Now that he’s a parent, a designer reflects on the ultimate sacrifice


If you are looking for a Mother’s Day card this week, you will find a lot that expresses love and appreciation for everything mom does. But you probably won’t find one that says, “Thank you for being prepared to die for me.”

Yet this ultimate self-sacrificing instinct is precisely what sets mothers and fathers apart not only from others, but also from themselves, says cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, who focuses on this deep truth in his clever new book for children, “Mars Needs Moms!” (Philomel; 40 pages; $ 16.99; ages 4-8).

Breathed, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartoon in 1987 for his Bloom County comic and brought back the beloved penguin from that strip to star in his own Opus Sunday comic in 2003, has written six picture books. precedents for children. But his new one is the first since he became a parent. Breathed (pronounced BREATH-ed), who turns 50 in June, and his wife are raising two children, Sophie, 7, and Milo, 5, in upscale Montecito, next to Santa Barbara.

His inspiration for “Mars Needs Moms!” came from a time when he was coaching his older child on a softball field, and his youngest child, then 4 years old, walked away and came very close to the train tracks bordering the field of game, and he rushed to catch it.

At the time, “I imagined him on the tracks and a train was coming, and I running on the tracks and pushing the kid while I was being run over,” he said over the phone. “And it occurred to me that for the first time in my life this scenario would have happened without thinking. I would have gone to my death on purpose to push my child out of the way of the train. It really is. only when you a parent that notion suddenly comes to mind. ”

He found it “so powerful” and “so original in my life, since I was over 40 when I had my child,” that he decided to explore it in a children’s book. . One aspect that intrigued him is that a child is too young to appreciate his parents’ level of engagement.

“And as a satirist, I thought it was pretty funny, that I was raising this kid, and in the midst of her ceiling broccoli crisis, she should thank me for the fact that, ‘I’m ready to die for you, awkward kid. You should be out washing my car as a thank you for that. ”

Like “Mars needs moms!” opens, a little boy, Milo (like the character in Bloom Country and the son of Breathed, he is named after the protagonist of “The Phantom Tollbooth”) wonders, “What’s wrong? so special with moms? ” For him, they are just “broccoli bullies” who harass and scold.

Milo gets his answer after Martians descend to Earth and kidnap his mother. Martians don’t have mothers because they turn out to be out of the ground like potatoes. After observing the Moms of Earth through their telescopes, the Martians decided that they too needed Moms to go to football and ballet, to play dates, to pizza and to the parks, and to “pack lunches and heal sores”.

When her mother is caught in the night by the Martians, Milo secretly follows her and pulls up to their spaceship. After landing on the Red Planet, he stumbles, shatters his space helmet, and begins to choke in the deadly atmosphere of Mars. His mother rushes to his aid, gives him his helmet, then collapses. Suddenly Milo realizes the importance of what she has done. (Don’t worry, kids, the Martians are just as emotional and get him a new helmet before it’s too late.)

25-year-old Breathed editor Little Brown wanted him to change the story so that she just fell ill for the little boy, rather than being ready to die for him. But the author refused, saying it would “water down the point”, and went to another publisher, Philomel. Breathed knew this element could cause problems, but says he, his editor, and his publisher were all caught off guard by some of what he calls “big” critics who saw the book as anti-feminist, including that of Publisher’s Weekly who took him to task for “the backward equation of women and domesticity.”

“I stung a delicate vein that runs through our culture right now like a cholera germ, and it’s paternal and especially maternal guilt about the sacrifice, and what sacrifice is allowed, and what sacrifice is appropriate for them, and how much guilt should they have when it doesn’t meet other people’s expectations.… And it directly touches the current mom wars… in our culture.

Breathed grew up in Los Angeles then moved to Texas. He was raised by a stay-at-home mom who he said “waited patiently” to divorce his father until Breathed was 17.

“I was brought up with a more laissez-faire attitude,” he says. “I was loved, but as my mom explains now, kids weren’t bothered in the 1950s like they are today. And it’s true. I had to become a parent to understand that even my mom , who looked like she had plenty of other priorities, would indeed have jumped in front of a train to push me aside. It just wasn’t a choice. For most parents, it doesn’t matter. how egocentric they are, luckily nature has kind of taken care of this gene. ”

Breathed is no stranger to controversy. In his Bloom County, Outland and Opus comics, he has mixed searing social and political commentary with the wacky silliness of his human and animal characters, thereby appealing to children and adults alike. In a recent Opus comic, he was able to usurp the suggestion that presidential candidate Barack Obama is “not black enough” by pointing out that Opus is “51% black”.

“When I started in the ’80s,” says Breathed, “there was no Jon Stewart, there was no Web, there was no real cable TV. Tonight, the monologue from Johnny Carson’s show. That was about it, and Doonesbury. We had it all alone. I couldn’t start Bloom County now. He would disappear amid the foreground din of parodies and comedic comments, and the state of the newspapers. It just wouldn’t work. It was definitely a feature for the time. ”

Around this time, he inked and colored the tapes by hand and had to sue the Fed-Ex trucks to get them to the union on time. Now he draws the numbers on a board, scans them into the computer, adds type for dialogue (he no longer draws letters by hand) and color, and sends cartoons with a single click.

He says his previous children’s books were airbrushed because he’s “not a painter. And the tool you turn to when you don’t really know how to paint is the airbrush, which doesn’t. is a big cheat tool …. Ironically, the only type of paint a computer can perfectly mimic is airbrush. And that’s why it was so easy to switch to computers. … My art has not changed. But what has changed is that I can do a book in three months now … whereas before it took me a year to paint it. And that means I can doing three books instead of one, and I have ideas piling up behind me like a traffic jam.The digital world was an epiphany in my career.

“The downside is that you don’t have any original drawings left. So when Ronald Reagan calls, like he did in 1983, and asks for the original drawing, this time I won’t be able to get it. send.”

So far, George W. Bush has asked for nothing.

Breathed, who went to the University of Texas at Austin and lived in that state for a total of eight years, laughed at the suggestion that this should give him special insight into the mind of our president. But he admits that he understands the world where Bush came from.

“I don’t think he could have been a governor of any state other than Texas, as he could have sat on his desk, put his boots on the desk and run it with the casualness that he did, and coming out of Texas feeling like he’s now ready to rule the free world. Texas has a way of thinking that he’s a little taller than his panties, and that it’s a separate country … . If we were to have George Bush from a particular state, what other state would it be than the country of Texas? ”

Berkeley Breathed: 11 a.m. Saturday at Books Inc., 1344 Park St., Alameda, (510) 522-2226,

. 4 p.m. Saturday at Kepler, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, (650) 324-4321,


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