The Schulz Scherzo

It caught my attention the other day how Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts is still running, 20 years after its creator’s death — reruns all, random repostings.

Has any other comic strip, or cartoonist, been so honored? Peanuts is ultra-Americana: it seems indispensable to our experience. Letting go at the century’s turning was too much, too soon.

Yet Peanuts is today slipping down the strip wall. Schulz’s timeless quotes of human gaffes never get old, but in the fullness of time, the old gods die away.

I could go full fogey on you now and tell you that there hasn’t been a penstroke of genius on the funny paper wall since Calvin & Hobbes quit, a strip which carried a clear reverb with Peanuts. Newspaper comic strips are a dying art, a victim of commercial pressures as well as the hypersensitive social engineers who self-appointedly patrol our modern dark waters.

Peanuts won’t leave, perhaps, because the void is so obvious.

The durability of the strip has surprised some because it is ‘badly drawn’. After all, Schulz’s Li’l Folks are very nearly geometrical abstractions, the ancestor of all those venomous paper dolls who populate South Park. His suburbia is so featurelessly circular and hermetic in its picket-fence concertina that it intimidates, is almost totalitarian. Like the Twilight Zone, every possible turn returns you ultimately to Maple Street.

Yet the geographic realities of shrinking postwar comic panel demanded exactly this simplicity, and the conformity of the 1950s demanded this kind of closed social loop. So far as that goes, the reductionism of Schulz’s art perfectly counterpoints the strip’s main meat, its jaw-dropping patter. The simplicity and neatness of the imagery is analogous to the work of a jazz trio, a pictogram haiku.

Peanuts, unlike the grand parades confected by Alex Raymond or Hal Foster, could hurl theological thunderbolts and even broach the subject of cosmic loneliness, then drop back a baseline evoking the sentiments of comfy puppy warmth.

All this, in an unvarying picket-fence set and setting.

Few people have appreciated how subversive Schulz’s suburbia is.

His debut strip, set curbside on the street, offers Shermy eyeing the passing Charlie Brown. “Here comes Charlie Brown…Good Ol’ Charlie Brown…How I hate him!” The terminal panel arrests us with its venom: worthy of anything out of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad Comics.

This debut, in the face of the frozen-smile can-do loyalty-oath-noting America. Schulz presents a world in which adult authority is never directly seen, never directly heard. Schulz allows the dark side to stretch out on sunny manicured lawns.

Whereas most strips became set-ups for dumb puns, Schulz would get ahold of a word like “yoke” and mine it over a week, turning it inside out and getting at its philosophical, even metacultural, marrow.

…I think Schulz is the only man I never knew whose death brought tears to my eyes. This guy gave me decades of delight, and not a little mirror for reflection. Joy and Meditation, delivered daily in a rolled up newspaper.

For the agnostic beleaguered nuclear-shrouded American crowd, Schulz was the closest thing to a lay pastor any of us ever needed or wanted.

Peanuts has been observed for going now and again Christian-trippy. Yet there is something vaguely Buddhist in its flat honest lines and wise-beyond-their-years tots, who popped off Big Thoughts in four-panel gags.

In Schulz, there was a real thinker scratching ink over mid-century America, giving ideas and icons in bite-sizes. I miss him.

Seeing the strip still run is painfully nostalgic and an opportunity for gratitude at such a remarkable body of work. A lengthy Victorian mourning, perhaps, but in the end, a good kind of grief.

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