Saturday, February 8, 2014

1980s Political Humor That Manages To Endure: Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things!

The Good: Very funny, Interesting characters, Political and historical insights
The Bad: Some dated and specific references, Artwork is not spectacular
The Basics: With Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things, Berke Breathed lampoons pop culture (with the rise of MTV) and the politics of the 1984 U.S. Presidential election.

The other day, I found myself thinking about the nature of humor. I was thinking about how the internet makes comedians out of virtually anyone with the rise of memes. With that in mind, I turned to my own library; I have remarkably few humor books in it. In fact, the only traditional book of comic strips is Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things. Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things was a gift from my first girlfriend and, at the time, it was quite the esoteric gift. I don’t recall being an avid reader of comic strips at that point in my life (I had been, but was onto other things by then) and it was included in a care package sent to me at a summer camp. I’ve held onto the book for two reasons, though: it’s one of the few enduring gifts from someone who is very important to me and now I appreciate its content more.

Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things is a compilation of Bloom County comic strips from the early 1980s. Berke Breathed wrote Bloom County and the fundamental difference between Bloom County and Doonsberry is that Doonsberry is far more political and specific than Bloom County. Bloom County also has a wider focus; in addition to lampooning political targets, the comic strip took on popular culture regularly. With its mix between human and animal characters, the strip managed to poke fun effectively at the institutions of American pop culture and political targets. In Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things that sense of humor plays out well.

Bloom County was a (mostly) serialized comic strip and in Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things, Opus the Penguin strikes out on his own to find his long, lost mother. The quest for self-discovery puts him in touch with environmental extremists. When he is inadvertently rescued by the U.S. military, he returns to Steve Dallas’s boarding house where the right-wing Dallas is building a bomb shelter. Steve Dallas gets involved with MTV when he shoots a music video that goes horribly awry.

As the 1984 Presidential primary season heats up, the Meadow Party (the political party made up of the animals around the boarding house) decides to get involved. Realizing that their best possible candidate is Bill The Cat, who is (unfortunately) dead at the time, the Meadow Party enlists Oliver Wendell Jones to resurrect him. Using his computer and a chemistry set, Jones resurrects Bill The Cat and he is propped up as a political candidate that polls higher than Mondale (but just below pickled prunes). Amid the presidential politics, Opus meets the reclusive Michael Jackson and has the chance to impersonate him.

Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things is funny and captures perfectly the paranoia and frustration of the early 1980s. Berke Breathed is insightful when it comes to the American political process and he nails accurately just how complacent the U.S. was when it came to the issue of re-electing (or combating) President Ronald Reagan. Steve Dallas is a wonderful hyperbole character of the Conservative Right and in Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things, he has the chance to get out some of his most ridiculous, reactionary lines.

As a historical document, Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things has quite a bit of value. Oliver Wendell Jones is a hacker and reading comics that feature a pre-Internet computer geek is fun. It’s cool to go back and see how people with a smart comedic mind working before the internet had a strong conception about the potential of computer technology.

Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things is an adult fable and the humor in it largely remains poignant. Opus is a fun, ridiculously optimistic character throughout much of the book and, despite his setbacks, he wants to believe in the process and in the American people. He makes a good foil character for Steve Dallas, who is pessimistic and reactionary. The other main foils are Milo – who is a political pragmatist determined to expose the lies of the Reagan Administration (though he has no real power or ability to do so)? – and Binkley, a frightened boy who lives in a state of being constantly terrorized.

While there is enough to Bloom County to recommend one of the full compendiums (I was dismayed to discover many of the compilation books edit out huge portions of the comic strip!), for those looking for a memorable, charming, funny read that serves both as a historical document and as surprisingly relevant current humor, Bloom County: Penguin Dreams And Stranger Things is a good way to go!

For other humor books, please visit my reviews of:
Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them By Al Franken
The Truth About Chuck Norris By Ian Spector
The New York City Bartender’s Joke Book By Jimmy Pritchard


For other book reviews, please visit my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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