Shattered Illusions of Peanuts

Having paid off my outstanding balance of $9 in late fees that kept me away from the library for months, I've been eagerly consuming The Complete Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, collecting all the dailies and Sunday strips.

My understanding of the Peanuts mythos has been recalibrated by the first volume of strips from 1950-1952. For one thing, somewhere in the first two or three years was a strip in which a word balloon pointed to an adult out of frame, when Charlie Brown hears his mother calling. A purist could explain this away by saying that we don't know it was Mrs. Brown: it could have been some other kid calling him or pretending to be his mother. Surely that event would have been incorporated into the story, so it's not a plausible explanation.

Another weird bit is that Lucy's famous fake-out, pulling away the football at the last minute while Charlie Brown runs up to kick it, was actually pioneered by Violet. In that first version, Violet slips or turns away at the last minute, so it was more of an accident than a trick intentionally played on Charlie Brown.

A nice discovery was that Schroeder's first word in the strip was "Beethoven." He's shown as a baby who doesn't speak for his first several appearances, although he plays the toy piano before speaking.

At the back of Volume 1 is an interview with Schulz from 1992. He makes a few pronouncements about mistakes in Peanuts and other comic strips. It starts off sounding like wise judgments of general storytelling technique (especially admitting that it was a mistake to introduce Snoopy's brothers and sisters), but some sound like his own personal, arbitrary complaints about other strips and stories:
Rick Marschall [with Nemo magazine]: You've never pictured adults, parents or otherwise, in the strip. Maybe once or twice you've had the hand of an adult at a magazine counter or something like that. Was that something you set out to do?
Schulz: Oh, I never thought about it at first. It was the way I drew the characters, they filled up the strip and I drew them from the side view. ... At one point, I think, years and years ago, I drew a whole bunch of adults in a gallery where Lucy was playing in a golf tournament, which is something I never should have done. But it was an experiment. ... And then I used to have off-stage voices, which again was simply because I didn't know how to handle it. Now the strip has become so abstract that the introduction of an adult would destroy it because you can't have an adult in a strip where a dog is sitting on a dog-house, pretending he's chasing the Red Baron. It just doesn't work. So, it's taken all these years really to learn some of these things. You make mistakes, but fortunately it's a medium that allows for mistakes if you recognize them right away. It's possible--I think--to make a mistake in the strip and without realizing it, destroy it. ...I think Eugene the Jeep was a mistake. I think Eugene the Jeep took the life out of Popeye himself, and I'm sure Segar didn't realize that. I realized it myself a couple of years ago when I began to introduce Snoopy's brothers and sisters. I realized that when I put Belle and Marbles in there it destroyed the relationship that Snoopy has with the kids, which is a very strange relationship. And these things are so subtle that when you're doing them, you can make mistakes and not realize them. ... What made Popeye great was that he solved all his problems by whopping somebody, but then by having Eugene the Jeep be able to predict the future and do all of these things, I think, was just the wrong direction. And once you go there, it's almost impossible to pull back. I think the Jeep was a great idea, but it shouldn't have become as dominant as it became.

... The same with Superman. Superman was destroyed on several levels. In the first place, a comic strip cannot appear in its original form in too many areas because then, the tension goes out of it. You cannot have a daily strip going, a Sunday page going, Action Comics going, another Superman comic book going, a movie going. You can't have all these things going because he can't be damaged in one area and be undamaged in another. There are too many things going on at the same time. Now, Superman was great until he began to be able to see through things and fly. Superman shouldn't fly; Superman should jump. ...

Huh? I can see where readers from that earliest era would disdain the creeping increase in Superman's powers. But it's already fantastical to imagine an orphaned alien able to leap over a building. Why would it be too fantastical to imagine he can fly or see through things? Maybe it's just more interesting to see a character with limits, instead of one who's so powerful you can't sympathize with him anymore.

The potential conflicts between all the different media and formats in which the Superman stories have been retold doesn't seem to have destroyed or harmed their popularity. The Hitchhiker's Guide series also comes to mind, although something in the nature of that beast with all the discussions of paradox and chaos and confusion makes it helpful to have conflicts between all the retellings in different formats. The novels made changes to the radio plays, and neither of those matched the text video game or the tv show or the movie. But those changes were approved and designed by its creator. Schulz sounds like he prefers to create a canon and not have it tampered with, whereas Adams kept tinkering and trying to improve the story, right up to the drafts of the screenplay where he emphasized a romance between Arthur and Trillian. He probably would have felt that holding to a strict canon was just embalming an early draft that could stand to be tweaked.

If you have a rosy image of Schulz as someone who would never offend anyone (which would have been cured if you had read Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis), you might be surprised at how much smack he talks about Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury ("unprofessional"), Walt Kelly's Pogo ("near the end, it became boring") and others in this interview.

Now here's a bit of storytelling advice that should work for any medium:
Schulz: ... I think there is a similarity to the lead characters in a lot of scripts. There is one simple character who is kind of innocent. He's not too strong in his personality; if he were, then he would dominate the strip. He's the one that holds everything together, and it's the other characters who have the unique personalities. He can't be a terrible character, but he has to be somebody that you like that holds things together. ...

There are exceptions to that rule, but it explains why a lot of people don't like movies or stories featuring unsympathetic protagonists or anti-heroes. There Will Be Blood, for example, or some Wes Anderson movies where the heroes stumble along hurting each other while trying to create family connections. Maybe what Schulz explained are guidelines for creating a character that Midwesterners will be able to care for and follow, characters that anchor a story so you can explore other weird or fantastical personalities.
Schulz: ... The whole business of Charlie Brown and the red-haired girl came from listening to a Hank Williams song. I was home alone one night listening to it and it was so depressing that it occurred to me that I would do something with Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl and that's how it all started.
Marschall: You'll never show her, right?
Schulz: No, and I think it was a mistake to even show her on television, but you make a lot of mistakes when you do a lot of media. But I could never draw her into the strip now. You reach a point where the reader has already drawn her. And you could never live up to the way the reader has drawn her in his or her imagination. ... I'm not good at drawing pretty little faces. That would be the number one fear. I could probably be tempted into drawing her, if I could draw a real knockout of a cute little girl, but I don't think I could. So I don't think I will. I like the little face on the girl that keeps telling Linus, "Aren't you kind of old for me?" Even that face was a struggle to draw.


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