Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Revisiting "Peanuts"

An essay written for Springhouse magazine.

When I was growing up in Vandalia, Illinois, a small drugstore operated on the north side of Gallatin Street around the corner from Fourth, near (or next door to) the Hotel Evans. I was about eight years old—the mid 1960s—and I was shopping downtown with my mother and grandmother and perhaps some of my great-aunts. In the back of the store was a rack of paperback books, and I spotted a collection of Peanuts strips. It was called What Next, Charlie Brown? published by Fawcett Crest in 1965 for 40 cents.

Mom purchased it for me (she expressed mild concern about its cost), and I still have it, along with other collections published in the mid and late Sixties. Several were published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston—You Can’t Win, Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Come Home, The Unsinkable Charlie Brown, and so on. (I found a website about this series: http://www.tonystrading.co.uk/galleries/comicstrips/peanuts-original.htm. ) Other books excerpted the Holt, Rinehart books and were published by Fawcett Crest—Fun With Peanuts, Very Funny, Charlie Brown, You Can’t Win Them All, Charlie Brown, etc.

I dearly loved these books! I liked the strip because its dry humor and the characters were all kids. The stories had the appeal of small, friendship adventures. Although the strip’s landscapes were simply rendered (Charles Schulz himself had no special notion where the kids lived), the town looked neat and neighborhoods pleasant, with good sidewalks, fences, and yards. Stores were close enough for little kids to walk to town for comics and candy. One of the Peanuts stores reminded me a little of the old Capp’s Drugs in Vandalia.

I love music and, honestly, one early influence was Schroeder, the character who plays beautiful classical music on a toy piano with the black keys painted on. (Apparently that's his first name but his last name is never mentioned.) I became a nine-year-old kid who wanted to know about music and composers, especially Beethoven. At the time, the theme to the NBC evening news---the Huntley-Brinkley Report----was the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which I loved. So that was serendipitous. I told my third-grade teacher that I liked Beethoven and Chopin and didn’t understand why she chuckled when I pronounced the second name “Choppin’”. My poor mother signed me up for piano lessons, which I hated. I would’ve preferred a more spontaneous mastery like Schroeder’s, not the week-after-week practicing of simple pieces in the John Thompson piano books.

If I remember correctly, Peanuts appeared in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat during this time frame. My parents subscribed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but they also purchased the weekend edition of “the Globe.” I loved to read the two pages of comics in the Features section of the Post—strips like Ponytail, Belvedere, Andy Capp, They’ll Do It Every Time, and others—but the weekend Globe had other favorites like Dick Tracy (during its “space period” when Tracy regularly journeyed to the moon), Freddie, and Peanuts.

My enjoyment of Peanuts lasted a few years during the late 1960s period when the strip reached a peak of popularity. Mom and Dad, always supportive of my interests, bought me a few classical records, the Royal Guardsmen albums about Snoopy and the Red Baron, and also Robert Short’s book The Gospel according to Peanuts, plus some bobble-head figures of Schroeder, Linus, and Pig-Pen. I even looked for books about World War I aviation and the historical Red Baron. (I especially liked Floyd Gibbon's 1927 book The Red Knight of Germany and P.J. Carisella's Who Killed the Red Baron, 1969.)

Like most kids, I had several “series” of hobbies that lasted a while then petered out. I wasn’t too interested in Peanuts after I was thirteen or so. I missed all the television specials except for the classic Christmas and Halloween shows, and I read the strip more sporadically.

But the happy childhood memories remained. In 2004, the publishing company Fantagraphics began a series of the complete run of Peanuts. So far, several volumes have appeared, at a rate of two a year, and each book contains two years of strips. Eventually twenty-five volumes will contain the 17,897 strips from the 49-year run, all written and drawn by Schulz himself without assistants. (Some long running strips, like the 79-year-old Blondie and the 91-year-old Gasoline Alley, have had succeeding artists, and some strips' creators, like Al Capp of Li'l Abner, had assistant artists.) I’ve been purchasing these Peanuts books as they’re published and I’ve enjoyed rediscovering the comic. If my dad were still alive, I’d buy him his own copies.

As many fans know, Charles Schulz began a single-panel cartoon Li’l Folks which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. Soon the cartoon developed into a four-panel strip distributed by United Feature Syndicate and first appeared, in only seven newspapers, on October 2, 1950. Schulz never liked the syndicate’s new name for the strip, Peanuts, which alluded to Howdy Doody’s “Peanut Gallery” but which, he thought, trivialized the strip. Schulz also drew a cartoon about churchgoing teenagers, called Young Pillars, during the 1950s and 1960s, a sport-related cartoon called It’s Only a Game in 1957-1959, and he also illustrated Art Linkletter’s 1957 anthology of his show Kids Say the Darndest Things. Of course, the Peanuts strip also spun off into several television shows and the characters were used in commercials for MetLife®, Dolly Madison®, and other products. Schulz died on Feb. 12, 2000, the night before the very last strip appeared. While writing this essay, I found a website with enjoyable information about the strip: http://www.peanutscollectorclub.com/peantfaq.txt.

The melancholy and “edgy” qualities of the strip eluded me as a little kid. It shouldn’t have eluded me; I was a picked-on and laughed-at kid in junior high, very Charlie-Brownish. The very first Peanuts, October 2, 1950, has two not-yet-named children (Shermy and Patty) sitting on the steps as a smiling Charlie Brown (in a plain tee shirt without the zigzag pattern) walks by. In the first three panels, Shermy says, “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown!”… “Good ol’ Charlie Brown, yes, sir!” … “Good ol’ Charlie Brown”… In the last panel, after Charlie has walked on, Shermy looks sour and says, “How I hate him.”

Wow! That’s harsh! In the next strip, Patty gives Charlie Brown a black eye. Snoopy appears in the third strip, when Patty pours water on his head while watering a plant. When I teach 1960s history, I tell my students they should watch Dr. Strangelove if they want to see a hilarious movie about nuclear war. Peanuts achieves a similarly difficult feat: it’s a comic strip filled with meanness and cruelty and yet is funny and sympathetic rather than sadistic. (Writers have placed Peanuts within that cultural period of alienation and social disaffection that, for instance, also inspired the Beat poets and On the Road.) There isn’t a stereotypical bully in Peanuts, like Moe in Calvin and Hobbes. All the characters show some edge. Interestingly, the girls—Lucy, Patty, and Violet—are the harshest to Charlie Brown; in one strip, Violet and Patty absolutely tell Charlie off and then comment how strange that they rarely see him smile.(Have you ever been treated very harshly and then the same people criticize you for your hurt feelings? You can chuckle at Charlie Brown’s predicament!)

By reading the strips in chronological order, one can enjoy the development of style and the evolution of character’s personalities. Charlie Brown, Patty, Shermy, and Snoopy comprise the first cast of the earliest strips, followed by Violet on February 7, 1951, and Schroeder on May 30, 1951. Not until September 24, 1951 does Schroeder acquire his toy piano. Lucy is introduced as a bug-eyed, out-of-it toddler—bossy but not yet crabby—on March 3, 1952. Then Linus appears as a diapered baby (propped up by boards so he won’t fall sideways) in September 19, 1952, and the siblings quickly become dominant characters, while Shermy, Patty, and Violet join the supporting cast and, eventually, appear no longer. In the beginning, Charlie Brown is as much of a mean little mischief-maker as the other characters, although as early as the April 5, 1952 strip, he declares “nobody loves me” as he walks into the wind.

Charlie Brown’s interest in baseball develops later in the 1950s; early in the strip, you find him and Shermy playing a lot of golf! In fact, in three early Sunday comics (May 16, 23, 30, 1954) Charlie Brown and Lucy play in a golf tournament amid groups of adults. Grown-ups, of course, never appear in Peanuts, and so how disconcerting to see them (drawn much more realistically than the kids) in these three strips. Not only that, Charlie is a coach and mentor for Lucy! Schulz admitted that cartoonists try things in strips that turn out to be mistakes.

A few characters who appeared in early strips didn’t “take.” Charlotte Braun appeared in only ten strips in 1954 and 1955, as a loud-talking counterpart to Charlie Brown. Pig-Pen, introduced in a Lord of the Flies parody strip in 1954, is a one-joke character like Charlotte but somehow he endured in the supporting cast; his dirtiness had more comic potential. A little boy named 5 was featured in 1963 and occasionally thereafter (his father hated how people are numbered with zip codes and the like so, in a self-defeating protest, he named his kids 3, 4, and 5). Frieda, a naturally-curly-haired character introduced in 1961, had a cat named Faron, after the singer Faron Young, but neither girl nor cat endured many years.

Other, later characters did. Sally Brown debuted in 1959, Peppermint Patty in 1966, and Rerun in 1978. Controversially for the time, Schulz introduced an African-American character, Franklin, in 1968. When the Fantagraphics series enters the 1970s and beyond, I’ll be pretty much reading the strips for the first time.

One of the introduction writers for the book series notes that Charlie Brown never cries. I found only one time, the Sunday, March 30, 1952 strip, when still-teething Lucy chewed up and ruined his record collection. You’re surprised to see him cry. Like the visible adults in the golf tournament strips, this is something that just doesn’t happen in Peanuts. Charlie Brown loses and is picked on and becomes discouraged. But, Sisyphus-like, Charlie keeps doing, keeps trying again. He doesn’t break and he never retaliates.

Do you think Charlie Brown and the eternally cruel Lucy are a little depressing, if you think of them in isolation from the other characters? I actually prefer the very early strips of Charlie Brown where he displays not only endurance but some edge. I want Charlie to forget about the unattainable Little Red Haired Girl and enjoy the attention of Peppermint Patty; I want him to scold Lucy (as Schroeder regularly does) and never fall for that football trick again. Fortunately Charlie and Lucy have plenty of contrast, for instance, with Linus’ philosophical attitude and Snoopy’s joie de vivre. (Some years, in fact, Snoopy is the strip’s dominant character.)

But we do identify Charlie Brown’s failures. All of us have goals we can’t quite attain, insecurities which have no half-life, sources of discouragement that we can’t rationalize away, people who bring us down, and reasons we lie awake at night. It’s amazing that Schulz was able to express these emotions and experiences in a way that is, indeed, funny and recognizable rather than maudlin and depressing. According to Forbes, Schulz was the third-highest paid deceased artist in 2007, behind Elvis and John Lennon, with an income of $35 million. Obviously many people still love the strip and the characters!

I haven’t read the recent biography of Charles Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis (Harper Collins, 2007), but I watched the American Masters feature about the cartoonist on PBS. Schulz suffered with feelings of depression and failure all his life. He nursed grudges and slights for decades, and yet his life also had wonderful times and opportunities. Apparently his ambivalent relationship with his first wife is reflected in the exchanges between artist Schroeder and pushy, practical Lucy. Schulz was a humble and generous person. He downplayed his wealth and accomplishments and wrote hand-written notes of encouragement to younger cartoonists who sent him letters. The rich imaginative life that we find in Snoopy must’ve been Schulz’s too, considering the feat of 18,000 comic strips.

I still like the strips that feature Schroeder, his devotion which, unlike Charlie’s ball playing, results in skill. Those arcane notations that appeared above his toy piano intrigued me when I was a little kid and opened for me a world of music. How did he play so well? How, for that matter, did someone draw an endearing comic strip, which people still love to read, for nearly fifty years?

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