Against Snoopy

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



But someone
has to point out that the farewells to "Peanuts" are long overdue.
True, "Peanuts" actually once was the great comic strip that people
say it is. Outside of Bill Watterson’s



"Calvin
and Hobbes," never have the funnies seen such a combination of graceful
draftsmanship, interpersonal depth and intellectual subtlety as Charles Schulz’s
"Peanuts" in its heyday. Unfortunately, that heyday lasted for only
about 15 years between the late 1950s and the early 1970s. After that, "Peanuts"
declined precipitously, and today it is unreadable pap. No one whose acquaintance
with "Peanuts" starts in the last two decades could imagine that the
claims being made for Schulz–by Garry Trudeau, Watterson and


others–are
anything but phony-gracious valedictory boilerplate. In fact, no one under the
age of 30 or 35 reads "Peanuts" at all. Why should they? To convey
what is so magnificent about Schulz’s achievement, it’s necessary
to look at just where his comic strip went so catastrophically wrong.


"When
I was small," Charles Schulz once said of his upbringing in Minnesota,
"I believed that my face was so bland that people would not recognize me
if they saw me someplace other than where they normally would. I was sincerely
surprised if I happened to be in the downtown area of Saint Paul, shopping with
my mother, and we would bump into a fellow student at school, or a teacher,
and they recognized me." Out of this sense of anonymous loserhood grew
Charlie Brown, one of the great American archetypes.


Charlie
Brown is caught in a bind, because his sense of his own worthlessness is also
the source of most of his virtues. Of his worthlessness he’s fully convinced.
("They say that opposites attract…," he says of the Little Red-Headed
Girl whom he can never work up the courage to meet. "She’s really
something and I’m really nothing… How opposite can you get?") But
Charlie Brown’s low estimation of himself means a high estimation of others.
The tremendous 1959 strip in which he learns on the phone that his baby sister
Sally has been born ("A BABY SISTER? I’M A FATHER! I MEAN MY DAD’S
A FATHER! I’M A BROTHER! I HAVE A BABY SISTER!! I’M A BROTHER!")
shows that Charlie Brown worships his family and his friends. He’s so empathetic
that his favorite big-league ballplayer is not Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle
but the bench-warmer Joe Shlabotnik. When Linus gives him a gripping recap of
a football game in which a team facing a six-point deficit scored a spectacular
touchdown with three seconds left, Charlie Brown asks only, "How did the
other team feel?" He is a deeply good person.


What makes
Charlie Brown such a rich character is that he’s not purely a loser. The
self-loathing that causes him so much anguish is decidedly not self-effacement.
Charlie Brown is optimistic enough to think he can earn a sense of self-worth,
and his willingness to do so by exposing himself to fresh humiliations is the
dramatic engine that drives the strip. The greatest of Charlie Brown’s
virtues is his resilience, which is to say his courage. Charlie Brown is ambitious.
He manages the baseball team. He’s the pitcher, not a scrub. He
may be a loser, but he’s, strangely, a leader at the same time. This makes
his mood swings truly bipolar in their magnificence: he vacillates not between
being kinda happy and kinda unhappy, but between being a "hero" and
being a "goat." (He confides to Lucy that he fantasizes about people
calling him "Flash.") A hair’s breadth separates the state of
grace from the state of ostracism and Charlie Brown always winds up on the wrong
side of that hair’s breadth. He drops a pop-up to cost his team its only
win of the season. He gets thrown out trying to steal home in the bottom of
the ninth. But at least he’s in the arena.


In the arena
against Lucy. Schulz once said that Lucy "almost immediately developed
her fussbudget personality." That only shows that artists are not always
the best judges of what they’ve wrought, for Lucy is no "fussbudget."
She’s an American nightmare, a combination of zero brains, infinite appetites
and infinite self-esteem, who is (for that reason) able to run roughshod over
all her playmates. At her best, she is the most terrifying character in the
history of comics. She is like the godless ones of Psalms 73: 5-6,9: "They
are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men./Therefore
pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment…
They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the
earth." It is in the Psalms that Lucy’s little brother Linus, unsurprisingly,
takes frequent refuge.


Lucy is
most frightening through Linus’ eyes, as when she washes her hands with
a soap carving of a three-masted schooner that Linus has been working on for
weeks. Lucy is a moron, of course, and an aggressive, insistent one. Walking
around in the cold with Linus, she says, "This is the healthiest time of
the year. You know why? Because there’s more calcium in the air this time
of year, that’s why!" Linus, meanwhile, is both the smartest character
in the strip and its most naive. He hopes that working a problem through mentally–or
theologically–will offer him some protection.


Lucy associates
his thinking with "weakness," and in this she is right. She exercises
such power over Linus that he is left with nothing of himself, not even his
unquestionable intellectual superiority. Take the strip in which Lucy accuses
Linus of being a "blockhead" for not knowing why farmers bring cows
in from the pasture. "If they leave them out overnight," she explains,
"they get pasteurized." Does Linus protest? No. He says, "I never
realized that. I guess I’d make a lousy farmer." Then Lucy, spouting
psychobabble to camouflage what is mere sadism, hides Linus’ security blanket–in
fact, digs a hole and buries it–to "break him of his dependency."
Linus, quite reasonably, senses that an injustice has been done. In the second-to-last
frame, he tries, in a magnificent plea, to explain why. She looks at him dumbly.
In the last frame, he falls to his knees before her and whimpers. You see this
again and again in "Peanuts": Outrage as the outward face of despair.
In his heart, Linus knows his brains are no more reliable a shield than Charlie
Brown’s goodness.


Around the
central core of Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus, Schulz populated his strip with
excellent, living, breathing minor characters, most of whom have disappeared
over the decades. There was Violet, a kind of mild-mannered snob, who did to
Charlie Brown with mere social haughtiness what Lucy did out of pure malice.
Charlie Brown knocks on Violet’s door and asks: "Shovel your walk?"



Violet,
disgusted: "You?"


Charlie
Brown: "I never know how to answer those one-word questions."



In general,
Violet provided excellent lessons about the mysteries of status, of why some
children are popular and some not:



Violet:
"Sometimes I get so mad at you…you…you…you…you ol’ Charlie
Brown!!!" Pause.


Charlie
Brown, sincerely hurt: "What an insult!"



There was
Frieda, a fetching, kind and charming girl, who throws her deeper goodness away
because she wants to be admired for such superficialities as "being a good
conversationalist": "I have naturally curly hair," she says.
"Do you feel that spring will be here soon? I belong to twelve record clubs!
Now that we’re getting a good picture on our TV, the programs are lousy."
("She’s a friend of mine," Linus whispers to Lucy when they meet.
"Please don’t slug her.") It was, in its little kid’s way,
a society as complete and as dangerous as Balzac’s.


And then
there was that other minor character in the Golden Age: Charlie Brown’s
dog, Snoopy.


Of Snoopy,
Schulz said recently: "I have to be careful not to let the ubiquitous beagle
run away with the strip." He’s kidding himself. In fact, Snoopy ran
away with the strip decades ago. The unleashing of Snoopy was a gradual thing,
beginning with his emergence from his doghouse in 1960 and accelerating as he
developed a fantasy life throughout the decade. Snoopy proved a calamitous artistic
misjudgment through which the most intelligent comic strip the world had ever
seen was transformed, by the late 1970s, into a thoroughly third-rate feature.


Snoopy was
never a full participant in the tangle of relationships that drove "Peanuts"
in its Golden Age. He couldn’t be: he doesn’t talk (all his words
appear in "thought bubbles"), and therefore he doesn’t interact.
He’s there to be looked at. He appeals to readers through the many variations
Schulz can play on Samuel Johnson’s quip: "Sir, a woman’s preaching
is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you
are surprised to find it done at all." Once Snoopy stood on his hinder
legs, "Peanuts" got handed over to this lower order of humor. Thus
we get Snoopy standing against a lamppost for three frames until Linus walks
up in the fourth frame and says, "The worst thing a person can do is waste
his life hanging around street corners." Imagine a dog playing tennis or
golf! Imagine a dog reading a novel and saying, "There’s no way in
the world that Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky could ever have been happy."


If you’ll
settle for that, there’s no end to the variations you can play on an Isn’t-That-Cute?
theme. In 1971, Snoopy dressed from time to time in a turtleneck and shades
and called himself "Joe Cool." A decade later, he was dressed in horn-rim
glasses and calling himself "Joe Preppy." A decade later still, and
Snoopy was hanging from his doghouse and saying, "Joe Bungee." When
Linus asks Snoopy if the "anti-cat stories" he’s writing will
get made into a television series, Snoopy replies, in a thought bubble, "I
expect to hear from all three networks…CBS, NBC and ABC… Columbia Beagle
System, National Beagle Company, and the American Beagle Company!" As such
cartoons took up more and more of Schulz’s energy, a strip that had been
beloved for its brilliance rapidly became a showcase for the same kind of intellectual
sludge you could find in "Garfield" or "The Family Circus."


Granted,
Schulz had a weakness for this kind of humor much of his career. Pigpen with
his cloud of dust and (to a lesser extent) Schroeder with his piano failed to
come alive, getting trundled out only as an excuse for sight gags: human Snoopys.
But Snoopy was way too shallow for the strip as it developed in the 1960s,
and the strips in which he was featured were anomalies. He could dance through
an entire four frame weekly strip and conclude with the punchline (or what passed
for a punchline), "I’m outrageously happy in my stupidity." By
the 1970s, Schulz had him dance through a whole Sunday strip before saying,
"Feelin’ groovy."


It’s
tough to fix the exact date when Snoopy went from being the strip’s besetting
artistic weakness to ruining it altogether. Funny little birds had been fluttering
around Snoopy’s doghouse for years, but in 1970, one of them stayed, and
got named Woodstock. Whereas Snoopy didn’t talk, Woodstock didn’t
even think–he communicated by little chicken scratches. What does one make
of:


1. Woodstock:
"|||||."



Snoopy:
"Woodstock feels that eating bread crumbs is degrading."



Or:


2. Woodstock:
"||||."



Pause.


Woodstock:
"||||."


Snoopy "Sorry,
the punchline went right over my head."



Or:


3. Woodstock:
"|||||||."



Woodstock:
"|||||||."


Snoopy:
"Knock it off and go to sleep."



Woodstock:
"
Sigh."


Another
key date in the wrecking of "Peanuts" was 1975: that’s when Snoopy’s
desert brother Spike appeared, soon to be joined by fellow-siblings Andy and
Olaf. "Sometimes I get lonely," Spike thinks. "Sometimes I wish
I had someone to snuggle up to… I sure can’t snuggle up to a cactus."
None of the three ever produced an insight above the caliber of that produced
by the two little naked kids in that "Love Is…" strip. " As
Woodstock and Snoopy’s brothers moved to occupy all the space that wasn’t
already occupied by Snoopy, "Peanuts" turned into just another of
those dime-a-dozen, I-wuv-my-widdoo-fwend! features, a kind of daily
pornography of sentimentalism.


"I
like to have Charlie Brown eventually be the focal point of almost every story,"
wrote Schulz earlier this year in Peanuts: A Golden Celebration. What
comic strip can he have been thinking of? Because not for decades had Charlie
Brown–on the increasingly rare occasions when he even appeared–been
anything but wholly subordinate to Snoopy’s cuteness:



Charlie
Brown: "What would you say if I told you I was going to devote the rest
of my life to making you happy?… We’ll go for long walks in the woods
and romp around in the yard. You’ll sit in my lap and I’ll scratch
your ears and we’ll watch TV and I’ll give you cookies."


Snoopy:
"What kind of cookies?"



Everything
goes back to Snoopy. Schulz had lost interest in Charlie Brown, describing him
as a caricature. "I used to say that he tried too hard," Schulz remembers,
"and that he wanted everyone to like him too much, but I’ve grown
away from that." As he did, he grew away from Charlie Brown, as well. And
away from an understanding that Art is about people, not dogs. And away
from everything that made the strip, in its finest years, a masterpiece.


If you read
"Peanuts" from the Golden Age–roughly 1955-1970–it is consistently
heartbreaking like a dirge is heartbreaking and funny like a Kingsley Amis novel
is funny. But you can read a more recent "Peanuts" collection, page
after hackneyed page, without learning a thing or cracking a smile. In explaining
what went wrong, a lot of people will claim that Schulz merely sold out. It
was just as the strip started to get really lame, after all, that Snoopy’s
image began to be reproduced on coffee mugs, tv ads, sweatshirts, lunchboxes
and bumperstickers with a frequency that would have made Mao jealous, and Schulz’s
income is estimated at $60 million a year.


It could
also be that Schulz’s own kids offered him much of his material, and that
when they moved out, he dried up. It’s tempting to think this, especially
since Schulz says he modeled Schroeder’s classical shtick on his own daughter,
for whom he’d bought a piano, and Snoopy’s Red Baron routine on a
game he played with his own son. One of the bright spots in the strip the last
two years has been Rerun, Lucy and Linus’ little brother, who blossomed
into an old-style "Peanuts" character after 25 years of neglect; Schulz
says he learned what to do with him by watching his own grandchildren.


Others will
say "Peanuts" was a faithful representation of the society it arose
from, and chalk its decline up to the zeitgeist. Such critics would see Schulz
as another star in that well-meaning galaxy of 1950s bien pensants–the
Eleanor Roosevelt/

Ralph Bunche/Dr. Spock/Dag Hammarskjold/Paul Tillich/Adlai Stevenson/Dr. Seuss
galaxy–who were perfectly reasonable on their own terms, but susceptible
to getting shoved in any direction left-wing radicalism wanted to push them.
"Vital center" liberalism, in other words, which ultimately lacks
the courage of its convictions and becomes less vital and less centrist as the
years pass. Look at feminism. In 1976, the "women’s history"
fad is funny in Schulz’s hands, as Lucy gives a peroration on her grandmother,
who during World War II "wrote letters to seventeen servicemen!" By
1991, it’s as humorless as feminism itself, with Lucy taunting Linus that
the Great Pumpkin might be a woman. ("Never even occurred to you, did it?")
While his comic strip never became sexy in the 1970s, it did partake
of that decade’s lazy, feelin’-groovy, just-do-it anti-intellectualism–its
most radical form of hedonism, in fact.


But all
of these explanations are too complicated. What happened was even more unfortunate:
that an artist of towering abilities made an esthetic misjudgment that alienated
him forever from his real sources of inspiration and all his deepest gifts.
For the first half of its existence, "Peanuts" had all the subtlety
and scope of a really good novel; for the last half, it has had all the subtlety
and scope of a cat calendar. You can say of Schulz’s genius what Sally,
Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Franklin said of their homework on countless occasions
through the decades: His Dog Ate It.


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