Berkeley Breathed is responsible for one of the more delightful things to happen to my Facebook feed in some time: The Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, who created “Bloom County” and characters like Opus the penguin, has revived his beloved comic strip after a 25-year hiatus, posting new installments on his Facebook page.
In a new interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air”, Breathed says he has author Harper Lee to thank for the decision. He was stunned when Lee’s supposed second novel was published earlier this year as Go Set a Watchman:
BERKELEY BREATHED: I watched slack-jawed in horror as they threw one of the 20th century’s most iconic fictional heroes, Atticus Finch, under the bus. At the time — and this was a couple of months ago — it made me think that there would have been no “Bloom County” without “Mockingbird” because I was 12 I read it, and the book’s fictional Southern small town of Maycomb had settled deep into my graphic imagination and informed it forever. If you look at any of my art for the past 30 years, there’s always a small-town flavor to it.
So this summer, just a couple months ago when “Go Set A Watchman” was causing an uproar, I went back to my files and I pulled an old fan letter from years ago. It says (reading), “Dear Mr. Breathed, this is a plea from a dotty old lady and from others not dotty at all. Please don’t shut down Opus. Can’t you at least give him a reprieve? Opus is simply the best comic strip there is and depriving him of life is murder – a hard word to describe an obliteration of your creation. But Opus is real. He lives. -Harper Lee, Monroeville, Ala.”
“Though Alice said that her sister had never written the book, for years Harper told Tom Radney that it was near completion. In 1997, Radney told a newspaper reporter, “I still talk to Nelle twice a year, and every time we talk, she says she’s still working on it.” Madolyn Radney told me that while Lee procrastinated Tom persisted. “He’d call her and she’d say I’m just about finished with the draft, or it’s just going to be perfect, or I’ll send it to the publishers tomorrow,” she said. “He even went up to New York to get his files, and she told him it was headed to the publishers.”
“He was so trusting,” Radney said of her husband. “He gave Harper Lee everything he had: notes, transcripts, court documents. And she took it all with her.” None of it, the family says, was ever returned, and Tom Radney’s generosity has bothered the family since his death. Beyond hoping that Lee might still publish “The Reverend,” the family has tried to get Radney’s files back.
Maybe it wasn’t just Nelle’s insecurity that held her back from becoming “the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” but also the dismaying decline of the “small-town middle-class” idyll she’d staked her career on documenting. She had, after all, written a historical novel. To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed not in Monroeville but on an L.A. lot. There were — still are — remnants of Depression-era Monroeville, not least the old Federal-style courthouse. But even as the film came out, a drab new courthouse was being built next door. Downtown’s only movie theater burned down not long after Mockingbird had its first run, and was never rebuilt. In 1997, the city was dubbed “The Literary Capital of Alabama,” prompting Lee, who wasn’t consulted on the nickname, to remark, “The literary capital of Alabama doesn’t read.”
Harper Lee’s assisted-living apartment is on Highway Bypass 21, just a couple of blocks from the town’s real commercial center, a series of malls. There’s a place called Radley’s Fountain Grill down that way, and an old stone wall that once separated Lee’s childhood home from Capote’s — both long gone, replaced by a takeout shack called Mel’s Dairy Dream. Lee prefers the more generic places by the lingerie factory outlet (a remnant of the old Vanity Fair plant). Before her stroke, she could be found at Hardee’s, or better yet at McDonald’s, gulping down coffee during long chats with friends. (There were higher-end expeditions to the local golf club and to casinos on the Gulf coast.) When she watched an advance screening of the biopic Capote at a neighbor’s house — the Lees had no television — she opted for Burger King.