On Strips: Bloom County 2015

By | Friday, July 17, 2015 1 comment
The comic strip news of the week is obviously Berkeley Breathed's return to Bloom County. About a week before he launched his new strip, he posted a "watch this space" message on his Facebook page, and I dutifully did so, mostly in the hopes to see design sketches or discarded drafts or something. (He alluded to having "raided" his files for "art, unseen drawings, censored strips, etc.") I expect few people who read that post with interest had any clue a new strip was only a week away.

Berkeley Breathed
To no surprise, the strips that Breathed has released this week have generated a fair amount of buzz. Some people are wondering if he'll be able to capture the old spirit of the original, which he seemed to have lost by the time he was working on Outland. (By the way, I still enjoyed Outland despite not being quite the same type of strip as Bloom County. That being said, I don't think I've read any of those strips since they originally appeared in newspapers, so my memory may not be accurately reflecting their quality.) Other people are reminiscing about what a great impact Breathed's work was on them as cartoonists. Others are simply trying to figure out what his plans are; why now, and to what end?

What I haven't seen discussed is that Bloom County, structurally, is no longer a comic strip like it once was. Setting aside any debates about the quality of writing or art, or the type of humor being employed, just look at that photo above. Breathed is drawing the strip digitally on a tablet. The lettering is a font. His distribution method is Facebook. None of that was even possible when Breathed first left the strip in 1989. And his later work, Opus was contractually forbidden from being shared online at all (until the last couple of years).

By contrast, Bloom County 2015 does not appear to be queued up for anywhere in particular. I expect he could walk into any syndicate and get almost any deal he wanted, but instead, he's just throwing them on his Facebook page, no different than if they were family snapshots at the local putt-putt course. He doesn't have a unique website for these, nor even a dedicated Facebook page. That approach means there's (currently) no way he could even try to make money off these. The strips aren't even a loss leader for books he might be selling on his website. (Although I suppose one could argue there would be renewed interest in the original strip, and cause a rise in backlist sales which he would still get royalties on. But Breathed is not pitching that, not even linking to where those books might be for sale.)

Where I'm going with this is that Breathed, in his new strip, appears to be just noodling around and putting strips online to amuse himself and maybe garner some regular followers. I expect there's a plan of some sort in his mind where he might release these new strips in a book form or something, but that would appear to be down the road. For now, he seems content to just do the strip.

Which is precisely how the original webcomikers started. When guys like Brad Guigar and Scott Kurtz started putting strips online, the idea that you could make money off them -- much less an entire living -- was laughable. They were willing to play around and experiment because they could, and they had an income-not-from-comics supporting them. Breathed's doing exactly that right now. (Well, technically, his existing income IS from comics, but not his current one.) It might seem obvious to say that Bloom County is no longer a newspaper comic strip since it no longer appears in newspapers, but in every way, shape, and form, it is now a webcomic. From how it's distributed to how Breathed even seems to be approaching the whole endeavor.

It's rare to see newspaper cartoonists that seem to understand how the webcomics model works differently than the newspaper strip model. It's even more rare to see them try to embrace it.
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Paul Horn said...

Word. Will be interesting to see where this road leads....