The Good and the Grief

Charles Schulz's Peanuts, about to retire after five decades, made loneliness and anxiety funny

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It seems only appropriate that cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, 77 and recently diagnosed with colon cancer, should decide to retire Peanuts in winter. It's the setting of so many of the strips (the last daily one will appear Jan. 3) and the season that best captures his graceful art and playful yet melancholy spirit. Perhaps it's because the lyrical, jazz-inflected animated special A Charlie Brown Christmas remains Yuletide TV's high point after 34 years. Perhaps it's because the snowscapes of Schulz's youth in Minnesota, America's Scandinavia, were the most evocative setting for his wry, unsentimental, slightly Bergmanesque take on childhood's pleasures and cruelties--a season of chilly beauty, ice skating and snowballs in the back of the head.

Or perhaps it is just that his protagonist, persistent Everyloser Charlie Brown, has for nearly 50 years appeared to suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Before Peanuts made its debut in 1950, one wouldn't generally think of pop-cultural children--maybe not children, period--as having psyches, much less diagnoses. Moppets of the Depression and before were uncomplicated, hardy imps, ravenous Little Rascals and ruddy-faced Katzenjammers of simple wants and slapstick antics. Schulz's Dr. Spock-era kids brought cartoons into the age of psychiatric help, 5[cents] at a time. Reflective, neurotic and deadpan, they were to their predecessors what Bob Newhart was to Moe Howard. They were children of postwar prosperity, a time when Americans could afford to have anxieties instead of fears. They played Beethoven; they parked in front of the TV; they cradled security blankets. (They played baseball too, but they weren't exactly good at it.) Our Gang could have taken them without breaking a sweat.

The closest thing to a red-blooded, extroverted American youth Schulz created was a beagle. Not coincidentally, Peanuts hit superstardom after Snoopy adopted his World War I flying-ace persona, zooming into the lucrative blue yonder of endorsements and licensing. Snoopy electric toothbrushes and snack cakes--there's a little Woodstock in every Pikachu under your tree this year. And yet Schulz's Christmas special is a plea against commercialism, in which Charlie Brown nurses a desiccated Christmas tree (twig, really) to health.

With that theme of loving losers--even Charlie Brown's baseball idol, Joe Shlabotnik, was the worst player in the pros--came the corollary, losing at love. Every major character has an unrequited love--Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl, Lucy and Schroeder, Linus and Miss Othmar. Even Snoopy got dumped at the altar. Happiness may be a warm puppy, but as Schulz once said, "Happiness is not very funny." Schulz infused the strips with his lifelong feelings of depression and insecurity--he had his heart broken by a real-life red-haired girl--and they showed, Camus-like, how one could feel lonely even in a crowd. Many of his panels have two characters outside, at night, staring at a field of stars. "Let's go inside and watch television," Charlie Brown says in one. "I'm beginning to feel insignificant."

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