IOWA CITY — Iowa had its own controversial cartoonist for a short time in the 1980s. Berkeley “Berke” Breathed started drawing “Bloom County” in late 1980. He moved from Texas to Iowa City in the summer of 1981 when his girlfriend enrolled in the University of Iowa College of Law. “Bloom County,” syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, was published in about 40 newspapers. That number increased to 582 in the four years that Breathed lived in Iowa City.
Breathed felt that the comics page should be more “dangerous,” a place to communicate ideas. And “Bloom County” quickly gained a reputation as an eyebrow-raising cartoon with a fiercely loyal following.
“Breathed thinks of the cartoon as a ‘communicative tool’ which acts as an excellent soapbox to speak to a huge audience,” The Gazette reported.
As for his move north? “I was expecting something pretty bad up here,” he said.
But Breathed was pleasantly surprised by Iowa City. His new home made its first appearance in a panel in which anchorman Ashley Dashley’s TV news station tells about a tragedy in Paris, then shows a videotape of “Fluffy, the Frisbee-catching feline from Iowa City.”
Snow made its first appearance in “Bloom County” that winter, in contrast to the comic’s usual sunny atmosphere.
A model of Bad Taste
While out and about in Iowa City, Breathed stumbled upon a house that would come to play a part in his drawings.
He deemed the house at 935 E. College St. one of “the ugliest houses in the five-state area.”
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“Six different architectural styles in one house is a milestone at least and at most a landmark to bad taste,” he said.
The home became a model for the boardinghouse in “Bloom County” and was featured in his book “Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things.”
It was 10-year-old “Bloom County” newspaper reporter Milo Bloom’s family’s boardinghouse, where Steve Dallas, a shady lawyer; Opus, a tie-wearing penguin; Bill the Cat and many other characters lived at various times.
Breathed wasn’t above stirring up controversy in his adopted town. For instance, Iowa City’s water became infamous when he compared it with all-purpose household cleaner Spic and Span in a “Bloom County” strip.
Breathed said he didn’t do “blatant” satire in the strip “because that’s done so much. I do political satire, but it’s through euphemism and metaphor,” he said.
The strip often drew criticism from editors. In an early strip, a mother discovers Flintstone vitamins in her daughter’s bathroom and mistakes them for birth control pills. The syndicate thought that was too controversial and omitted the words “birth control” from the strip.
In 1985, he drew a parody of a Dewar’s Scotch ad that showed a drunken Dallas leaning over a bottle of Dewar’s. The comic included the comment, “Its taste blends perfectly with the sense of accomplishment I feel after getting five accused nun-beaters sprung on a technicality.”
Even though the Washington Post syndicate deemed it an acceptable parody, it drew a lot of heat.
Breathed simply stated that tastelessness was in the eye of the beholder and responded, “As Steve Martin said, comedy isn’t always pretty.”
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When he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1987, the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists angrily protested the Pulitzer committee’s decision.
Breathed ended the strip in 1989.
The College Street house, known as the Lindsay-Lake House, was classified as “neo-Jacobean” because of its projecting wings and bays, irregular roof lines with dormers, gables and chimneys, porches with balustrades, and conical towers.
It was built in 1893 from a $5 mail-order design by architect George Franklin Barber. Barber began designing houses in his hometown of DeKalb, Ill., before moving to Knoxville, Tenn., in 1888. He published his house plans in catalogs and sold them across the nation and world, including in Japan and the Philippines. Dozens of the houses are part of historic districts and more than four dozen, including the Lindsay-Lake House, are on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 20,000 plans were purchased before Barber’s company stopped producing them.
The Lindsay-Lake House was built by Iowa City bridge builder John Jayne, who gave the home to his daughter, Ella, and her husband, John Granger Lindsay, as a wedding gift.
John Lindsay owned the Crescent Fence Co. at the corner of Dubuque and Clinton streets that was destroyed by fire in 1900. He also owned a feed mill and plumbing shop. The Lindsays moved to Chicago in 1913.
A subsequent owner was Edith Underwood Lake, who converted the house into apartments.
In 2005, the house joined two others in the River City Housing Collective. Members of the collective, who shared living quarters and chores, created 10 bedrooms in the Lindsay-Lake House during renovation. Housing cooperative residents ran the house by consensus and shared duties in exchange for lower rent.
When the collective acquired the house, members invited Breathed to name it. A Gazette reporter contacted the cartoonist and reported, “Breathed said in an email exchange with The Gazette he couldn’t think of a better name than the Bloom County House, which is what River City members have been calling it informally.”