Friday, October 10, 2008

Goodbye, My Beloved Penguin

I've been meaning to blog on this all week, but frankly, it's just really difficult. I'm about to lose someone very dear to me, and it's really shaken me up. I've been reading about his impending death in the past few weeks, and only found out a few days ago that he will be dying very soon, and it's rendered me speechless.

And just because he's a cartoon penguin doesn't make this any less serious.

Yes, folks, after almost three decades, Opus the Penguin will be laid to rest by his cartoon creator, Berke Breathed. I grew up on Bloom County. It was like Doonesbury, but with more pop culture and less politics. (I was 11 when I started reading the comic, and because I wasn't Alex P. Keaton, I wasn't about to read a strip that was overly political.) I've been by Opus's side when he was first brought home by accident by Binkley, who thought he was adopting a German shepherd. The penguin was meant to be part of a one-off arc, but fans LOVED him and his bad English skills (remember the Hari Krishna whom Opus called Hairy Fishnuts?) and he stayed, eventually becoming the star of the series. With Bill the Cat, the drunken, stoned feline who rarely said anything other than "Ack!", Opus became a pop culture icon.

I think my favourite of the books was Billy and the Boingers, when Opus and company decide to form a metal band called Deathtöngue:

Steve Dallas was the manager (he wanted a job where he wouldn't have to wear a tie and would get lots of sex), Opus was the tuba player, Bill the drunken lead singer, and Hodge-Podge the drummer. Steve Dallas's open audition was posted on a tree, and read: "Tomorrow: Open Audition for new high-profit heavy-metal rock band. Need to know 3 chords and be able to grimace musically." Rosebud the Basselope attempts to audition, but sings "The Sounds of Silence." When Steve tells him that's not the sound they're looking for, he offers to throw in some lewd gestures, but it's not enough to get him the gig. The stuff is still hilarious 20 years on (and the back cover of the book has the four of them posing as U2 on the Joshua Tree album; BRILLIANT). The band eventually realized their name wasn't any good, and changed it to the much improved Billy and the Boingers.

The book came with one of those little flexi-disks, and I still remember listening to it (oh MAN I still HAVE it! I just checked the book!) and their big single was "U Stink But I ♥ U" (I loved the Prince-type spelling). The chorus went like this:
You make me sick! (way-oh, way-oh, way-oh)
You make me sick!
You really stink, girl,
You make me sick! (way-oh, way-oh, way-oh)
You make me sick (tuba solo)
But I love you.

I'm typing that totally from memory. Glad to see I used my memory for the important things.

I just found a site that has the MP3s of that song and the other one, "I'm a Boinger." Check them out if you want to hear the silliness.

Anyway, after Bloom County ended (and I finally dried my tears), Berke Breathed came out with a new, surreal comic called Outland. Inevitably, Opus appeared in that one and his adventures began anew. And then that came to an end, along with Opus. Again. And then... in 2003, Berke Breathed released "Opus," as its own comic. I read it on, but it's available at other online sites. Every Sunday a new one is posted, and I go and check it out. Steve has a bad receding hairline with grey streaks over his ears, and Opus has become more philosophical in his old age.

A couple of weeks ago, Opus decided to hop on a plane and accidentally mentioned that he'd smuggled himself into the country 30 years ago. Despite waving a tiny American flag while running madly through the airport screaming, "I love George Bush!" he was thrown into a holding cell at Homeland Security (and called Akbar) and tortured before they stuck him in an animal shelter, where he is currently holed up with a tiny puppy who wants to hear his life story. So, Opus has been telling it, and it's wonderful to read the recaps of the high points of his life, from Billy and the Boingers to the time he fought Mary Kay Cosmetics to his undying love for Diane Sawyer... and he occasionally adds in jokes about a tryst with Sarah Palin (they'd shoot moose together). But there was something strange and final about these comics, and I started to get a bad feeling about where it was going. Sure enough, earlier this week Berke Breathed announced that was it, and he was finally putting Opus to rest once and for all on November 2. He says the current political climate has just gotten too dark, and he's so angry he's worried it will start permeating the comics, and he doesn't want to destroy Opus like that. So he's going to let the penguin go gently into that good night, and let us have our memories of him.

So go check him out at Salon. This is the comic that made me start feeling uncomfortable that something bad was about to happen to him, yet at the same time I loved seeing all the old memories again. Here is the complete Opus archive at Salon, from most recent to older. Get to know the penguin before he's gone. As for me, I shall hug my stuffed Opus a little tighter, keep my comic books a little closer, and hope Breathed gives him a good send-off.

Good-bye, Opus. May your penguin dreams come true, may your wish for wings that work actually happen, and may Diane Sawyer finally come around and run off to Antarctica with you.


Chris in NF said...

Y'know Jen, I remember meeting you at U of T way back when (in 1996, can you believe it? 12 years ago ...), and you were really the only person out of that entire grad class I felt a conection with ... everyone else was always wearing their game face, and here we were outside the 19th century women's fiction class bonding over the Simpsons while the would-be literati looked on with expressions ranging from the shocked to the appalled that we would openly admit that we loved TV. (Thank god UWO proved more amenable to my sensibilities, and you made your way to ECW).

I bring this up because you post this elegy for Opus and it brings tears to my eyes ... I'd never realized you were as hopeless a Bloom County fan as I was, but it doesn't surprise me. (Do you, perchance, have the other half of this amulet?) Opus -- and Milo and Binkley and Steve Dallas and the rest of the Meadow group -- are figures for the ages, as far as I'm concerned.

Opus, we hardly knew ye.

PS -- I read the comics daily at, and they have, in addition to current strips, old Bloom County ... but also the pre-Bloom Country Breathed creation "Academia Waltz," which he wrote for his university newspaper ... which features a proto-Steve Dallas and so brazenly rips off early Doonesbury that it's practically art in and of itself.

Anonymous said...


I loved Bloom County, and had a lot of the collections (as well as reading it in the newspaper). During the run of Outland I lost track to the point where I didn't realize there was an Opus comic.

I don't want him to die!

I think I'll go hug my Opus doll now.

Nikki Stafford said...

Chris: Remind me... we didn't end up getting married why?? ;) (And yes, I've been using my half of the amulet as a keychain. AT LAST!!!...) You know, when you've checked out the latest Opus comics (if you haven't already), see what part of Opus's memories choke you up the most. For me, it was the group of them on the wheelchair hurtling down the hill pretending to be on the Starship Enterprise. I was laughing, and my eyes were welling up at the same time. :::sniff:::

redeem: My dad gave me my Opus doll in 1986 when we'd moved for the third time in 2 years, and when we first arrived at our house, Opus was sitting in the middle of my bed. My dad thought he'd make me feel better about being uprooted: he did. Opus has gone everywhere with me since, from being at U of T (he was one of about 8 items I dragged with me when I was living in a dorm for 2 months over the summer after my room was rented out from under me) to sitting by my bed in every house I've lived in. He's the only thing of mine my daughter has asked to play with and I've given her a definitive no. Porcelain figurine? Go wild. Antique brooch? Who cares. Opus? NO. (I've even let her touch my stuffed Brain doll... but not Opus.)

Chris in NF said...

We didn't get married because we're fraternal twins separated at birth in Dickensian London, silly. You were raised by a well-meaning but meek charwoman with a drunken lout of a husband, and I joined the Royal Navy as a cabin boy to a senile frigate captain. It was odd, and a plot twist only Dickens could conjure, that led to our accidental reunion in the hallowed halls of University College in 1995.

Nikki Stafford said...

Of course! I don't know why I keep forgetting that. I think it's all the coal dust I ingested when I was sent to work in the factories at the age of 9 when my parents convinced the overseer that I was a boy.

poppedculture said...

I should have known you were an Opus fan - how did I recognize another of our connections? Under Future in my Grade 13 yearbook it says Bloom County and I wrote my English independent study matching Northrop Fry's theory on satire to example from Bloom County. I was a bit of a fan.

But I did my mourning when that world shutdown. I followed Outland for awhile, but it was never the same. I didn't even realize until this year there was an Opus comic, but just reading you reminiscing made me happy.

Bye, again, Opus.