Tuesday, October 30, 2007

GOOD GRIEF. I recently read John Updike's New Yorker review of David Michaelis' biography of Charles Schulz, and saw the PBS "American Masters" program on Schulz. They both took me aback, though I knew many of the details aforehand.

I was a big fan of "Peanuts" from my earliest days and devoured the Fawcett-Crest paperbacks and (when I learned of their existence) the earlier, large-format Holt, Rinehart, and Winston editions as quickly as I could save up quarters for them. (Oddly, during my juvenile shoplifting phase, I only put "Dennis the Menace" books down my pantsleg; "Peanuts" I perversely insisted on paying for.)

Later, as an adult comics nerd, I got some inside dope on the straight-arrow Minnesotan Schulz. But this added no frissons to my "Peanuts" appreciation. Because the strip was so integral a part of my youthful experience of popular culture, it never struck me as strange that the man who had so radically altered the funnies by minimalizing their artwork (so much so that Chester Gould parodied his strip as "Sawdust," a pile of witty shavings) and by introducing adult neuroses into children (so much so that Al Capp parodied them: "Readers don't want children to talk like children, they want them to talk like little psychiatrists!") was both heavily invested in public demonstrations of his own normalcy, and seriously weird himself. (I should add that the Gould and Capp parodies come from my own memories, not outside sources.)

The recent Schulz examinations made me more attentive to his strangeness, but like any honest history of an artist, they neither reduce nor amplify the glory of the artwork, they just add another perspective from which to appreciate it. That Charlie Brown's romantic foibles echoed Schulz's, and Snoopy's Dionysian period roughly corresponded with his author's, is illuminating but not necessary to their enjoyment. Sparky's (apparently) chaste flirtations with "For Better or For Worse" creator Lynn Johnston as revealed in the PBS interviews suggest wellsprings of sublimation, and his heartbreaking final interview reveals how deeply and painfully he was embedded in the strip and its characters. For those of us who love his work, this adds poignance and resonance to the achievement. But the achievement is all that is left.

And what about that? Schulz was from an early age a comics nerd, but his draughtsmanship was limited. He had to find a mode that accomodated his simple means of expression. There were precedents: obviously he was influenced by Crockett Johnson's "Barnaby" right down to the figure-eight heads of his characters. But he was not cut out for Johnson's kind of whimsy, nor did his mission and era require it.

Despite his midwestern isolation, Schulz must have been sensitive to the postwar zeitgeist and its uncertainty. He must also have been aware of the popular artists that reverberated to it -- jazz players and rock 'n' rollers, filmmakers like Nicholas Ray, writers like James Jones and Norman Mailer. What else could have inspired him to break into the conservative comics world with a strip that began with a cute little kid saying "Good ol' Charlie Brown... how I hate him"? Or that revolved around the universally unloved Charlie Brown, the frankly vicious Lucy Van Pelt, and the emotionally crippled Linus? Few artists in any era are strictly sui generis, and Schulz was sitting atop a mushroom cloud of influences.

"Peanuts" was able to introduce such ideas and characters to the "family" strip (a genre typified by "Skippy," one of Schulz's favorites) for two reasons, one historic, one unique: because comics had always accepted fringe characters (see "Our Boarding House" and "Gasoline Alley"), and because, in a rapidly changing world, unusual ideas would be acceptable if they had a familiar, unthreatening background. Schulz's formless suburb, and his dot-eyed kids, were as neutral as could be.

As the strip progressed and found its groove, Schulz pressed deeper into a strangeness that was both particular to him and attuned to the times. He put parentheses around the kids' eyes to signify preternaturally unchildlike worry. He wrote Pinteresque, non-sequitural stories (Linus: People sure are funny, aren't they, Charlie Brown? Charlie Brown: Yes, they sure are. Linus: And the older they get, the funnier they are. Charlie Brown: "Peculiar" is the word.) He made gags based on the horror of modern life: Linus runs through snowflakes and yells at Charlie Brown, "IT'S HAPPENING, CHARLIE BROWN! IT'S HAPPENING JUST LIKE YOU SAID IT WOULD!" When Charlie Brown says it's snowing, Linus says, "Snow? I thought it was fallout." Careful readers may pause and repeat to themselves: Just like you said it would?)

"Peanuts" would be a perfect hell were its inhabitants not children, and theoretically capable of growing out of their condition. But commerce has played them a trick that would be cruel if they were not fictional. Schulz's ultimate genius was that "Peanuts" could persist over decades without the cumbersome reimaginings that "Little Orphan Annie," "Dick Tracy," "Miz Peach" and other aging strips have found necessary. His children never had to acquire new trappings of childhood, or of adulthood; they are perfect as they are. There's something at work here beyond Schulz's genius, though -- the persistence of something seldom attributed to "Peanuts": the thing called hip.

In 1950, the strip's inaugural year, hipsters called one another "man"; now everyone does. Chuck Berry riffs were sent to the moon, and are now recognizable to every living American. Hip has lost its transience, and so has Charlie Brown. He and the other "Peanuts" characters need not acquire any transient lingo to remain in youthful mode: their ocular parentheses, their curt philosophical exchanges, their unkicked footballs and unremoved security blankets make them as relevant to the terms of youth as they were 57 years ago. They may or may not prove timeless: a few more decades, or a miraculous visit from some guy from the 17th Century, might give us a clue. But "Peanuts" did pick up a little something-something from its birth-pangs at the dawn of the current age of hip, and it seems to be hanging in.

What you might think of this depends on a lot of factors. As a fan of comics, the human spirit, and the arts in general, I say good for Sparky. As to the persistence of hip indicated by my reading of his persistent success, of that I also approve. Let some new comic paradigm find a way to replace the one laid down by "Peanuts." The way is open. Take your shot. Just be aware that there is more to the gig than the momentary wrangling of a trend; you have to identify the zeitgeist and own it. Find what is universal in the Snoopy dance, the World War I Flying Ace, and the Little Red Haired Girl, and you're most of the way there.

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