ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ Cartoonist Berke Breathed says it's a rumor ... sort of.

He never - well, almost never - talks about upcoming episodes of his comic strip ''Bloom County.'' But one of the characters will - ah, might - suffer an injury similar to the one that landed Breathed in an Albuquerque hospital for four weeks and put his strip into reruns for nearly two months.

''I would be willing to say there's a possibility one of the characters gets a broken back by taking a picture of Sean Penn,'' Breathed says. ''That isn't confirmed but it could be.''

After seven weeks of reruns while its creator recovered from a fractured spine, the nationally syndicated ''Bloom County'' resumed publication of new strips Monday in roughly 700 newspapers.

On Tuesday, as characters began to recap what had happened in ''Bloom County'' before Breathed's injury, readers saw Opus, the rotund, big-nosed penguin, ranting about being stalked by camera-shy actor Sean Penn, husband of singer-actress Madonna.

Opus, in summarizing the sort of plot the strip ''should'' have, said: ''I, after having an affair with Madonna, am stalked by a rabid Sean Penn. Meanwhile, Steve Dallas is spotted playing leap-frog with a scantily clad Imelda Marcos.''

The stage isn't set, exactly, but Steve Dallas, the strip's womanizing lawyer, will - well, probably will - suffer a broken back by colliding with Penn.

It's an injury the cartoonist knows a lot about.

Breathed, 28, broke his back on Jan. 22 when the ultra-light airplane he was piloting crashed north of Albuquerque on the Sandia Pueblo Indian Reservation.

''I ran out of gas and I was flying too low,'' said Breathed. ''And I came close to losing my legs in the sense that I wouldn't have been able to use them. I came within two millimeters of cutting my (spinal) cord.''

The day after the accident, Breathed underwent surgery to have rods inserted in his lower back to stabilize his spine. His hospital stay was extended when doctors discovered blood clots had developed in his lungs.

The two rods will be taken out in about eight months, he said, and he will wear a back brace for a year.

Now Breathed can't ride horses or motorcycles or do what he calls ''assertive things,'' but he's been speed boating, camping and traveling.

And working. Breathed said he began writing and drawing the minute he got home from the hospital.

Breathed said the Washington Post Writers Group ordered reruns of the comic strip because he was not able to work while he was hospitalized.

''If I'd have had my druthers, I would have had them pull it and reinstate it,'' he said. ''But the newspaper business is too competitive. They could put something else in and decide not to take me back. Besides, it keeps making money and keeps the syndicate happy.''