Peanuts: 'A Great Gift'
Comic strip cartooning requires such a peculiar combination of talents that there are very few people who are ever successful at it. Of those, Charles Schulz is in league all his own. Schulz reconfigured the comic strip landscape and dominated it for the last half of its history. One can scarcely overstate the importance of "Peanuts" to the comics, or overstate its influence on all of us who have followed. By now, "Peanuts" is so thoroughly a part of the popular culture, that one loses sight of how different the strip was from anything else 40 and 50 years ago. We can quantify the strip's success in all its various commercial markets, but the real achievement of the strip lies inside the little boxes of funny pictures Schulz drew every day.
Back when the comics were printed large enough that they could accommodate detailed, elaborate drawings, "Peanuts" was launched with an insultingly tiny format, designed so the panels could be stacked vertically if an editor wanted to run it in a single column. Schulz somehow turned this oppressive space restriction to his advantage and developed a brilliant graphic shorthand and stylistic economy, innovations unrecognizable now that all comics are tiny and Schulz's solutions have been universally imitated. Graphically, the strip is static and spare. Schulz gave up virtually all the "cinematic" devices that create visual drama: there are no fancy perspectives, no interesting croppings, no shadows and lighting effects, no three-dimensional modeling, few props and few settings. Schulz distilled each subject to its barest essence, and drew it straight-on or side view, in simple outlines. But while the simplicity of Schulz's drawings made the strip stand out from the rest, it was the expressiveness within the simplicity that made Schulz's artwork so forceful. Lucy yelling with her head tilted back so her mouth fills her entire face; Linus, horrified, with his hair standing on end; Charlie Brown radiating utter misery with a wiggly, downturned mouth; Snoopy's elastic face pulled up to show large gritted teeth as he fights the Red Baron--these were not just economical drawings, they were funny drawings. More yet, they were beautiful. Drawn with a crow quill-type pen dipped in ink, Schulz's linework had character in its quirky velocity and pressure, unlike the slick, uniform lines of today's markers and technical pens.
"Peanuts" could never be drawn by anonymous assistants, as so many other strips were and are -- its line is inimitable. The strip looked simple, but Schulz's sophisticated choices reveal a deep understanding of cartooning's strengths. I studied those drawings endlessly as a kid and it was an invaluable education in how comics worked.
Indeed, everything about the strip was a reflection of its creator's spirit. "Peanuts" is one of those magical strips that creates its own world. Its world is a distortion of our own, but we enter it on its terms, and in doing so, see our world more clearly. It may seem strange that there are no adults in "Peanuts'" world, but in asking us to identify only with children, Schulz reminds us that our fears and insecurities are not much different when we grow up. We recognize ourselves in Schulz's vividly tragic characters: Charlie Brown's dogged determination in the face of constant defeat, Lucy's self-righteous crabbiness, Linus's need for a security blanket, Peppermint Patty's plain looks and poor grades, Rerun's baffled innocence, Spike's pathetic alienation and loneliness. For a "kid strip" with "gentle humor," it shows a pretty dark world, and I think this is what makes the strip so different from, and so much more significant than, other comics. Only with the inspired surrealism of Snoopy does the strip soar into silliness and fantasy. And even then, the Red Baron shoots the doghouse full of holes.
Over the last century, there have been only a handful of truly great comic strips, comics that pushed the boundaries of the medium and tried to do more than tell little jokes as a relief from the atrocities described in the rest of the newspaper. Schulz did it all: he drew a beautiful comic strip, a funny comic strip, and a thoughtful, serious comic strip. For that, "Peanuts" achieved a level of commercial success the comics had never seen before. We should understand, as Schulz did, that the merchandising empire "Peanuts" created would never have worked had the strip not been so consistently good. How a cartoonist maintains this level of quality decade upon decade, I have no insight, but I'm guessing that Schulz is a driven perfectionist who truly loved drawing cartoons more than anything else.
I've never met Charles Schulz, but long ago his work introduced me to what a comic strip could be, and made me want to be a cartoonist myself. He was a hero to me as a kid, and his influence on my work and life is long and deep. I suspect most cartoonists would say something similar. Schulz has given all his readers a great gift, and my gratitude for that tempers my disappointment at the strip's cessation. May there someday be a writer/artist/philosopher/humorist who can fill even a part of the void "Peanuts" leaves behind.
By Bill Watterson