Almost 42 years after it was first launched, 33 years after its creator discontinued it and seven years after he revived it, the much-beloved comic strip “Bloom County” is set to become an animated series on Fox. And when Berkeley Breathed’s creation hits TV screens, it’ll be bringing echoes of Iowa City with it.
“Just like the strip, the TV version of ‘Bloom County’ will center ‘on a collapsed lawyer, a lobotomized cat and a penguin in briefs and fruit headwear living in the world’s last boarding house in the world’s most forgotten place deep in the dandelion wilds of FlyWayWayOver country. To wit, today’s America at a glance,’” Variety reported, quoting from a press release.
Breathed stopped drawing “Bloom County” in 1989, although he used some of the characters in two subsequent Sunday-only syndicated cartoons, “Outland” and “Opus.” In 2015, Breathed relaunched “Bloom County.” Some of his non-Bloom work has been made into animated feature films, but the Fox show will be his first TV series.
“At the end of ‘Alien,’ we watched cuddly Sigourney Weaver go down for a long peaceful snooze in cryogenic hyper-sleep after getting chased around by a saliva-spewing maniac, only to be wakened decades later into a world stuffed with far worse,” Breathed said in a statement about the forthcoming show. “Fox and I have done the identical thing to Opus and the rest of the Bloom County gang, may they forgive us.”
That “last boarding house” Variety mentioned is a central location in the strip, and it’s based on a house in Iowa City that Breathed once called one of “the ugliest houses in the five-state area.”
He knew the house, because Breathed lived in Iowa City for four years during the early ’80s. And despite his description, by the time the artist first laid eyes on the house built in 1893 by John Jaynes, it had been on the National Register of Historic Places for four years.
“Six different architectural styles in one house is a milestone at least and at most a landmark to bad taste,” is how Breathed described the house at 935 E College Street.
The register doesn’t comment on the tastefulness of the house’s style(s), but the “Statement of Significance” section of the application for listing does suggest Breathed had a point about the confusing impression it creates.
The typewritten description calls the house “an example of neo-Jacobean style,” but above that description is a handwritten correction calling the house’s style “Queen Anne.”
“Bloom County” began in its syndicated run in newspapers in 1980, but the house wouldn’t make its first appearance until after Breathed moved to Iowa City from Austin, Texas the following year. That year also marked the debut of its most popular character, Opus the penguin.
“I was a year in on ‘Bloom County’ and hugely bored of drawing people standing in profile,” Breathed told the New York Times in 2020, “Saddled with vertical boxes, I needed an animal that could stand and fit in the damn rectangles that wasn’t a beagle nor a fat orange cat. Any child will tell you that that leaves penguins: They’re already standing, they don’t look particularly naked and they have the blissful countenance of looking always about to say something pleasant.”
Unlike the boarding house, Opus wasn’t based on a local penguin (there were no local penguins). But his name was inspired by a local deejay (and local booze).
“New penguin’s name? It was a blazing hot June Iowa night around 3 a.m., I was slightly drunk and the disc jockey of Iowa City’s only rock station, KRNA, yelled out the name of his next song from the group Kansas — one that could only be played at such an hour: ‘Magnum Opus.’ Things sometimes happen.”
But aside from the confusing appearance of the house and shouted inspiration of Opus’s name, there’s not much else local in “Bloom County,” according to what Breathed told the Press-Citizen in a 1984 interview.
“It’s a terrific place to live,” he said about Johnson County in the interview, “but there’s little input in terms of the everyday eccentricity of humanity.”
Breathed told the P-C he relied on reading for inspiration for the strip: “I go down the Hy-Vee newsstand every week and read everything.”
Iowa City may have had a limited impact on “Bloom County,” but it did have an impact on Breathed. Before he moved to New Mexico in 1985, he presented the Iowa City Public Library with an original piece of art, in which Opus and another “Bloom County” main character, 10-year-old Binkley, talk about Iowa City.
“Iowa City… How will I miss thee?… Let me count the ways!” Opus says, “I’ll miss the swellest public library in the known universe… I’ll miss the wild women of ‘Barbara’s Bakery’ .. I’ll miss the obscenely yummy hot turkey sandwiches at ‘Bushnell’s Turtle’… I’ll miss the criminally obnoxious name ‘Things, Things and Things’… And I’ll especially miss those warm, sunny spring days lounging lazily around the Pentacrest watching the Hare Krishnas and the Maranathas squabbling joyfully… Yes!… I’ll miss everything about Iowa City!!”
Binkley adds, “Except the water. The water tastes like ‘Spic n’ Span.”
The art is on display on the first floor of ICPL in front of the periodical reading area.
Of all the places Opus names as he waxes poetic about Iowa City, only the library and the Pentacrest remain. The house at 935 E College is still here as well.
The 10-bedroom house was acquired in 2005 by the River City Housing Collective, “a member-directed non-profit dedicated to providing quality, affordable housing for students and community members at a cost below that of the Iowa City market average.” Members of the collective were already calling the place the Bloom County House when they decided to reach out Breathed and ask him to name it.
After being contacted by a Gazette reporter about the name, Breathed replied and suggested the obvious: the Bloom County House.
On the National Register of Historic Places, it is still the Linsay House, a name that is both wrong and somehow fitting for the confusing Neo-Jacobean or Queen Anne structure. It had been known as the Lindsay House, since Jayne gave the house to his daughter Ella as a wedding gift when she married James Lindsay. But on the register application, “Lindsay” was misspelled, so its official historic status is registered under the wrong name.
No date has yet been announced for the TV debut of “Bloom County.”