To the incomparable Charles Schultz.
The 100th anniversary of the late cartoonist Charles Schulz’s birthday came and went last week without any notice anywhere, that I saw. And so, with thanks to Mark, I pen my own little tribute here to one of the great creative geniuses in American history.
If you were young at any time between 1950 (when Schulz first began publishing his comic strip Peanuts) and 2000, when Schulz died at the age of 77, you grew up in a world in which everyone read the latest Peanuts comic strip (particularly in the US and Canada) as part of their daily newspaper reading ritual.
In that world, Peanuts comic strip panels—carefully cut from the newspaper—adorned refrigerators, bedroom walls, lockers, office bulletin boards, everywhere you went; Peanuts characters adorned T-shirts and lunch boxes; Peanuts references peppered everyday conversations; and Peanuts television specials attracted as many adult viewers as child viewers.
Most remarkably, in that world, Peanuts story lines, themes, and characters resided so deeply in the North American psyche, they had come to serve as crucial cognitive tools for enabling people to experience, make sense of, and communicate about themselves and the world around them.
On that last point, think of how many times you’ve said, or heard someone say, “It’s Lucy with the football”. The reference instantly transmits not just an insight into the true dynamics of a situation, but an insight with powerful emotional valence. In a flash, you think back to all those strips showing Lucy fooling Charlie Brown again…and you re-experience your own past feeling of wanting to believe in something so badly, you’ve forgotten what history has already taught you, and you’ve started to fall prey to the persuasions of someone who just won’t deliver in the end. Think of Lucy holding that football, and you inevitably start to wonder if, in this case, you’ve turned into Charlie Brown. It’s a reality check.
That it surely is. Tal goes on from there to, as he puts it, “touch on a few deeper issues,” in his usual erudite and adroit fashion. To wit:
People naturally tend to think of earlier generations as somewhat benighted compared to us in our present age. We assume those before us didn’t have the awareness we have, or the depth, sophistication, or imagination. And certainly, we might be tempted to imagine that about an era in which “The Andy Griffith Show”, “Gilligan’s Island”, and “My Three Sons” were the biggest shows going, as opposed to, say, “Narcos”, or whatever the latest serial killer series Netflix is running now. Or where the biggest pop stars were Frankie Valli, Dion, and Patti Page, as opposed to our present collection of convicted felons, prostitutes, drug addicts, pimps, and Satanists.
But Peanuts often went deep. One example is the daring surrealism Schulz inserted into the strip, particularly through the character of Charlie Brown’s beagle, Snoopy.
Sitting alone on top of his doghouse, Snoopy regularly hallucinates himself back in time to World War I. Once there, he often finds himself in air battle as a fighter pilot. In these moments, his doghouse is no longer a doghouse. It is a Sopwith Camel outfitted with Vickers machine guns. His main job is to kill Germans (particularly the flying ace Manfred von Richthofen); but in various sequences, he carries messages through trenches filled with the wounded, gets shot down behind enemy lines, dates local French girls, and laments the deaths of his fallen comrades.
Schulz goes farther. He ends up casting these episodes as perhaps more than hallucinations. In one strip, for example, Charlie Brown stands before his school classroom to read a paper on the flu epidemic of 1918. He then reveals it was actually Snoopy who wrote it, since Snoopy was there throughout the crisis. Snoopy stands next to Charlie Brown in class, dressed in his World War I flying gear. That Schulz never definitively explains what’s going on with the fantasy sequences only heightens our emotional engagement with the sequences.
Bachman’s deft analysis continues from there. Read of it, for It Is Good.