Peanuts and the monstrous, infantile reductions of neurosis

Two children sit idly on the stoop while a peculiarly roundheaded boy walks by. "Good ol' Charlie Brown," says one to the other. "How I hate him!"

With these mordant strokes, Charles M. Schulz began his groundbreaking comic strip, Peanuts. And believe it or not (with a nod to Ripley's, which published Schulz's first drawing when he was 15), the world has the Twin Cities to thank for it. Schulz was born in Minneapolis on November 22, 1922. Two days later a whimsical uncle nicknamed him "Sparky," after a character in a popular comic strip of the day, and the course of Schulz's life seemed set. Having endured the slings and arrows of adolescence at St. Paul's Central High School, he honed his drawing skills at the local Art Instruction Schools.

World War II interrupted Schulz's career as a budding cartoonist. He shipped out from Fort Snelling upon being drafted, and still speaks of his three-year stint overseas as a pivotal emotional experience, one that is repeatedly worked through in the pages of Peanuts. Upon returning home, Schulz found work at his old correspondence art school, and there he befriended the real-life Charlie Brown, who loaned his name and likeness to a character far more like Schulz: a barber's son brimming with insecurity, depression, loss, and resentment--and an uncanny ability to express it all.

While Schulz had been selling cartoons to periodicals such as the Saturday Evening Post, his big break came, characteristically enough, in the form of rejection. The St. Paul Pioneer Press had been running his prototype of Peanuts, a strip called Li'l Folks, in the paper's women's section, but gave it the ax when Schulz asked for better exposure and more money. Forced to venture off to Chicago, New York, and the big syndicates, Schulz searched for someone willing to take a chance on his work. Peanuts debuted in seven papers, among them the Minneapolis Star, in October of 1950.

If the inclusion of a cartoonist in a list of august authors gives anyone pause, consider this: Schulz is without a doubt Minnesota's most widely read export. According to the Washington Post, the strip is read by nearly 400 million readers in 75 countries. Schulz also wins the prize for Most Prolific, having drawn Peanuts day in and day out for 48 years. That's more than 17,000 individual strips, and doesn't include other projects such as books, television specials, etc. Such tenacity is rare in the comic-strip biz, where most successful creators keep a stable of assistants who do the actual work and others retire prematurely in midlife creative crises. As Schulz's now-shaky linework attests, he's done neither, preferring to continue to work alone on what could easily have turned into the ghostwriting scam of the century.

There is hardly a cartoonist working today who does not owe the creator of Peanuts a significant debt, a point underscored by the Schulz Festschrift (occasioned by Sparky's 75th birthday) which appeared in a recent issue of that bastion of alternative comics The Comics Journal. Hyperbolic as that may sound, Schulz's stature is well-earned. When Peanuts debuted in 1950, a world used to adventure strips and political barbs had seen nothing like it.

Peanuts introduced an existential element to the funnies, unspooling koans about human behavior in a handful of panels. Schulz's observational wit was accentuated by his decision to depict these fables in an unspecified place, a generic suburban sprawl that may be Schulz's ultimate comment on Minnesota (and, for that matter, America). Yet against this bland backdrop, the brave new world of the baby boom unfolded, with adults occupying a barely discernable spot on the periphery. The characters Schulz created were far more concerned with their own sundry anxieties and machinations--their social status, a security blanket, a lost Little League game, or a tree-eaten kite--than they were with such irrelevancies as parents. (An acclaimed new book, The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris, posits that peer socialization has a greater effect on child development than parental guidance has, a central tenet of Schulz's work for the past 48 years.)

As Peanuts developed, Schulz introduced surprisingly sophisticated philosophical dilemmas into the strip, which his motley bunch of neurotic kids address in endless Socratic dialogues. Theology is another frequent topic among the gang (as discussed in several books by Robert Short, such as The Parables of Peanuts). Linus's vigils in wait of the Great Pumpkin read like Beckett for kids, while his sermon on the birth of Jesus in the Peanuts Christmas special is among the most religious moments on television.

There is raw quality to Peanuts, a pathos that appears again and again. Psychology is laid utterly bare. Sometimes Schulz's eye focuses on group dynamics, using the baseball diamond or play stage as the setting for psychodrama; more often two characters in dialogue say everything that needs to be said, and harshly. In this regard, Lucy's double role as Charlie Brown's tormentor and psychiatrist is especially rich.

As Umberto Eco has suggested in his introduction to Charles M. Schulz: 40 Years Life and Art, "These children...are the monstrous, infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen." Yet despite his leanings toward abstraction and philosophizing, Schulz often grounds his lessons in the physical: The travails of war are put in relief by Snoopy's parodic re-enactments; those of love, by the eternally offscreen object of desire, the little red-haired girl (based, according to Schulz's biographer Rheta Grimsley Johnson, on a St. Paul woman who turned down his marriage proposal). The fine difference between self-esteem and pride is as visible as the clouds of dust under Pig-Pen's feet. Here, as everywhere, Schulz employs an iconic drawing style, one that conveys a seemingly infinite vocabulary of emotion with a very limited set of pen strokes.

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