than the meadow animals. I just don’t get all of this legal mumbo-gumbo-rambo.

MSNBC: Any new characters in the “Opus” strip?

Opus: Yeah, but some of them will look real familiar, if you get my driftwood. Personally, I suggested that computer mogul from Microsquish who looks like Bill Gates.


MSNBC: What about your relationship with Berkeley Breathed? There were stories that it was rather tense.

Opus: Not for me. As long as the lunch table had sardines and Ding Dongs, I was one happy waterfowl. You gotta remember, Berke started the strip in college, with some weird title like Macadamia Walt (Editor’s note: it was “Academia Waltz”). When it first got sold to newspapers, some suity guy decided to name it “Bloom County”, which sounds a lot like “Doonesbury.” So everybody compared it to the other comic, and Berke worked real hard to be different. He put little kids in the cast (Milo and Binkley), a guy in a wheelchair (Cutter John) and a few meadow animals with attitudes. But he never really got into talking animals ‘til I came along. And I had to work with him a lot.

MSNBC: Why was that?

Opus: He didn’t know how to write dialogue for me. Sure, “Pear pimples for hairy fishnuts” was a comedy classic, but I didn’t want to be a one-trick bird.
Anyway, the only thing he did right in the early days was he drew my nose a lot smaller. You see how much better it looks in real life than in the comics, right? Right? Anyway, I walked him through developing my comic persona as a mix of honesty and innocence.

MSNBC: Actually, Berkeley Breathed said your personality is a mix of “vanity and naïveté”.

Opus: He did? Is that a compliment? I’m not sure. Anyway, I was the only one in that strip with the integrity to talk directly to the audience, even when everybody was screaming at me “Don’t look at the camera!” Besides, my nose looks smaller when it’s not in profile.

MSNBC: But didn’t Breathed try to kill off your character?

Opus: I had a few dramatic cliffhangers and one near-death fantasy sequence. But it was Bill the Cat who actually was dead for several weeks. Of course, they had to bring him back. Now when the daily strip ended and he started doing “Outland” on Sundays, they gave everybody in the cast the pink slip. But then Berke got too far out. Weird scenery, weird characters. . . He needed to take a step back to normal-tude, and I was delighted to come back and help.

MSNBC: “Opus” is going to be a Sunday-only strip, too. Do you think it’ll avoid the same problems “Outland” had?

Opus: Berke’s really settled down. He’s written several children’s books, and he’s got a kid of his own now, a three-year-old named Sophie who’s cute as a puffin.


opusvicodinMSNBC: Breathed said several months ago that “It was painful to sit through the war without a public voice.” Does that mean the new strip will be more political?

Opus: Well, I don’t know about him, but I’m glad I wasn’t working during the war. I heard the Pentagon used ‘embedded comics characters’, and when I have to wear an Army helmet, I get the worst case of hat hair. But Berke always told me his goal was to figure out how to take an issue and make it funny. The more serious an issue, the bigger the challenge. And since he just finished a children’s book about animal shelters (“Flawed Dogs”), I think he feels ready for any challenge.

MSNBC: Do you think you’re going to be influenced by any of the newer comics?

Opus: Berke always said he never read any other comics, but he also always complained that the print was too small, so what can you say? He also said that the really old comic strips should be forcibly removed to make room for ‘new blood’, so I think he’s going to let his three-year-old do most of the writing.

MSNBC: Didn’t he predict that “Dilbert” would be a hit, a year before it debuted?

Opus: I think he said the comics syndicates were looking for a disaffected office worker who couldn’t draw. Berkeley Breathed knows the business better than he lets on. He always knew when to throw in a reference to “Marmaduke”.

MSNBC: One more personal question: have you ever gotten back together with your mother?

Opus: Yes, we had a big reunion five years ago, and I’ve set her up in a nice place in Florida.

MSNBC: A condo?

Opus: Sea World.

MSNBC: Anything else you’d like to say?

Opus: Remember our pop music project: “Deathtöngue”, a.k.a. “Billy and the Boingers”? Well, I’ve recently had a chance to record some tracks with one of my musical idols, so I hope everybody will look for the new CD coming out sometime next spring: “Opus and Ozzy Duets.”

MSNBC: Ozzy Osbourne?

Opus: Yep. Great guy. Can’t understand a word he says, just like Bill.

The Aftermath

There turned out to be some discrepancies between my account of Opus’ last few years and what was revealed in the first new “Opus” comic. But to quote the Authorized Opus, “Oh, and I suppose you’re where you thought you’d be in ten years?”

I was especially proud that mine was the ‘banner’ article for the weekend on MSNBC.com’s Entertainment front page, although its title referred to Mr. Breathed as “Berk”, which I never did myself.

After the article appeared, I sent “Opus” creator Berkeley Breathed the following email, using his website’s direct-messaging capability:

Dear Mr. Breathed:

Congratulations on the most triumphant return to the funny pages of both you and your beloved penguin (You do realize that the Los Angeles Times displaced BOTH Doonesbury and the Peanuts Reruns to put you on the front page!)

I wanted you to know that you are my all-time absolute favoritest comic stripper in the whole history of the known world (although, in your absence, I did briefly join a cult of Wiley Miller fans). specially since I am the hack nobody writer who committed the sacrilegious “Opus Interview” parody on the MSNBC.com website. I hope you will understand my motivation for such a heinous act.

(1) It was the first time I had EVER been paid for something I wrote on the Web, and the first time I had been paid for writing anything in several years.

(2) If anybody is going to write a cheap knock-off of your beloved charater, it should be an obsessed fan like myself.

(3) It was an ultimate challenge for me to re-create Opus’ unique voice (even though many readers of my own blog think I already sound too much like him).

(4) How many writing assignments for a “news” organization does one ever get requiring research by re-reading his favorite comic strip collections?

I hope you can forgive me for my highly presumptuous act; I know I barely deserve to clean the ground you’ve dribbled ink onto. But please be advised that, if you do NOT forgive me, MSNBC Interative Inc. has purchased all rights to the offending story and have much deeper pockets for your lawyers to reach into. But I will make myself available to testify at any court proceedings where CourtTV is present, being a total whore for publicity.

Again, thank you for the inspiration; I hope I haven’t done damage to your legend.

Wendell Wittler
alleged on his own time

P.S.: I know brevity is a virtue; I’ve already admitted being a whore once…

And, only a couple hours later, he responded:

“Oh YOURE the guy! I’m laughing. I gave 25 interviews as Opus around the country’s papers… and the co-writer on the Opus movie complimented me on a line from YOUR piece! Almost strangled him. Very funny. Thanks for the apology for making a living out of writing.. none needed. It was fun. But do it again, and I’ll send your kids to Michael Jackson’s for a sleep-over.”

Berkeley Breathed

That “co-writer on the Opus movie” was Craig Mazin, one of the dozens of co-writers of the “Scary Movie” series, and in 2004, it was being fast-tracked into production at Wild Brain Animation by Miramax… That Miramax connection was probably why the project subsequently dropped off the face of the earth: even IMdb has deleted all mention of the film, and they have been known to keep productions showing as “in production” status well after their deaths in development. A pity.

The fate of newspapers, Opus-style

The fate of newspapers, Opus-style

In 2008, when the Opus strip was retired/cancelled/put-out-of-its-misery, I proposed a follow-up article to my editor at MSNBC.com, but the focus of the site had changed and they weren’t interested. If you don’t remember how it ended, Opus’ “Creator” told him he needed to decide “where to spend eternity”, leading to the penguin getting waterboarded after being accused of terrorist sympathizing (there’s the aforementioned ‘getting political’), plus a series of flashbacks to the “Bloom County” era. Meanwhile, Breathed ran a contest for readers to guess the ending, with the winner having a donation made in their name to the animal shelter of their choice. And when the final “Opus” comic appeared in newspapers, Steve Dallas (the one character in the strip who went all the way back to “Academia Waltz”) tracked him down to, semi-obviously, an animal shelter, where he found this:
In a final show of solidarity with animal activists (and the Internet, to the annoyance of all the newspapers who ran the strip to the end), he printed a URL to a page on The US Humane Society’s website for the final panels (no longer functioning, so I’ll put them here):
Goodnight, Opus. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to fictionally talk to you again. You were by best fake interview.

footy1That animated gif is of Opus’ “walk cycle”, made for the Opus cartoon that did get made, the Christmas-ish TV special “A Wish for Wings That Work”, from this model sheet: