Friday, October 29, 2010

The Greatest Peanuts Strips--10 to 1

10. 10/29/59



And so was born a legend. Linus, sick of his peers' insincere toadying up to a big, ostensibly jolly fat fella, announces his belief in something called "The Great Pumpkin," which one can only imagine is the most gigantic, most benevolent and beneficent fruit in the world.

The Great Pumpkin was one of Charles Schulz' most original and brilliant story ideas. It was translated to the li'l screen with smashing success (said special aired twice this week on national television) and has become part of the pop culture vernacular. There's just something about a kid refusing to buy into the crap parents have fed their kids forever and creating his own mythology to pour heart and soul into, built on sincerity above all.

9. 10/21/87



When you see Patty and Marcie seated in the theater, some bickering is sure to follow. But here, Patty is actually delighted (rather than confused) by what's transpiring on stage, resulting in a satisfied smile rather than a furrowed brow on not just her face but Marcie's as well. Patty's last words mirror precisely my feelings while reading these strips.

8. 2/27/52



Bits and pieces of the artist come out in their work. It is inevitable, unless of course the creator is a complete sociopath (in which case they're probably country music songwriters). From the very beginning of Peanuts Charles Schulz did not hesitate to channel his irritations into the minds and mouths of these li'l folks. In this beauty from '52, a self-absorbed Violet rambles on to a clearly disgusted Charlie Brown about the film festival that played in her brain last night. While many people are fascinated by the world of dreams, seeking deeper meaning in the succession of images and sounds, others are content to shrug them off as biological futzery. Perhaps it is his determination to make dreams come true during waking hours that has Chuck so skeptical and annoyed? The moral here is that the unexamined subconscious life is entirely worth living.

7. 11/20/78



There was a mutual admiration society going on with Schulz and Christo, two of the more daring artists of their time. My favorite single panel in Peanuts history is the final one here. Snoopy's fourth-wall-crashing reaction, the visual of Christo having worked his magic...flawless. Looks great on a shirt too.

Twenty-five years after the strip's debut (and three years after the death of Charles Schulz), Christo wrapped the doghouse for real. Viewing this masterpiece was one of the highlights of my 2009 trip to the Schulz Museum, right behind the recreation of Schulz' personal studio. Which actually made me tear up.

6. 1/10/52



Charles Schulz served in the U.S. Army during World War II, an experience he spoke of with pride. His admiration for the military and those who served was apparent throughout his work, be it in the seventeen strips where Snoopy pays tribute to (and quaffs some root beers with) Bill Mauldin or in any of the 1990s strips honoring D-Day.

Before he felt comfortable citing the war and wartime, however, Schulz gave a glimpse into one very specific, haunting incident that occurred in May 1945, as he and the other members of his task force traversed Bavaria. Several of the men in the group gathered some pieces for their personal collection and they moved on. Sergeant Schulz playfully aimed a recently acquired pistol at an army medic across the street, the red cross on his helmet making him a tempting play-target. Schulz then fired a shot, having not checked to see if the firearm had any live rounds in the chamber.

It did.

The shot grazed one of the medics cheeks, but did not cause any serious harm. (Army soldiers unwittingly shooting themselves or their comrades with fancy new "enemy" weaponry was not uncommon at all during the war.) Schulz did speak of the incident in one recorded interview and could not help but reflect how the world would have changed but for mere inches. The hard-working, dedicated Sergeant who dreamed of making the comics page his life's work may have lost it all with one ill-advised squeeze of the trigger.

Knowing of this incident makes the strip at number 6 a complete breath-thief. It may seem so silly and random to suddenly have Charlie Brown scream out the report of a child's fake pistol, then apologize for it, but to Charles Schulz there was nothing silly or random about what happened that day in May. It's a man who forgets no slight, no shame, who is still learning to live with regrets even as he makes manifest his destiny.

5. 10/16/81




For proof of Charlie Brown's acceptance of himself as an undeniable failure face...here you go. Life may get better for him, but not by that much, and not for too long, and it was probably an accident anyway.

(Slight issue I have here. Patty and Chuck are chatting at the neighborhood wall, then at the last square, the wall is gone. Did they start walking away, then Charlie Brown suddenly thought, hey, I got the perfect person for you to talk to right here? I kinda wish Schulz had made this a Sunday, with that exact scenario playing out.)

4. 8/27/57



Math! Ugh! Or, rather, AUGH!

Linus defends his right to be dumb as rocks (with one of the most gut-bustingly hilarious lines Schulz ever conjured up). Which is quite cute when you're a kid, but when you get older, such behavior should be discontinued and discouraged lest you end up enraptured with the mystery of magnetism. I distinctly remember as a child wondering why there was a "highest" and a "lowest" but no "mediumest." Later I realized there is no such thing as the "most middle."


3. 4/8/63



You can rest assured that the composers and pieces Schroeder mentions were not selected haphazardly. Charles Schulz put the utmost care into the words he animated his drawings with.

This strip is so damn relateable that multiple music blogs, sites and forums have utilized it, always affectionately. The first panel itself is Thurston Moore's existence in a square.

2. 10/2/50



The first Peanuts strip ever, and it's a knockout blow. Right away the reader checking out this new-fangled kiddy comic sees that this will not be the standard milquetoast fare that saturates the daily paper. This is the inexplicably resentful and two-faced nature of humanity illustrated through the soundless voices of young children. "Good ol' Charlie Brown. How I hate him!"

Just why would Shermy feel that way? Just why did Charles Schulz regard himself as a "blah" type of person with a forgettable face? Why would he question if he would be of any value to anyone without the acclaim brought about by his talent? Why would existential panic seize him in the night?

Some people just don't like the Charlie Browns of this world, the ones that don't know when to quit, or maybe even why they should quit. They believe in love. They treat people decently and are satisfied with doing the best they can, despite knowing that "winning is the only thing" will always be more oft-quoted than Vince Lombardi's later lamentation retracting the very statement that made him a legend in leadership. They feel with every inch of vessel inside their body. They are frayed ends and exposed viscera. They don't care about the dreams you have when you're asleep. They do, however, care about everything else.

Did Charles Schulz hate Charlie Brown by putting so much of his agony into this poor blockhead?

No. Charles Schulz loved Charlie Brown. That's why he became the unceremonious dumping ground for the neuroses that plagued Schulz. It made him infinitely more interesting and funny. I think deep down Schulz wanted Chuck to boot the football, but he just couldn't make it happen because...then what? Also...not funny.

1. 4/25/60



"Happiness Is a Warm Puppy" catapulted Peanuts into the pop culture stratosphere. A book of the same name that featured various scenarios showing what the Peanuts kids considered the state of being happy became the fifth best-selling fiction book of the 1960s. Peanuts posters and pennants dominated dorm rooms. Schoolchildren bombarded Schulz' office with their own "Happiness Is..." drawings. "Happiness Is a Warm ______" became a popular phrase, with no end to what you could use to fill in the blank. A firearms periodical titled one of their articles "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," which so intrigued John Lennon that he used it for one of the most beloved Beatles songs ever.

It is, of course, a simple strip. Lucy walks over to Snoopy, pats him on the head, snuggles up to him and walks away with a smile, uttering the phrase that launched an empire. The genius of it is Schulz' decision to make Lucy the one who says this heartwarming sentence. She is easily the most irascible of the Peanuts children, yet even she needs to feel secure and loved and warm and happy. She's a fussbudget supreme, and Snoopy isn't even her dog, and sometimes she wants to pound him, but at that moment that dog represents the peace that everyone needs to find and nestle into.

There is no hatred. No doubting. No arguing. No clever reference. There is love here, and it's requited. It's so requited your teeth could hurt. Just happiness. Elusive for so many hours of our lives, but resplendent when realized. So much of Peanuts delineated in pinpoint detail the suffering that plagues us. This strip recognized that it is not all despair. For what it represented to the world of Peanuts as both a work of art and a business franchise, it is my favorite daily.

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