Opus and friend. Artist: Berkeley Breathed.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Washington Post Writers' Group
First Appeared: 1982
Creator: Berkeley Breathed
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Opus the Penguin was the most popular character in cartoonist Berke Breathed's Bloom County — not just the strip's biggest source of merchandising revenue and one of the early carry-overs to Breathed's second syndicated strip, Outland (for which he altered his by-line, using the long form of his first name, Berkeley), but the only one eventually to appear under …

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… his own logo, in a Sunday-only comic titled Opus. Opus was also the star of several children's books written by Breathed.

There was nothing of the star when Opus was introduced. He was only the pet of 10-year-old Binkley, a frequently-seen resident of Bloom County. And Binkley didn't even know his species — he thought Opus was a German Shepherd. (The feeling was mutual — Opus later opined that Binkley looked like a carrot.)

Opus doesn't look much like a real-life penguin, a trait he shares with other funny animals such as Chilly Willy, Tennessee Tuxedo, Pablo Penguin and the spokestoon for Kool Cigarettes (not to mention the Batman villain of that name), but not Pingu, who was relatively realistic for a cartoon. He was more penguin-like when he was introduced, but over the next few years evolved in an Opus-like direction until he became the huge-beaked, bow tie-wearing, vaguely avian flightless bird we know today.

Opus gained a more permanent footing in the Bloom County cast when he became the legal secretary of Steve Dallas, the county's only lawyer. He had several other jobs over the years, even, at one point, a campaign for U.S. vice president as running mate of Bill the Cat (despite the fact that Bill had died, which doesn't always faze a comics character — like so many, he got better), nominees of The National Radical Meadow Party.

Bloom County ended in 1989, as a result of Breathed's decision to quit while it was still funny, unlike many strips that hang on for years, just by inertia. Shortly after ending it, he launched Outland, which he intended as a fresh start — it took place in an alternate world, where landscapes shifted like in Krazy Kat or Broom Hilda, a place as unfamiliar to his readers as could be. But as more and more Bloom residents, including Opus, made the shift to the Outland, it began to look a lot like Bloom County with different backgrounds. Breathed ended Outland in 1995, and didn't work in comics for the next eight years.

It was during the Outlands run that Opus became the star of children's books. The first was a Christmas story, titled A Wish for Wings That Worked, published in 1991. Then came The Last Basselope: One Ferocious Story (1992), followed by Goodnight Opus (1993).

When Breathed finally did return to comics, on November 23, 2003, Opus was the star from the beginning. In fact, the name of the Sunday-only strip was Opus. It concerned his life with his mother, whom he'd sought in Antarctica in Bloom County, found in Outland, and had last been seen heading for Antarctica to be with.

He spent five years in that situation, but Breathed ended that strip on November 2, 2008, permanently retiring Opus as a character. In the last episode, Opus went to sleep, and is now, according to Breathed, "in peace, dreaming of a world just ahead brimming with kindness and grace and ubiquitous bow ties."


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Text ©2008 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Berkeley Breathed.