Sunday, 12 February 2012

GOOD GRIEF!! Remembering Charles M Schulz

26 November 1922 –– 12 February 2000


Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, 'This is going to take more than one night.'

Snoopy.  Linus.  Lucy.  Schroeder.  Peppermint Patty.  And, of course, that Everyman for the ages –– good ol’ Charlie Brown.

Nearly all of us can close our eyes and immediately form a picture of what these characters look like.  They’ve become as much a part of Western culture, and of our collective imagination, as the eternally echoing ‘D’oh!’ of Homer Simpson.

It’s amazing how familiar they remain to us twelve years after their creator’s death, how recognizable their faces are even to those of us who would never admit to reading anything as childish as a comic strip –– let alone buying a Peanuts book or watching a Peanuts TV special –– if our ultra-cool lives depended on it.  And what's more remarkable is how familiar and even comforting their personalities are to us, how well we think we know each character as an individual and, in some cases, as a pint-sized reflection of ourselves.  There’s Snoopy the daredevil fighter ace who battles the Red Baron in the skies of World War One France but still manages to sleep safe and sound on top of his doghouse in his owner’s backyard all day.  There’s Lucy the crabby-minded supplier of cheap (and not very useful) psychiatric advice, Schroeder the budding virtuoso and devotee of Beethoven, Linus the philosopher who still needs his security blanket and believes the Great Pumpkin will magically rise from the pumpkin patch to reward all the good children who believe in him come each Halloween.

But the most memorable character is the one who appears to be the least memorable, some might even say the dullest in many ways.  Most heroes are brave, resourceful and admirable.  Sometimes they’re audacious like Bugs Bunny, eccentric like Sherlock Holmes or superheroes in the literal sense like Batman or Captain America.   But not Charlie Brown.  He manages and pitches for what must rate as the world’s most consistently unsuccessful baseball team.  He’s bullied by his dog (who refuses to refer to him as anything but ‘the round-headed kid’), continually embarrasses his little sister Sally and is tricked time and time again by Lucy, who always manages to pull that darned football away right before he kicks it.  His kites routinely get eaten by trees and he’s in love with a little red-headed girl he’s much too shy to talk to while remaining completely oblivious to the fact that Peppermint Patty, whose ball team always beats his, thinks he’s kind of cute. 

He is, to put it another way, everyone who’s ever failed at anything or felt nervous or inadequate or in any other way just plain not good enough, your ordinary run-of-the-mill under-achiever brought vividly to life with just a few carefully placed pen strokes scratched onto paper by an artist who understood the concept that less really does equal more. 

Or, to put it another way, Charlie Brown is you and me.  White or black, rich or poor, bottom of the heap or what we’ve convinced ourselves is the success-defining top of it, the fact remains that all of us feel like losers sometimes, that none of us feel as clever or beautiful or charming or rich or talented or appreciated as we’re entitled to feel sometimes.  That was Schulz’s message if he actually had one to share beyond the very important (and vastly underrated) one of teaching us how to laugh at ourselves.  Recognize your flaws and fess up to what’s ordinary and mediocre in yourself and try not to deplore the same lack of wit, grace and intelligence in others.  Don’t judge.  Don’t sit on your high horse (or in your Ferrari or in the hot tub of your palatial Beverly Hills mansion) telling the world how great you think you are just because you’ve been lucky enough to earn, win or inherit a bit of money.  Be compassionate.  Be generous.  Learn to appreciate people not for what you think they should be but for what they are and what, in many cases, they probably can’t stop being even if they try.

If it’s true that, along with movies and jazz, the comic strip was America’s greatest contribution to twentieth century culture, then Charles M Schulz was its Buster Keaton and its Louis Armstrong all wrapped up in one astoundingly wise, self-effacing package.  His strip, originally titled L’il Folks, broke new ground in terms of what could and couldn’t be done in the comic strip in that it featured no adult characters whatsoever.  (No adult ever spoke or was ever mentioned by name in it, which is now taken for granted but was a revolutionary idea at the time Schulz originally conceived it.)  The action involved the same stock cast of eight or nine main characters, supplemented over the years by the addition of new characters like Pigpen, Franklin (the first negro character to appear regularly in a syndicated US comic strip), Marcie and a peculiar little yellow bird named Woodstock who soon captured the public imagination in the same way his already world-famous friend Snoopy had captured it a decade or two before him.  There were no fistfights or fast-paced action sequences in Peanuts.  No cliffhanging soap opera plots to keep excited readers returning to the strip each day.  Instead, Schulz created a kind of stillness on the page that forced the reader to stop and consider what he was saying whether they happened to agree with the humanist message he was attempting to convey or not.  He made millions of dollars, yes, but few people ever stop to consider how he made his millions –– by giving pleasure, hope and comfort to people every day of his life, alone and unaided, for close to fifty uninterrupted years.

Not bad for a barber’s son from Minnesota whose first published drawing was a picture of his dog and whose work was rejected for inclusion in his own high school yearbook.

Rest in peace, Mr Schulz.  You’ve earned every minute of it.

Click HERE to visit the website of the CHARLES M SCHULZ Museum.  You can also click HERE to visit PEANUTS.COM.  A biography by RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON titled Good Grief: The Story of Charles M Schulz was published in 1989.

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STUART HAMPLE Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen as Comic Strip (2009)
SOME BOOKS ABOUT...Buster Keaton
'STRIKE ME LUCKY!' Remembering Roy Rene

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