Against Snoopy

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:49

    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 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."


    2. Woodstock: "||||."


    Woodstock: "||||."

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


    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.