Passages: The Life and Times of Charles Schulz

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A spare pen line and a subtle sense of humor: Schulz

On October 2, 1950, at the height of the American postwar celebration — an era when being unhappy was an antisocial rather than a personal emotion — a 27-year-old Minnesota cartoonist named Charles M. Schulz introduced to the funny papers a group of children who told one another the truth:

"I have deep feelings of depression," a round-faced kid named Charlie Brown said to an imperious girl named Lucy in an early strip. "What can I do about it?"

"Snap out if it," advised Lucy.

This was something new in the newspaper comic strip. At mid-century the comics were dominated by action and adventure, vaudeville and melodrama, slapstick and gags. Schulz dared to use his own quirks — a lifelong sense of alienation, insecurity and inferiority — to draw the real feelings of his life and time. He brought a spare pen line, Jack Benny timing and a subtle sense of humor to taboo themes such as faith, intolerance, depression, loneliness, cruelty and despair. His characters were contemplative. They spoke with simplicity and force. They made smart observations about literature, art, classical music, theology, medicine, psychiatry, sports and the law.

They explained America the way Huckleberry Finn does: Americans believe in friendship, in community, in fairness, but in the end, we are dominated by our apartness, our individual isolation — an isolation that went very deep, both in Schulz and in his characters.

A lifelong student of the American comic strip, Schulz knew the universal power of varying a few basic themes. He said things clearly. He distilled human emotion to its essence. In a few tiny lines — a circle, a dash, a loop, and two black spots — he could tell anyone in the world what a character was feeling. He was a master at portraying emotion, and took a simple approach to character development, assigning to each figure in the strip one or two memorable traits and problems, often highly comic, which he reprised whenever the character reappeared.

Charlie Brown was something new in comics: a real person, with a real psyche and real problems. The reader knew him, knew his fears, sympathized with his sense of inferiority and alienation. When Charlie Brown first confessed, "I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel," he was speaking for people everywhere in Eisenhower's America, especially for a generation of solemn, precociously cynical college students, who "inhabited a shadow area within the culture," the writer Frank Conroy recalled. They were the last generation to grow up, as Schulz had, without television, and they read Charlie Brown's utterances as existential statements — comic strip koans about the human condition.

For the first time in panel cartoons, characters spoke, as novelist and semiotics professor Umberto Eco noted, "in two different keys." The "Peanuts" characters conversed in plain language and at the same time questioned the meaning of life itself. "Peanuts" depicted genuine pain and loss but somehow, as the cartoonist Art Spiegelman observed, "still kept everything warm and fuzzy." By fusing adult ideas with a world of small children, Schulz reminded us that although childhood wounds remain fresh, we have the power as adults to heal ourselves with humor. If we can laugh at the daily struggles of a bunch of funny-looking kids and in their worries recognize the adults we've become, we can free ourselves. This alchemy was the magic in Schulz's work, the alloy that fused the Before and After elements of his own life, and it remains the singular achievement of his strip, the source of its universal power, without which "Peanuts" would have come and gone in a flash.

It's hard to remember now, when Snoopy and Charlie Brown dominate the blimps at golf tournaments instead of the comics in Sunday papers, that once upon a time Schulz's strip was the fault-line of a cultural earthquake. Garry Trudeau, creator of "Doonesbury," who came of age as a comic strip artist under Schulz's influence, thought of it as "the first Beat strip." Edgy, unpredictable, ahead of its time, "Peanuts" "vibrated with '50s alienation," Trudeau recalled. "Everything about it was different."

The "Peanuts" gang was appealing but also strange. Were they children or adults? Or some kind of hybrid? In their early years, the characters were volatile, combustible. They were angry. "How I hate him!" was the very first punch line in "Peanuts." Charlie Brown and his friends could be, as the cartoonist Al Capp said, "mean little bastards, eager to hurt each other." In "Peanuts," there was always the chance that the rage of one character would suddenly bowl over another, literally spinning the victim backward and out of frame. Coming home to relax, Charlie Brown sits down to a radio broadcast whose suave announcer is saying, "And what, in all this world, is more delightful than the gay wonderful laughter of little children?" Charlie Brown stands, sets his jaw, and kicks the radio set clear out of the room. Here was a comic strip hero, who, unlike his predecessors Li'l Abner, Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka or Beetle Bailey, could take the restrained fury of the '50s and translate it into a harbinger of '60s activism.

On the one hand, the action in "Peanuts" conveyed a very American sense that things could be changed, or at least modified, by sudden violence. By getting good and mad you could resolve things. But, at the same time, Charlie Brown reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be human.

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