Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Brownian Motion

No, I'm not trying to puree my comics, I'm talking about everyone's favorite loser, Charlie Brown.

Obviously, Chuck's been receiving a bit of attention lately with the recent Charles Schulz biography, the un-related PBS documentary, and the associated outrage (probably a tad too strong a term, but I'm at a loss for a better one at the moment) from the family. Consequently, the topic of Schulz's life and his most famous creations are a bit tread-worn at this point, but I'm going to talk about them anyway.

Peanuts was established as a staple of the comics long before I was born. Indeed, the Christmas and Halloween specials were already expected viewing on their respective holidays by that point as well. Snoopy, for me, has always been in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The comic, for me and my generation, was not the revelation in comics that it was when it came out. Nor was it unique any longer. Ziggy bore many physical characteristics to Chuck, The Born Loser seemed to run into adult versions of the same problems that the Peanuts gang did, and Johnny Hart's various strips bore many of the (then) quasi-religious overtones shared by Schulz's work.

That said, though, Charlie Brown still stood out. He was the perpetual outcast that I could readily and regularly identify with. My Halloween costumes sucked. I never got Valentines. I was laughed out of the auditorium for not fitting in. I never had the courage to ask out the pretty redhead. I just could not seem to win. Ever.

Naturally, it was that sense of alienation that all children feel that Schulz was able to tap into. I'm more than certain I wasn't alone in my thinking. (I actually had a conversation several years ago with one of the most popular girls in my grade/high school. She was pretty, athletic, smart, talented, friendly... everyone liked her. But it turns out that despite being popular, she too felt estranged from her classmates!) What Schulz mastered was allowing us to see the pain of isolation and rejection, filtered through the printed page to make it more humorous. (Tragedy + time = comedy.) His drawing style was so simple that it was incredibly easy for readers to project themselves into the characters. What is Charlie Brown, after all, but a smiley face with a nose and ears?

But you've read/seen those types of comments in numerous places by now. The recent publicity/interest in Schulz has drawn out some of the artwork capitalizing on his work. I'm sure you've seen drawings of various superheroes drawn in Schulz's style. Or Michael Paulus' skeletal studies of Charlie, Linus, Pigpen, Patty and Lucy. Or the Peanuts crew drawn as manga characters. I recently bought/read Jason Yungbluth's Weapon Brown, which recasts Chuck as a post-apocalyptic mutant cyborg. (Good stuff!) Not mention the endless Photoshop riffs that give the old strips new (and often off-color) dialogue.

But, you know what I find particularly striking in reviewing all this material? That I still absolutely connect with the originals. I mentioned recently that I was taping up comic strips in my cubicle at work? Several of them feature Charlie Brown not being particularly funny, but making pointed statements about who we are, how we think, and how we react to the crap Life throws at us. And I'll be damned if that doesn't get to me.

For that matter, Schulz himself got to me. I was watching that documentary on PBS last night, and found myself wiping tears off my cheeks towards the end. Not because it was a particularly sad story in and of itself -- although Schultz's death was indeed quite sad -- but because I could see far too much of myself in Peanuts all of a sudden. I could almost see that iconic zig-zag strip running across my shirt: the tread tracks from Life effortlessly running me over. I saw myself paying a nickel for psychiatric advice from the closest thing I have to a female friend. I saw myself running towards that metaphoric football and landing smack on my back, causing little physical pain but more than enough mental anguish to prevent me from even bothering to get up.

Tonight, I'm going to go home, eat dinner, and read comics for a bit. Probably play with the dog. Much like Chuck would. And then I'll sit down for the ritualistic viewing of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and probably shed a few tears every time I hear, "I got a rock."

At least, though, I'm not the only one.

1 comment:

plok said...

You're sure not.

Myself, I'm getting a little uncomfortable with all the Schultz-fuss right now, if you'll permit me doing a little talk-therapy here. Having poured so much of myself into those brilliant strips he made by reading the hell out of them, I do NOT (for example) now want to hear that Schroeder and Lucy were modelled on a dysfunctional marriage...pardon my chauvinism (and I hope I use the term with precison), but ugh. I'm way too old to be accused of wanting to be sheltered from the truth, but I'm not too old to not crave reflection, and that's what every episode of Ha, Ha, Herman or every sight of the Kite-Eating Tree gives to me, and so the last thing I want is for those strips to become artifactual rather than alive. Let Schultz keep his influences, I say: I want to read his comics. Because I've grown enormously attached to them. As mirrors for my own self, you know.

I sound like a reactionary. Sean, I would never say this on my own blog, where it could be seen as a strong statement of mine. Because I'd have to back it up, and I can't. But I'm saying, I already know the parts of Schultz that are important to me, through his art. I live and breathe Peanuts. We all live and breathe Peanuts, us kids. It's a world of its own. And I do believe it was made to stand as a world of its own. Peppermint Patty's MINE; I don't want to know if she was based on a woman Charles Schultz had an affair with (which he didn't; I just made that up), because I don't care who she's based on. Schultz's gift was to create indelible characters out of almost nothing on a page, and I don't want anybody else (pardon my French) to try and fuck with that indelibility he created. Because that indelibility is something that means a lot to me.

Hell, I don't even want to know that Charles Schultz is dead, most of the time. Because I like him too much.

So, yeah, I'm having knee-jerk reactions all over. Thanks for letting me vent.

As far as original art goes: I always wanted the three-panel strip which has Lucy asking Charlie Brown if he can take criticism. You know the one.

I'll always read Peanuts; and primarily as a message to me from the Universe At Large. Secondarily, as a handshake from its creator, saying "hi, howya doin', call me Sparky".

I'll never read it on the third level, however. I don't think that third level exists, except archaeologically. And the barber's son isn't really dead yet, anyway.

At least, not to me.

Did I thank you for letting me rant yet, Sean? Let me thank you again. None of us should feel silly, or even ghettoized, for caring about Charlie Brown, I think. Schultz's strip was the most popular ever, even passing Superman. I'm still avidly collecting Peanuts paperback editions. So are other people, too, who are far less geeky than we. Peanuts was simply a global phenomenon, and it still is. In other words, this isn't geek love. It's just plain love.

And here endeth my disjointed thoughts.