Sunday, October 11, 2015

I, Blockhead

In the past few days, I've noticed a new meme on Facebook. In conjunction with the new "Peanuts" movie coming out in two months, you can create a likeness of yourself in the universe of Snoopy and Charlie Brown. Its a fun but inconsequential way to remind people that even if the comic strip ended over 15 years ago, the Peanuts brand never went away. Though the shelves of Hallmark are still crowded with Snoopy tchtotckes, the movie is a capital way to bring badly-needed fresh blood into the franchise. The brand has lied fallow for so long, there are now high school kids that weren't alive yet when Charles Schulz died; it's never been a cultural touchstone, just a bunch of cute toys.

That's not to say, however that I didn't have the cute toys. As a kid, I had at least one Snoopy doll, a few videotapes of the early '80s Saturday morning cartoon, and a handful of books. My kindergarten teacher was also really into Peanuts, and we bonded over that.  (For a time, I even made my own comic strip collections, cut and pasted from the Chicago Tribune, and gave them to her as gifts. Hey, I was eight.) Even though I don't think we owned a copy, "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown" was one of my all-time favorite movies. By grade school, I had transitioned from picture books to the comic strip collections.

For a strip that was drawn by the same guy with minimal assistance for nearly 50 years, "Peanuts" was the first time I noticed how an artist's work can change and progress with time. A shy farmboy from Minnesota, Charles Schulz was dead set on being a cartoonist at an early age. In 1947, he landed his first opportunity to draw professionally with "Li'l Folks," a single-panel strip that ran weekly in his hometown Minneapolis Tribune and later the St. Paul Pioneer Press. After 2 1/2 years, Schulz felt stifled by the local papers and approached United Feature Syndicate with "Li'l Folks." He agreed to change the strip's name to "Peanuts" (a reference to Howdy Doody's Peanut Gallery) and the rest is history.

Besides expanding from one panel to four, "Li'l Folks" was very much a rough draft of what "Peanuts" would become. The humor was cute but utterly pedestrian. The name Charlie Brown first appeared in the Minnesota strip, but it was applied to several different boys. The anonymous children in the strip were occasionally accompanied by a silent but knowing dog that was the prototype for Snoopy. Schulz submitted a handful of strips to The Saturday Evening Post, which sometimes featured (gasp!) adults. In adopting a four-panel format and leaping head first at a potential national audience, Schulz set certain rules, including limiting the perspective to children and dogs. Woodstock, the loquacious canary that Schulz introduced in the mid-60s, would forever have Snoopy as his confidant and translator. Miss Othmar, heard but never seen, would always have a voice not unlike a muffled trombone.

So why am I so transfixed on the idiosyncrasies of the universe that Charles Schulz created? Not only is "Peanuts" one of the few things I enjoyed in my childhood that holds up, it might actually be more enjoyable in adulthood. When I was younger, I gravitated toward the '70s and '80s strips, which were more gag- and plot-oriented. As an adult, you grow to appreciate the "classic era" (1956 to about 1971 or so) even more. It was sarcastic in an era of sincerity and earnestness, honest in a time of mincing words. Unrequited love and unattainable goals play heavily. In the 1990s, with the strip's dimensions altered to adjust for the dwindling size of the comics page, Schulz had built enough leverage to finally experiment within his strip. Sometimes he reminisced about World War II, discussed faith and philosophy on a more regular basis, and he even dwelled upon his own looming mortality. And yet, it was still extremely personal to the very end, a daily look into Schulz' tormented psyche.

When I do see "The Peanuts Movie" in a few weeks, it will be an intensely personal experience. I can't get through most of the old TV specials without crying, and I haven't seen "Race For Your Life" (despite being a light, slapstick-heavy kids movie) for fear of doing the same thing. I'll probably go the multiplex by myself, buy a ticket, sit in the back row and hope I don't use up all my paper tissue. I want to see this movie in a theater, partially to see if children can still relate to Schulz' little crew of underdogs and eccentrics, but also for closure.


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