Tuesday, March 13, 2007

And That's What Playing Fourth Fiddle Is All About, Charlie Brown

Since 1982, when I was a shy, chubby little girl left largely to her own devices by parents too worn out by six older children to give much the shit about what I did, I found comfort and entertainment in the comics and cartoons of the "Peanuts" franchise. The newspaper and the library provided panel after panel of the black-and-white (color on Sundays) brilliance that appealed to so-called "gifted" kids like myself and wry adults, while the tv screen flashed forth more easily digestible renditions of this motley crew and their neurotic swagger. Even the mind of an "advanced" child is still a child's mind, though, and it would take until years later when I reappraised the legacy of a barber's son from Minnesota with an adult brain that I could start to appreciate a universe where losing without respite is the rule. In "Peanuts", no one could die; they must keep failing. Imagine Sisyphus trudging up the hill mightily, with a round head and zig-zag shirt, Zeus bellowing "Blockhead!" every half an eternity or so. Tis the world that Charles Schulz created and developed for 50 years. Think of that...not 49, not 51. 50 years. Perfectly round.

Here now, the 18 major characters throughout the strip's run, ranked by my personal preference (18 being the least impressive, 1 being of course the most beloved).


An OG character who lost her place as Schulz decided that she was not worthy of further development, and thus transferred her more outstanding traits into Lucy (where do you think Miss Fussbudget got the moxie to coldcock ol' Chuck in the first place?) Her plaid attire (with matching bow, even) was a nice touch, but the nether regions of listdom is the place for this lil folk, gone for good by 1976.


Original bud-o'-Chuck with a clockwork haircut. Very little actual personality, but forever entrenched in history via his outstanding dancing in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (do the Frankenstein!) and the fact that the very first strip consists of words spoken by Shermy and
Shermy alone. Phased out alongside Patty.


Arrived in 1961 with naturally curly red hair and a seemingly-boneless cat named Faron. While she never really blossomed, she did stand out as an antagonist to Snoopy, berating him for not fulfilling his canine duty by chasing rabbits.


If "Peanuts" is the granddaddy of shows that feature preternatural younguns, such as "South Park", then Franklin is the old crotchety bastard that Token has to tolerate endless "back in my day" stories from. Wearer of amazing pants and the least neurotic of the entire clique, perhaps due to having to put up with much larger issues such as racism.


The template for Lucy in attitude and hell, even appearance; loosen the ponytail and she's everybody's favorite crabby ho. Eventually, student surpassed teacher and Violet found herself relegated to parroting lines that years ago would have been hers alone ("Yeah, hello stupid!") and was eventually sent to the same purgatory that Schulz created for Patty and Frieda when the challenge of making them intriguing got to be too daunting. Except...Violet had far more personality than Patty or Frieda, and could be found in such strip runs as comparing her father favorably to Charlie Brown's, or in great individual moments such as punching Charlie Brown out of frustration when he began explaining how you solve your problems without resorting to physical violence. Schulz would frequently berate his strip choices, ie, lamenting Pigpen's one-dimensional character becoming so popular. One of Schulz's undeniable errors, although one I never saw or heard the man himself give voice to, was the gradual phasing out of Violet. She and Lucy could have co-existed, and to the benefit of the latter, at that.


One-note piano wunderkind...okay, not literally. He sure could whip up a wicked "Jingle Bells". But was Schroeder his first name, or last name? Unrequited love, such as that Lucy felt for this oblivious ivories tickler, is almost always intriguing (even if only as a penetrating gaze into the heart and soul of the poor asshole on the yearning end), but this particular hopeless fondness grew positively inexplicable as Charles Schulz steadfastly refused to make Schroeder much more than an isolated prodigy obsessed with an ethereal mentor. Schroeder and Beethoven, there's your fuckin' unrequited love.


So as the festival ended the 60s, the bird began the 70s. Yellow and mischievous, like the contents of the port-a-johns that met unfortunate ends at the Woodstock of the 90s, and certainly cuter. But having to have much of your humor come from another character (in this case, Snoopy) as he paraphrases your indecipherable straight-line gabble means you are overly dependent and thus can't rank too high in the JenntheBenn stakes. He gets this high, however, due to the fact that in the realm of overly dependent relationships, Snoopy & Woodstock is legendary. Inseparable, adorable, caring and unlikely...hey, just like me and my boyfriend!


Is he really brother to the world's most beloved beagle? Or is in fact this bedraggled, emaciated, desert-dwelling pooch really just another figment of the Mitty Puppy's wild imagination? This theory has been bandied about by a few of the strip's fans, most recently Whoopi Goldberg in the introduction to the Complete Peanuts 1959-1960. While Snoopy has had some of his craziest reveries aided and abetted by some of the neighborhood kids (think Marcie tending to the Flying Ace in her kitchen, I mean, French cafe), Spike has simply interacted with too many of them convincingly for the speculation to hold up. From Rerun's brief adoption of Spike as his own dog, Violet's outright rejection of the "part beagle, part disaster", to Lucy's taking to him as a project to indulge her inner nutritionist ("I'm nursing him back to health, stupid!"), this ragged vagabond is plenty real in the "Peanuts" sphere.


Popping up in the 70s, the littlest Van Pelt was mildly confusing--why, he's like a mini-Linus! As the script approached its demise, this increasingly-popular character was getting to be too much like Linus in a very unfortunate way: Charles Schulz was getting older and older, and while his mind remained sharp in his vision for the strip, his drawing hand wavered, and Rerun would oftentimes resemble his big brother a little too much. The fans who stuck it out were treated to a sweet, fun-loving kid with the requisite curiousity and knack for the wry observation, one who was able to carry a later period animated special, "I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown" (with the invaluable assist of an outstanding child voice actor and lines like, "Oooh! Supreme Court stuff!")

Personally, though, I will never forget my first exposure to Rerun through strip collections featuring him as the newest, smallest member of Charlie Brown's absurdly doomed baseball squad. Too small to pitch to, he walks in the winning run--"What's all the commotion about? We must be winning the Stanley Cup!" It is later revealed that the win must be forfeited; Rerun bet on the outcome with Snoopy.


Above all, this young man is awesomely filthy. He was not always so; but then, he was. It became a source of pride; his dirt is the dirt of life. To gaze upon his perpetually soiled skin, to pass through his formidable dust clouds, is indeed to be part of the inexorable chain of history. Additionally, he gets a pass from hippies for providing late Grateful Dead keybman Ron McKernan with his sobriquet. Most personally, my eyeglasses have been christened "Pigpen" due to their annoying propensity towards uncleanliness.


When you think of a dog from Minnesota, this is it. Fat Snoopy, and thus funny as all fat creatures are. If Larry and his bros. Darryl had a dog, it would be Olaf. The outstanding moment in Olaf history came upon winning an "Ugly Dog" contest Lucy entered him in, when the roly-poly beagle dealt with the humiliation by doing a header off Snoopy's doghouse, much to the owner's fright. Olaf explained that he always does that when he's depressed.


Booksmart, with little common sense. Much like this humble writer. Where I once burned water trying to make spaghetti, Marcie tried to waffle eggs. We both know the joy and pain of wearing glasses. We have both been accused of being lesbians. Only one us, however, had a "sir" to alternately idolize and condescend. The appearance of having no eyes to correct in the first place gives Marcie a stunning visual edge over other characters, and it is to her credit (and by extension, that of the artist, Mr. Schulz) that her smile is among the most warming things to be seen in a "Peanuts" strip.

And don't forget one of the great lines in the strip's history: "You are inordinately weird, sir." Used by me to this day.


Arriving 2 years in, she never looked back. Would be even higher if not for the undeniable shrillness of her person. Matt Groening once proclaimed this maddeningly complicated bull-terrier-in-a-dress his favorite "Peanuts" character, and she's impossible to dislike, if only off the fact that a preteen girl has been rendered so meticulously human. Yearning for love? Yep. Looking for a fast nickel? The Doctor is REAL IN. Brutal to both boys and her own girl friends? Believe that. The stomping, stewing contradiction that was, is, and ever will be Lucy Van Pelt cannot be ignored. A great negative is her lack of doppelganger, effective upon the unceremonious dumping of her friend Violet from the strip. While it helps Lucy stand out as her own entity, it would have been nice to have her face some competition.


Yeah, Sally has an unrequited love...they all fucking do! But her brother calls his oblivious amor "Little Red-Haired Girl", which is like calling an orgasm "Considerable Myotonic Reaction". Meanwhile, lil sis is on the hunt for her "Sweet Babboo", which is like baboon, or boob, and thus endlessly giggle-worthy.

Whereas Lucy has the hard-edged face and dark hair, Sally has a much rounder face and buoyantly blonde locks reflecting her younger age and wide-eyed naivete, the latter brought to wonderful life through her proclivity towards the murdering of the language. Sally has written earnest correspondence to "Mary Christmas" and "Samantha claus" and once told her class about "a very arrogant cowboy. He would only ride on pompous grass." To say she does not care about kings would be accurate indeed.

Most importantly, her heartwrenching emotions for Linus illustrate the antipodean appeal points of the "Peanuts" world: there is her gaping, naked-to-the-world affection greeted by his utter disgust. At no point do the kids "learn" to hold back, or "wake up" to the reality of the situation. In the face of hopelessness, at the feet of impossibility/implausibility, everybody remains steadfast. Admirable or asinine? For the answer, look to the next gang member on my list.


The focus, the center, the beleagured axis of this macrocosm. No kid could ever look like him or dress like him, but they could sure as hell love and lose and mope like him. What shines about Chuck Biz in a world of innocence lost quicker and quicker is that in 50 years, he never gave up the quest. And it never really paid off. Sure, he hit a homerun to win a game once. But did he win the love of his young life, the "Little Red-Haired Girl"? Negative. Would he ever? Of course not. This failure about all others defined him and colored those brief moments of triumph; Charlie Brown was never thoughtless, in either sense of the term, even if the world around him seemed to be. Perspective was never this kids problem. He knew who he was, where he was, but he also grasped the importance of persistence and belief. How many of us would just choose a different path? Not Charlie Brown.


You can just see Linus growing up to break hearts and being utterly torn up about it. If Linus has an animated decendent, it is Lisa Simpson. Two young children wise beyond their ken, sensitive souls seeking and searching, who remain tethered to the talismans of tykes: Lisa with her Malibu Stacy dolls and Linus with his dictionary-fattening "security blanket". The emotional turmoil of wanting to be older but needing to stay younger rages poignantly in both Linus and Lisa. So as Lisa is my favorite "Simpsons" character, Linus receives high marks here for providing Charlie Brown's reliable heart with a weary soul.

He is also the faithful preacher for "The Great Pumpkin", a Santa stand-in who provides Linus with the same crutch as all the other kids, but at his desire. The jolly fat man is someone the parents claim exists; Linus is telling everyone else about this magnificent fruit of benevolence. For stealing the fucking show out from under the round-headed kid in 2 of the first 3 animated specials, Linus Van Pelt gets a well-deserved bronze medal.


I can never tell how popular PP is among fans, as she is not exactly love/hate; late additions don't generally inspire that level of feeling. Her cultural reimagining as an example of a cartoon lesbian is well-trod material, and hardly one of the reasons I put her in the runner-up slot. She mixes the bungling of Sally with the yearning of Charlie Brown and even adds in the athletic prowess ol' Blockhead wishes he had. To see a tomboy in a book or on the tv screen meant I saw me. I had no freckles, no neatly matched attire, no sandals, no father to call me "a rare gem", but Patty's passion for sports and upfront manner ("I'm a real swinger") were instantly relatable. As voiced on the specials (often by boys), her raspy, deeper-than-normal voice meant that now I heard a girl who had a "weird" way of talking, just like me.

She worried about being feminine and beautiful--she saw it as the be-all end-all when mired in her deepest moments of self-doubt. She loved someone who could never, ever love her back--and clashed with her best friend over it. She absolutely sucked at school--and agonized over it. It so many times felt like Schulz was inking my feelings.

Patricia Reichardt is the head of the "Peanuts" kids on my list, then, due to her brash personality, the way she stomped into the neighborhood and left it all on the pitchers mound. The fact that Marcie idolized her despite such brainfreezes as believing Snoopy was just a "weird-looking kid" whose doghouse was a guest cottage (and that's the most egregious example; need you be reminded of the time PP thought she graduated from private school early only to discover she had spent the past several weeks earning a diploma from an obedience school for dogs?) speaks to her status. But there can only be one #1.


Behold, the simplest shit to understand EVER. Snoopy is king of "Peanuts", king of comic strips, king of dogs, king of cartoons, king of Japan. Relentlessly imaginative and hungry and cute--never underestimate the appeal of that last one--he is not just how you want your dog to be. He's how you want to be. Eternally cool, if not always hip; attractive, if not always good-looking; hilarious, if not always happy.

There are more than a few (Ken Tucker, "Entertainment Weekly") who point to the rise of Snoopy as the death of the strip. The beagle took off, and never landed. His face became synonymous with "Peanuts", right there with his owner, and some people wondered if all the plush dolls, figurines, posters, throw rugs, and toothpaste didn't dilute the strip somewhat.

It is true, "Snoopy Groupies" abound. I am a Snoopy fanatic; I find him the most comforting, endearing, joyous, huggable creature to ever be. Schulz drew him wonderfully (even the "banana nose" period) and fed his thought bubbles with radiant humor. The animated specials take on new life when the beagle gets his Joe Cool on, or takes to the skies against the Red Baron or, my favorite, when he smiles inexplicably as the kids fret about one thing or another. Snoopy at his peak is the greatest fictional character ever conceived.

Unfortunately, there are some who focus on the dog to the detriment of the lil folks. I have witnessed these people at Camp Snoopy, thoroughly unimpressed, if not outright befuddled, at the appearance of "Charlie Brown", this brave soul costumed to the nines and having to shrug with each "Where's Snoopy?" that gets asked by fat kids and their fatter parents. I wish all Snoopy Groupies would embrace the whole gang; that they don't is hardly the fault of Charles M. Schulz or United Media. The separate hysteria Snoopy can inspire only makes the 1. by his name that much more obvious.

Joe Cool, Flying Ace, vulture, Literary Ace, Legal Beagle, masked marvel, Easter beagle, pawpet performer, Flashbeagle, practically the entire animal kingdom...the roles he took on in the quest to be something more are so multitudinous as to justify another blog altogether. For the joy he has provided me, unabated, since I was knee-high to a cricket, Snoopy gets the #1 spot. Quaff a root beer for the greatest.

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