When Charles Schulz announced that he was retiring Peanuts after almost 50 years, the tone of the media reportage was as if a distinguished and now-doddering senator had shuffled out of his chambers for the last time; i.e. a respectful salute to the end of an institution. The accounts usually mentioned Lucy pulling away the football, Charlie Brown on the pitcher’s mound, Snoopy fighting the Red Baron; in short, a jolly massaging of our collective pop memory. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that Peanuts’ longevity worked against it: to wit, its last decade didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It was droll at best, more often baffling. Perhaps Schulz’s hard-won liberation from the syndicate-imposed four-square panel format of the classic strips, a selling point to fit Peanuts into more newspaper layouts, was a misfortune, not an inspiration. Easier for the feature writer, then, to craft a warm and fuzzy reminiscence than investigate the substance of the strip at its peak. Still, I was a little disappointed in the shallowness of the press coverage of the departure of one of the greatest comic strips this country has produced. I was to come to learn that personal milestones of pop culture alienation, a staple of aging in America, come without warning.
As a child, I spent hours poring over Peanuts collections, so reading the last strip impelled me to go to the library and revisit the “gang” of my youth. I was shocked and bereaved when the librarian searched the catalog and informed me that there were no works by Schulz on the shelves. “Are there any cartoon books at all?” I asked, stricken. I was duly directed to aisle 12 where I found the cartoon enclave: three collections of Bloom County, two of The Far Side, one of Dilbert, two MAD and New Yorker treasuries, and other, oddball selections such as Ben Katchor’s Jew of New York, Bill Griffith’s From A to Zippy, Frederick Schodt’s The World of Japanese Comics, and a Tales from the Crypt treasury, the latter two containing sex and violence galore. As a salve to my memories I took out a book with the authoritative title of The Great American Comic Strip by Judith O’Sullivan, only to find that Peanuts was barely mentioned and then characterized by its “gentle whimsy.”
The facile press coverage, the denuded library shelves, and the cursory treatment of Peanuts in the comic history book, while all trivial, suggest to me that Peanuts fans of the future will reap a bitter harvest. Peanuts is a cultural touchstone so ubiquitous that the literati understandably would rather examine lesser-known works. But now that it is gone, it seems doomed to the same obscurity of other once-popular comics. Perhaps due to their generally long runs and ephemeral habitat, classic comic strips are particularly vulnerable to fading out of the public mind, far more so than classic movies or books. The big comic strips of yore no longer resonate within the popular consciousness. Who apart from an academic rag-picker cherishes Pogo or Krazy Kat or Gasoline Alley, even while the movies of that era are still publicly revered on 100-best lists? Even Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, phenomena of their day, are fading into the realm of nostalgia. It’s discouraging to see Calvin psychologically morphing over time into that sneering kid peeing on a logo on windshields across America. (Will people remember Dilbert in 2030?) It is not my purpose to lionize Peanuts or mourn its passing that has already been done in the press valedictories-but to protest the wrongness of Peanuts being shut up in the attic with other superannuated bellwethers of pop culture. Unlike Dennis the Menace or Family Circus, other comics page Methuselahs, Peanuts at its peak (loosely, 1960-1980) constituted an acute examination of the American scene which was surprisingly also embraced by the culture at large.
Rather than salute the strip’s longevity, cultural pundits should examine how a comic strip that consistently conveyed a forlorn and alienated worldview was so unbelievably successful. Apart from the luckless waifs in Jack Chick religious tracts, I can’t think of a comic strip character more continually abused and frightened than Charlie Brown. (As a child, I often had to skip over his more intense humiliations). You don’t have to dwell on Linus’ blanket to realize that classic Peanuts is all about yearning for security, certainty, and acceptance. Everyone celebrates the pulling away of the ol’ football, but no one remembers the scathing discussions between the militant Lucy and the middle-of-the-road “blockhead” Charlie Brown, or the spiritual reveries between C.B. and Linus. How remarkable that cartoon tykes would discuss philosophy and morality, in such a needful and searching way, in the funny pages! Al Capp, Schulz’ colleague and competitor, once parodied this aspect of the strip by redrawing the Peanuts kids as adults, instantly killing the humor. But Capp was on to something. Maybe what made Peanuts effective is that during a period of social turmoil and doubt, the readers of the ‘60s and ‘70s could empathize with a hapless child’s bewilderment at an adversarial world. Of course, a profound work of art or criticism is almost always, among other things, a mirror of its cultural context. (Pauline Kael responded to someone asking her to write her memoirs, “I think I already have.”)
What made Peanuts unusual, and what may make its historical value less apparent, was Schulz’s subtlety in reflecting his times through his art. After the ‘50s, which saw Peanuts rendered in a graceful draftsman’s style, Schulz, along with Johnny Hart of BC and Wizard of ID and Mel Lazarus of Miss Peach and Momma, pioneered sketchy comic strip minimalism. In doing this, he swapped a visual landscape for a psychological one. The blankness of the backgrounds didn’t suggest that the events therein took place in a gag-panel void; rather, they invoked a feeling that there was nowhere to hide. Unlike the frenetic Pogo, which practically demands that today’s reader peruse old newspaper microfilm as a reference aid, the larger culture is so deeply infused in Peanuts that it is almost invisible. This reveals Schulz’s uncanny sensitivity to the culture around him. Rather than just observing or lampooning, Schulz got inside the mind of the times. (When Schulz occasionally loses his subtlety, as when the overtly feminist Lucy harangues the shell-shocked sensitive male Charlie Brown, the anomaly is notable.) But this subtlety, mistaken for shallowness, may cause future readers to unfairly equate Peanuts with bland universality.
The character of Snoopy, mass-marketed to the point of meaninglessness, has a role in obscuring the incisiveness of Peanuts. But he is more complicated than his stuffed animal replicas would suggest. Obviously, Snoopy is irresistible: fun-loving, confident, cute. What is less apparent is that, in the strips at least, he is also spoiled, selfish, a fantasist to the point of derangement, and a hopeless materialist. It is interesting to note how the early manifestations of Snoopy’s shape-shifting are treated satirically (“Here’s Joe Cool hanging out at the dorm,” “the Red Baron quaffs a root beer in a French cafe”).
After a bout of Snoopy’s role-playing, Schulz often had Charlie Brown in the penultimate panel saying, “I wish I had a normal dog” or some variant as a punchline. Snoopy’s also is a compulsive collector. His doghouse defies the laws of physics to contain a pool table, a Van Gogh, a swimming pool-toys of the conspicuous consumer. I believe that Schulz, a social conservative, initially was parodying the impulse towards identity-mongering, fantasy, and acquisitiveness so prevalent in modern American culture. Surely he didn’t intend Snoopy’s declaration, “If it feels good, overdo it!” as a directive. But as often happens, the character took on a life of its own. In his endearing way, Snoopy dodged the emotional turmoil of the Peanuts kids by immersing himself in materialism and self-reinvention, just as many of his readers did. Snoopy helped make these traits, and those of his readers, lovable and acceptable. Schulz’ decision to widely merchandize Snoopy, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the Peanuts gang, created a mind-boggling personal windfall. But this ultimately made Snoopy little more than a non-confrontational standard-bearer for a materialistic, restless culture.
It’s interesting how art can lose its meaning in the face of popular adulation, a process repeated over and over in all creative media. In the case of Peanuts, I fear that the end result will be that its singular achievement, an eerie, witty rendering of the psychological mindset of its time, will be gradually forgotten. Snoopy, having lost his resonance to the culture, will become a denatured pop icon like Mickey Mouse, floating above the Macy’s parade but no longer grounded in social reality.