On Strips: Peanuts at 65

By | Friday, October 02, 2015 Leave a Comment
For today's "On Strips" column, I kind of have to talk about Peanuts, as it's the 65th anniversary of the strip's debut. I don't know that I have anything new to add to what you can find elsewhere about the history of either the strip or creator Charles Schulz, so I thought I might share some more personal thoughts on them.

I don't recall my first encounter with Peanuts. Peanuts was created nearly a quarter century before I was born, so it has literally always been a part of my upbringing in some fashion. Heck, both Happiness is a Warm Puppy and the animated Christmas special were around for about a decade before I was! Snoopy has, for me, always been very much a part of American culture.

That means a couple things. First, it meant that I didn't see Peanuts develop. It was a fully formed set of characters from the outset (at least as far as I was concerned). With later popular strips like Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes, I was able to watch their development as their creators found their illustrative and narrative voices. But Schulz was well into a groove with Peanuts by the time I first saw it.

Second, it meant that, while Schulz certainly wasn't done, he had said a lot of what he wanted to say already. The Lucy-pulling-away-the-football routine and the "It was a dark and stormy night" stories had been turned into running gags, where the comedy comes more from variations on a theme than in the concept itself.

In fact, by the time I start reading the strip regularly in the 1980s, Schulz was argueably past his prime. His linework had started becoming shakey as he entered his 60s, and he had largely abandoned some of the adult themes and observations of previous years in favor of the somewhat less dark depictions that came out marketing. Charlie Brown was no longer really manically depressed, but mostly just wishy-washy; he no longer seemed to get angry about his lot in life but accepted it with benign resignation.

And at the time, reprints were not very common. There were probably more of Peanuts than just about any other strip, but the ones I had access to were primarily from the earliest 1950s strips where Schulz was still finding his voice. They were interesting to compare the obvious changes in illustration style, but I largely missed the more cerebral strips that really launched Schulz to comic stardom. So while I heard many fans and cartoonists laud Schulz's work, I was only seeing the least of it.

Furthermore, a lot of Schulz's innovations had been around long enough to have become staples of comics as a whole. Other seemingly age-old strips (i.e. anything that debuted before I was born) like The Born Loser, Marmaduke, and Family Circus had already been influenced by Peanuts and had picked up on various elements that Schulz had introduced to the medium. So not only were Schulz's ideas old hat, but they'd been around long enough to have been copied ad infinitum by others.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike Schulz. The strips were still better than most of what was on the comics page, and the Christmas Special certainly had something magic about it, but the body of work as a whole (of which I had only seen the extreme ends of) seemed over-rated. I seem to recall my father pointing this out in my late teens but, again, the lack of access to good reprint material meant that his explanations were largely from memory (which meant that he couldn't really pinpoint many specific examples) and I couldn't actually see what he was talking about in any event. I was left with what amounted to, "Well, he did some really great and innovative work that mostly overlap the 20 or 30 years that you're missing."

In the ensuing couple of decades of comics research, which includes a wealth of materials becoming more widely available, I've gotten a much better appreciation of Schulz's contributions to both the medium and society as a whole. But I think it speaks to what was a long-standing problem of popular culture: that, until recently, we only had the "now" to assess. Anyone but the most hard-core and dedicated researchers coming to the game a little late might be left out of the loop entirely. People just a few years younger than I am likely have less appreciation of what Garfield's introduction was like and what Jim Davis' contributions were.

But while it's argueable that, fifteen years after Schulz's death, newspapers should stop running Peanuts re-runs in favor of giving someone else a shot, those Peanuts re-runs are works that were almost entirely unavailable to the vast majority of people until the 21st century. So there's (potentially, at least) a greater sense of appreciation of Schulz's work here at 65 than there may have been at 35 or 45.
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