LONDON, England / The Guardian / Culture / Books / Comics / October 20, 2010
Why I love PeanutsIt was simply drawn, its main character was a hapless loser, and it featured a dog convinced it that was a first world war flying ace. For 50 years, the comic strip Peanuts held America in thrall
Joe Queenan is a cultural critic and movie reviewer,
living in Tarrytown, NY.
He contributes regularly to the New York Times Book Review,
the Wall Street Journal,
the LA Times and the Guardian
Sally Brown and Linus in the 2002 film A Charlie Brown Valentine.
Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar
In my favourite instalment from Peanuts, the famous comic strip that debuted in US newspapers on 2 October 1950, the character Snoopy receives a rejection letter from a New York publishing house to which he has been submitting his work. The letter says that it has been quite some time since the publishing house has received any submissions from the ambitious dog, who, in one of many alter-egos, has now fancied himself a canny wordsmith. The final panel, which I used to carry around in my wallet, until it finally disintegrated, shows Snoopy reading the words, "This suits our current needs."
Any young writer submitting unsolicited manuscripts to publishing houses in the 1960s or 70s would have felt a chill run down his spine as he read the words, "This suits our current needs." No matter what you submitted, and no matter what publishing house, within a few weeks you would receive a cold, impersonal note reading: "Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, your work does not suit our current needs." Charles M Schulz, whose work would earn him hundreds of millions of dollars over his half-century career, had never lost touch with the aspiring cartoonist whose early work had been rejected, manhandled, or ignored. It was this human quality, this compassion for the young and the powerless, that made Peanuts what it was. Schulz had the common touch.
Peanuts, which grew out of earlier work Schulz had done in a column called L'il Folks, debuted around the time the US became embroiled in the Korean war. It was a time of genuine political hysteria, with Americans terrified that the communists in the Soviet Union and China would overrun the world, and, if this failed, unleash a nuclear holocaust as a kind of consolation prize. Peanuts, so endearing, so harmless, so good-natured, was a daily antidote to this atmosphere of fear and loathing, in the same way that the arrival of the Beatles in the US a few months after John F Kennedy's assassination helped to bring young people back to life. Throughout the Red Scare of the 50s, the desegregation wars in the deep south, the Kennedy assassinations, the murder of Martin Luther King, the war in Vietnam, the hostage crisis in Iran and – well, you get the idea – Peanuts was always there as a touchstone and a balm. Unlike so many other venerated objects in US pop culture, it was sweet without being stupid, reassuring without being infantile. In the dark era in which it began, it served much the same function as I Love Lucy. The difference was it had brains.
Charles M Schulz at work on a Peanuts strip in 1977.
Photograph: Jim McHugh/Sygma/Corbis
The comic strip ran for almost 50 years, the last original panel being published on 13 February 2000, the day after its creator died. The strip ran in many countries and was translated into many languages, even though fans in foreign countries might not have fully grasped its decidedly American sensibility. The premise, after all, is a bit of an inside joke: the central character in Peanuts is the hapless, downbeat Charlie Brown. Americans do not ordinarily take much of a shine to hapless losers. But they took a shine to Charlie Brown.
It is generally agreed that Schulz's heyday was in the 60s and 70s, that toward the end the strip became a bit too saccharine and predictable. That said, it had a nice run before it became little more than a merchandising vehicle, the marketing arm of a much larger empire. The strip first saw the light of day one month before I was born. So it was always there, and seemed like it had always been there.
Charlie Brown was like the loser friend that so many of us haveIt was like the sky: pleasant, visually appealing, reliable. Peanuts had a Picture of Dorian Gray quality; you kept getting older and more decrepit and more cynical, but it didn't. By the time you started reading it, you were already older than the characters in the strip, so it immediately made you nostalgic for childhood. Not necessarily for your childhood, but for the childhood Lucy and Charlie and Linus were having.
The name Peanuts is derived from the term "peanut gallery", which describes the cheap seats in a theatre. The name was assigned to the strip by the syndicate that began to run it in 1950; Schulz himself hated it. Yet in retrospect, it seems altogether perfect in the same way that The Great Gatsby is a far better book title than F Scott Fitzgerald's original suggestions: Trimalchio in West Egg, The High-Bouncing Lover, On the Road to West Egg, The Gold-Hatted Gatsby. Unlike many of the famous comic strips that preceded it – Tarzan, The Phantom, Brenda Starr, Mark Trail – Peanuts did not belong to any one character. Though the perpetually downbeat Charlie Brown was the emotional centre of the strip's universe, few identified with him. He was very much like the essential loser friend that so many of us have, the harmless, hapless but ultimately lovable one who never gets anything right. His haplessness was an inspiration to us all; no matter how bad things got in our daily lives, they would get much worse for Charlie Brown. But never worse in a horrible way. Just . . . worse.
America's favourite: a Peanuts strip from 1965.
Photograph: New Holland Publishers
The other characters were all foils to Charlie Brown. Peppermint Patty, the tomboy par excellence, was the one who was game for anything. Snoopy was the quirky canine who was off in his own world. Linus was the quintessential weird younger brother, who never quite fitted in. Of all the characters, Lucy, the feisty little girl who liked to mix it up with the boys, was the closest to reality. I grew up with girls who seemed to have patterned their personality around Lucy, never giving an inch, always willing to give you an earful. But I never met anyone who shaped his personality after Charlie Brown.
You didn't have to like all the characters in Peanuts to enjoy the strip. I never quite got Marcie or Franklin, mid-60s additions who seemed to serve an ancillary function. Woodstock, the lovable little bird who became Snoopy's protege, annoyed me. Linus's Beethoven fixation I found tiring. But Lucy, Chuck, Peppermint Patty and Snoopy were fine.
Peanuts did not look like the comic strips that had preceded itFrom the very beginning, Peanuts had an elegiac quality. It made Americans pine for an earlier, more innocent time that had never actually existed. In this sense, Peanuts occupied a place in the American consciousness that was a bit like that occupied by Sir Walter Scott's novels in Victorian times, evoking a time and place where life was simpler and easier to understand, and therefore entirely illusory. Though Schulz would sometimes make satirical allusions to events of the day, the adult world never really intruded. Physically, he did not allow adults to enter the strip. Nor did he allow senseless cruelty. Pratfalls, yes, but not cruelty. The world of Peanuts was hermetically sealed, in the way that children at play have always wanted their cosmos hermetically sealed
Peanuts did not look like the comic strips that had preceded it. Many of these were incredibly busy and complicated, and sometimes grotesque. They were stylish and beautiful, but inaccessible; the artist did not invite his audience in. Peanuts, by contrast was deceptively simple in design and very accommodating to the viewer. There was usually not much more than the characters' expressions, perhaps a doghouse or a playing field. This graphic approach didn't change much over the years; it was not broke, so there was no reason to fix it.
People often enjoy something without knowing why. This is why those audio guides you find in art galleries are so stupid: no one can explain to you why Bellinis are beautiful, and no amount of curatorial gas-bagging can make you like Renoir unless you are already the type of person who is predisposed to like Renoir. It probably never occurred to most people who liked Peanuts that its graphic ingenuity and deceptive elegance was a large part of its appeal. But it was. Before Peanuts, the most famous comic strips were arty. Peanuts was not arty.
Everything in Peanuts flew in the face of academic pretentiousnessEventually, it became fashionable to find more in Peanuts than was really there. American academics are always offering courses in such things as the philosophical subtexts implicit in The Simpsons, or what Mad Men says about the American psyche because academics can never leave well enough alone. I find this sort of stuff first-class bilge, an inability to accept a popular art form on its own terms. No amount of blather can turn U2 into Bach, and the fact that Charles Schulz produced a larger body of work than Rimbaud doesn't put him in Rimbaud's weight class.From the very beginning, Peanuts had an elegiac quality. It made Americans pine for an earlier, more innocent time that had never actually existed. In this sense, Peanuts occupied a place in the American consciousness that was a bit like that occupied by Sir Walter Scott's novels in Victorian times, evoking a time and place where life was simpler and easier to understand, and therefore entirely illusory. Though Schulz would sometimes make satirical allusions to events of the day, the adult world never really intruded. Physically, he did not allow adults to enter the strip. Nor did he allow senseless cruelty. Pratfalls, yes, but not cruelty. The world of Peanuts was hermetically sealed, in the way that children at play have always wanted their cosmos hermetically sealed.
Everything about Peanuts flew in the face of such pretentiousness; it was a comic strip that never took itself seriously. It was a lighthearted little set of four panels you could look forward to every day, no matter where you were, if only to follow the exploits of a silly dog who imagined himself a dog-fighting aviator in the first world war. Nobody ever knew where the idea for Snoopy and the Red Baron came from. Nobody knows why Peppermint Patty had so much trouble cracking the mystery of Snoopy's identity. Nobody knows why the hapless Charlie Brown was so hapless. It did not matter. The ideas came from somewhere. And when they got here, they were more than welcome to pull up a chair and stay a while. Fifty years, in fact.
The Complete Peanuts 1963-64 and The Complete Peanuts 1965-66 are published by Canongate, both at £15. The Peanuts Collection by Nat Gertler is published by New Holland at £30.
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