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Vick dog inspired 'Bloom County,' 'Opus' creator

  • Story Highlights
  • Berkeley Breathed's new book, "Flawed Dogs," inspired by photo of abused dog
  • After seeing picture, Breathed says he wanted to do story about dog horrors, rescue
  • Breathed best known for comic strips "Bloom County" and "Opus"
  • Among his fans: Harper Lee, who he says asked him not to end the Opus character
By Matt Carey
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SANTA BARBARA, California (CNN) -- Berkeley Breathed answers the door to his Santa Barbara home, a tall, slender figure in suede cowboy boots.

Breathed's most famous character, Opus, came out of a desire to feature a nondog in his comic strip.

Berkeley Breathed has left comic strips behind to focus on his writing -- particularly children's books.

But before he can extend a hand in greeting, he's nudged aside by a canine companion eager to introduce herself.

"Pickles" offers a hearty welcome, vigorously shaking a tail that seems powerful enough to whack a lamp from an end table.

The pit bull is one of a number of dogs that Breathed and his wife, Jody, have rescued over the years.

His affection and concern for dogs form the heart of "Flawed Dogs: The Shocking Raid on Westminster" (Philomel Books), Breathed's new illustrated novel, whose hero is a resilient dachshund with a soup ladle for a leg. Photo Gallery: The art of Berkeley Breathed »

It's the latest children's work from Breathed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist behind "Bloom County" and "Opus," who's had great success with the genre. The earlier "Mars Needs Moms!" is set to be made into a movie produced by Robert Zemeckis.

Breathed invited CNN to his mountainside home for a rare interview, which touched on topics ranging from his book to Michael Vick, Charles Schulz and his famous pen pal, Harper Lee. Video Watch Breathed read from "Flawed Dogs" »

The following is an edited version of the conversation:

CNN: The hero of your book is quite an unusual dog.

Berkeley Breathed: Sam the Lion he's called, by Heidi [the girl] who finds him. ... The central part of the story is the fall of Sam from Heidi's life and into the depths of horrors that dogs can sometimes experience in our world -- everything from being shot at, to research labs, to the worst dog shelters amongst the world of otherwise nice dog shelters, and he comes for revenge upon Cassius [a rival].

And Cassius is going to appear at the Westminster Dog Show coming up, so Sam has got to find a team of commandos to help him infiltrate and destroy the Westminster Dog Show.

CNN: What was the inspiration for the story?

Breathed: The book happened because I came across both a picture and a quote at about the same time -- a picture of one of Michael Vick's fight dogs. It was set to be put down, but a shelter in Utah decided to take the dog and a few others at the same time and try to rehabilitate them. ...

This was the first time the dog had ever received any affection in its life. ... It's the most moving picture of a dog I've ever seen, having gone through an impossible transition and fallen back to where dogs naturally go, which is just loving people.

CNN: "Flawed Dogs" is put out by the "young readers" division of the publisher.

Breathed: I notice it's getting a little bit of controversy in that people are coming to it assuming that it's for the same audience that my picture books are for. And "Flawed Dogs" the novel is definitely not. It's perfect for an 8-year-old, 9, 10, 11, 12, but I wouldn't read this in the evening to my 5-year-old. And there is a difference. ...

It's revealed an issue that I'm surprised about, which is the new preciousness that's been brought to literature for children now. There is an abject fear of instilling any sort of dramatic trauma, of sadness, on the children who are receiving a story. ... And of course that was never a great concern in the past. The great children's stories that we all grew up with, there are always moments of great tragedy and moving moments of loss in the book that we weren't afraid of -- as long as you bring them [young readers] back by the end and bring them to where a reader should be, a child should be.

CNN: You don't do a daily or a weekly comic strip anymore. How has that transition been?

Breathed: If this was still 1985 and everything that means ... it would still be deeply appealing to be a cartoonist. But not now. I'm happy to leave that behind. The level of political rancor -- powered and driven by Web comment and cable news to a degree -- affects me like everybody else, and I get angry and I get annoyed and I get frustrated and that always translates into mediocre cartoons historically. ...

I was getting too angry the last couple of years of cartooning, and it doesn't do the art any good. I'm very happy to let that go.

CNN: When did you first discover, "Wow, I can actually draw"?

Breathed: I could never really draw something. It was, "Wow, I can actually draw or write something that amuses somebody." And that was a dawning that didn't happen until college. ...

The greatest cartoonists ever have really been very mediocre artists. Charles Schulz was always quick to admit that his skills in artistry were limited at best. And in his case it served the strip perfectly. If "Peanuts" had been drawn with the artistry of "Pogo" and a Disney animator, it wouldn't have worked.

CNN: Animals were an integral part of your comic strips.

Breathed: I knew that I wanted a strip with people but the focus on an animal, and an incongruous animal. ... So I looked around largely at an animal that hadn't been done before in comic strips, an animal that is generally attractive to people and people feel immediately warm to and that just would be funny. You end up with a penguin pretty fast. Plus, he's already standing, and he's kind of got clothes on.

CNN: Who are your heroes?

Breathed: "To Kill a Mockingbird" was a huge influence on my work. Harper Lee and I have over the years exchanged letters, which has been a massive delight. I can tell you that when I announced the end of my comic-stripping career and that Opus [the penguin] was not only going to fade away but fade away permanently, I got a letter from Harper urging me to reconsider letting Opus go away forever. I should have written back and said, "The moment you bring Scout back, I'll bring Opus back. Is that a deal, Harper?" Of all the people who should not be chastising me about stopping my career early, it would be Harper Lee.


Opus really is a bit like Scout in that he's circulating around in his world, and he's surrounded by a lot of insanity, a lot of hatred, a lot of intolerance and ... he's the ultimate innocent at the center of it. And that's how Scout worked in that story. I suppose I needed an Atticus Finch for Opus, but I never had time to develop one. ...

I'm not an artist who is trying to be a novelist. I've always been a writer and the art was the way to sell the writing and it's been convenient in that way. ... I'd be happy to leave that all and just be a writer if I could get away with it. I don't think I can at this point. They [readers] expect the pictures. I'm happy to oblige.

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