Robot reviews: Bloom County and Family Circus
Bloom County: The Complete Library, Vol. One: 1980-1982
by Berkeley Breathed
IDW, 288 pages, $39.99.
The Family Circus Library, Vol. 1: 1960-61
by Bil Keane
IDW, 240 pages, $39.99
As more and more publishers realize that comic fans are interested in rummaging though the works of yesteryear, more and more of them are releasing sizable hardcover collections of allegedly classic comics at a breakneck pace. Some of those releases may cause question marks to rise above the heads of persnickety collectors. Take IDW’s new volumes focusing on Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County and Bil Keane’s Family Circus. Isn’t the former readily available in easy-to-find collections in libraries and used bookstores across the country? Isn’t the latter rather, well, overly precious and saccharine? Does this material really need to be reprinted in such lavish volumes? The answer, surprisingly, is yes and yes.
Even dedicated Bloom County fans may be surprised to discover the number of strips, especially in the early years, that up till now have never been collected. Apparently the strip’s initial publisher, Andrews McMeel, was rather picky about what could and couldn’t be published. The newly discovered material, therefore, not only gives fans a chance to find strips they haven’t read in years, if ever, but also provides a useful glimpse into the strip’s early development.
What’s interesting to me is how long it took Breathed to find the right cast and tone for the strip. The first volume is filled with characters who make their appearance, tell a joke or two, and then quickly bow out to make room for the next hopeful. Remember Mr. Limekiller? Pops Popolov? Major Bloom? Bobbi Harlow? Ashley Dashley III? Otis Oracle? Of course you don’t. Milo and Steve Dallas are here and fully developed, but it would take awhile before Breathed would have Opus, Binkley and the rest of the cast firmly cemented into place, and you can sense a bit of flailing about here (which Breathed fully cops to).
In many ways, the strip was the definitive child of the ’80s, and these early strips drop tons of references to events like the Royal Wedding, the air controller’s strike, and the dread possibility of nuclear war. Thankfully, Breathed and the editors leave helpful notes in the margins to aid readers unfamiliar in such things as, for instance, Dr Pepper
Despite the pop culture references and Breathed’s furtive searching for a place to land, the strip remains fun and witty despite the passage of time. By the end of the book you can see the strip starting to coalesce and close the cover knowing the best awaits.
You can’t really say that about the Family Circus. Whatever merits the strip initially had have been drowned in a mire of utsey-cutesy mannerisms, mispronounced words, dotted line paths, dead grandpas and “Not Mes.” Now largely put together by Keane’s grown-up kids, it feels more like a placeholder on the comics page than anything else.
But hey, here’s a surprise! In its first few years, the Family Circus was not only good, it was downright funny! Keane proves to be a witty and observant cartoonist and based upon the material in this first volume it’s not too hard to see why it gained such popularity.
It’s also interesting to note the differences between this strip and what it became. The dad is not a bespectacled Keane stand-in but a half-lidded, big nosed, perpetually weary nine-to-fiver who seems just as annoyed and perplexed by his kids as delighted in them, if not more so. Though Mom looks more or less identical to her current self, she’s a lot more curvaceous and top-heavy, a cartoon style of the time perhaps.
As for the kids themselves, they remain initially a nameless, effervescent bunch, not necessarily prone to mischief as much as a tad hyperactive and eager to explore their world, rules be damned. Much of the gags then, deal with the parents desperately trying to maintain some semblance of order only to be constantly upended by their progeny. In some ways it’s a gentler version of Doug Wright’s Nipper strips, and revels in the same sort of observational humor. It’s not as funny as Wright’s work, perhaps because Wright goes for the jugular a bit more and he’s a more talented craftsman, but these early Family Circus strips are for the most part a funny and sharp bunch, easily comparable to the best magazine gag cartoons from that period. If nothing else, we should be grateful to IDW for pointing out just how good this strip once was.