Friday, December 12, 2008

The "Death" of Peanuts

Charles Schultz

On February 12, 2000 one of the greatest of twentieth century strip cartoonists, Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts died. The following day, February 13, 2000 appeared the last of his Peanuts strips. It was in a way singularly appropriate. In the midst of all the celebrity obituaries certain things were forgotten.

Not surprisingly, and correctly, Charles Schultz was remembered for the great creativity and path breaking influence of his strip. After all from Snoppy's rich fantasy life to Lucy's psychotic behavior to Charlie Brown's put upon everyman Peanuts was seminal. What people did not talk about was certain aspects of Peanuts which are unsettling and also the great unspoken secret of Peanuts last couple of decades.

The above book that was published in 2007, (Schultz and Peanuts, David Michaelis, Harper, New York, 2007.). It begins the task of putting Peanuts into proper perspective and begins the task of de-mythologizing Charles Schultz and Peanuts. But even so the book is too much in awe of Charles Schultz and the Peanuts strip to see that things are not what they seem.

To start with. One of the unsettling aspects of the strip even during its height was Charlie Brown and the aura around him. He is supposedly the put upon loser. For example during the seminal, creative and very funny series of strips involving Charlie Brown competing at a multi-school spelling bee. Charlie Brown eventually loses the competition and ends up in second place. He losses by spelling maze has mayes, (as in Willie Mayes, the baseball player). It is funny and ridiculous. Charlie Brown's reaction and the reaction of everyone else is that Charlie is a total failure and this is rubbed in relentlessly. Lets see Charlie Brown ends up in second place in a competition involving apparently dozens of schools and he is a total failure?! Am I the only one who finds this message disturbing, i.e., that only total success is worthy and any sort of failure is unforgivable? This message is relentlessly in the strip. Given most of the children's ill concealed contempt why they keep entrusting Charlie Brown in leadership roles, (like leading the baseball team), is inexplicable. The strip in my opinion covertly lent itself to excusing / justifying attacks on peoples self esteem if they didn't achieve spectacular success. However well done it was and remains disturbing.

Another feature was the progressive humanizing of Snoppy. Snoppy's flights of fantasy were amusing, but when Snoppy started walking on two legs all the time and the addition of relatives who did the same it began to be annoying and lose touch with the real world. Peppermint Patty for years thought Snoppy was a "funny looking kid", she could hardly be blamed. Because Snoppy lost his dog qualities almost completely. This was especially annoying when Schultz was saying he wanted Snoppy to remain a dog.

Charles Schultz saw himself has a quiet man who had few needs, loved to teach sunday school and took his Christian faith seriously. This image is to a large extent taken seriously in the book mentioned above. But this self image is shall we say rather self serving. It may have been necessary for Charles Schultz's self image but it is not entirely accurate. The book outlines in great detail the shape of the great Peanuts empire. From Charles Schultz's extensive holdings in his home town to to his vast array of business interests, we have here the story of a very capable businessman. From peanut butter to life insurance to mugs, lunch pails etc., Charles Schultz was very willing to endorse pretty much anything to make a buck. This may go against his self image but Charles Schultz was obviously out to make has much "filthy lucre" as possible and at the very least his devotion to his God was challenged by a very sincere devotion to Mammon.

Finally the great secret not spoken of is that Charles Schultz carried on the strip for c. 50 years!, and during that time it declined. Gary Larson, (The Far Side) and Bill Watterson, (Calvin and Hobbes), both stopped doing their respective strips because of what they felt was an ebbing of creative energy. Schultz kept doing it. Its quite apparent that sometime in the mid 1970's Peanuts, as they say "jumped the Shark", probably about the same time Snoppy stopped walking on four legs entirely. Like the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one will admit to seeing. Peanuts ceased to be funny in the mid seventies. The jokes became stale and it just coasted. Why did Schultz continue with it? Its obvious. The gravy train had to continue flowing and like people laughing at Bob Hope before he died people laughed because they were expected to laugh. After all its Peanuts so of course its good even when its the pits. Schultz in my opinion continued the strip in order, in large part, to make more money. So this dead horse was beaten well past due date and well past the moment it started to rot and smell.

The last Peanuts strip may have been February 13, 2000, but the strip had actually died more than twenty years earlier.

Pierre Cloutier

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