Like a recurring nightmare, the scenario plays itself out over and over again. Charlie Brown walks by a couple of kids or they walk by him. In later strips, they're both girls. He overhears one of them say, "Good ol' Charlie Brown"--and then comes the twist. In 1955, she adds, out of earshot, "Good ol' wishy-washy Charlie Brown." In 1952, he hears her say, "What a wishy-washy character," which makes his squiggly brow droop.
The very first Peanuts, which debuted in seven American newspapers on October 2, 1950, shows him smiling as he passes a boy and a girl. "Good ol' Charlie Brown," the boy says. "How I hate him!"
Drawn by one man every day for 50 years with a crow-quill pen dipped in ink, the abstract backgrounds of Peanuts are not St. Paul, though the artist grew up here (and we have 104 new plastic Snoopy statues to prove it). They aren't the veterans' housing developments where he lived with his first wife in Colorado Springs, either, or the home he made with his second wife in Santa Rosa, California, where he built an ice rink. The thin birch trees, snowy open yards, and endless sidewalks of Charles Monroe Schulz's drawings are more like the settings in a dream. They're fantasy playgrounds for characters to run through, like any Popeye or Pogo backdrop, but they're also a combination of real places that Schulz revisited in his mind until he died, just hours before his final Sunday strip ran on February 13, 2000.
Reading The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952, the first of a planned 25-volume series from Fantagraphics Books, you might guess that Schulz drew Charlie Brown as therapy--and you might be right. "It took me a long time to become a human being," he said in a 1987 interview, reprinted here. "I never regarded myself as being much and I never regarded myself as being good-looking and I never had a date in high school, because, I thought, who'd want to date me?"
Now his life's work has been given the reverential hardcover treatment--a handsome design by alternative cartoonist "Seth," essays by Garrison Keillor and Schulz biographer David Michaelis, and the Q&A, which locates Schulz in a wider comics scene he viewed with suspicion. But you can easily imagine why the series never came out while the author was still breathing. Early Peanuts is the humor of a person incapable of seeing himself as important.
"There is not much in Peanuts that is shallow or heedless," writes Keillor in his introduction. And that's true. But then again, there is not much in Peanuts that is above being stone silly, either. Unlike the comparatively ceremonious animated cartoons, early Schulz is giddy with unimportance. In one strip, Charlie Brown brings a handful of soup to a picnic.
In another, Lucy asks him, "Can I put my hand in your glass of milk?"
"You keep your dirty hand out of my glass of milk!" he says.
And when she goes ahead and plops it in, anyway, he chases her, helpless to assail the absurd purity of her logic: "My hands aren't dirty any more!"
Schulz's admiration for Lucy is a key to understanding his greatness, and why he's something more than the Woody Allen of cartoonists--neurotic vanity on parade, posing as self-examination. Peanuts is funnier than other funnies because it's so cruelly honest about human weakness. Much has been made of Schulz's supposed fear of a female planet, and Lucy did become a repository for some of Schulz's meanness. ("That was Lucy speaking," he once said to Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker, apologizing for a rude remark.) But recognizing that girls inflict pain isn't sexism. Switch genders on Shermy and Patty, both central characters in the first year, and they show the same narcissism.
What you would lose in that switch is the kids' noticeable discomfort with assigned gender roles. Girls in Peanuts know they aren't supposed to be violent--and can't help themselves. Boys know they aren't supposed to be passive. "I can't accept flowers from a girl!!" says Charlie Brown to Violet. "How would it be if you just snatched them out of my hand?" she says. (In a later strip, Charlie Brown is less abashed: "I bet I'd make a pretty good housewife!")
Throughout Schulz's cartoons, there is a lingering but complicated association between suffering and being good. When people say someone has a "Charlie Brown quality" (especially Minnesota artists such as Keillor, Bob Mould, Slug, etc.) they're talking about an invisible equal sign between "good" and "grief."
The idea took root in Schulz long before he became active in the Church of God in his 20s. Nicknamed as a baby after Barney Google's horse Spark Plug, Sparky Schulz grew up to fear travel, but found himself fighting in Europe during World War II. He was drafted not long before his mother died of cancer, and returned home a changed person. He taught at the art correspondence school in Minneapolis and eventually based the Little Red-Haired Girl (Charlie Brown's unseen and unrequited crush object) on Donna Mae Johnson in accounting. She rejected him to marry Al Wold, and Sparky never got over it. Her daughter once told me over drinks that Donna loved both suitors, but Al had his own place. Sparky still lived at home with Dad in 1950.