Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz

No library trip was complete without at least one Peanuts book. Usually I took home a stack of them. They were easy to read, lasting only a day or two. But there was something special in these books I could never explain. I see now the comic strip was full of psychological insights, social commentary, pop culture references I still don't understand. But back then, when the library still had its beautiful card catalog and the librarian would remove the cards from the pockets on the inside back covers and push them into a machine that would stamp them with a sound I still remember--WHOOMP--Charlie Brown and his gang were simply my friends.

Charlie Brown is the most put-upon character outside of a Dickens novel. He loses every baseball game, but he shows up for practice even in the pouring rain, once actually floating away on his pitcher's mound. Lucy always pulls the football away as he attempts to kick it, and he ends up on his back in a cloud of dust. But you have to admire him for trying. He expects the best from a world that again and again beats him down. After a brief flash of anger (dark squiggles over his round head) and a heart-rending AARRGH! he forgets and forgives the universe's transgressions against him.

And of course there's his love for the Little Red-Haired Girl. He longs to talk to her, to give her a Valentine, to ask her to a dance. But he can't. He shakes and faints. He is doomed to forever love her from afar.

It's to Schulz's credit that his characters are seen as fully alive, independent beings who happen to appear everyday in every newspaper that exists in the world. The creator disappears. But he's there. He based many of the Peanuts gang on people he knew. Schultz's father was a barber, just as Charlie Brown's is. The Little Red-Haired Girl was based on a girl Schultz dated in high school. And that lovable loser Charlie Brown was modeled somewhat after the artist himself. Even Snoopy was based on the real dog Schnoppy, mascot of the 42nd Air Squadron, who successfully landed the plane he was in after the pilot was wounded by the Red Baron.

But see how boring it is to talk about them as artifice? These guys were my pals, my confidants. I flew kites and cursed the trees that ate them. I sucked at sports but played hard as I could. I had a Fozzie the Bear instead of a blanket, but I knew how Linus felt when his sister would snatch the blanket from him and hide it or cut it into little pieces. You don't mess with a kid's security item. I knew the heartache of unrequited love, the loneliness of never fitting in, the feeling that you are destined for greatness even if the world seems to take pleasure in holding you down and snagging on you. I saw all the characters suffer insults and loss and disappointments, and I knew I wasn't alone. I knew agony was universal.

Another important aspect of the strip is the almost complete absence of adults. These kids mention their parents and teachers, but they seem to live in a universe made solely for them. Linus can sleep all night out in the freezing pumpkin patch. They can whip up a ball game at the drop of a hat. They walk to and from each other's house at will, whereas I always needed special permission just to go inside my best friend's house. But this is exactly right. In a child's mind, the world is there specifically for him to explore. He goes out with a stick in his hand and forgets his parents, forgets the rules, forgets the time. And nothing grownups say ever makes any sense.

The genius of Schultz is in making his characters children in the first place. The reader finds it easier to relate to children, and harder to ignore their questions about love and life and the big world outside. If Charlie Brown were an adult, his self doubt and insecurity would be grating and nigh unforgivable. But we see ourselves in the little round-headed guy, we empathize, and we experience catharsis with every muttered "Good grief."

Peanuts got a little cutesy in the later years, but at his prime Schulz wrote some amazingly dark story lines. I remember Peppermint Patty's school becoming so depressed that it spit out a brick and collapsed into rubble. The schoolhouse became despondent and committed suicide! And one of the strangest characters Schulz ever created was 555 9547, or 5 for short. His dad got fed up with everyone being treated like numbers, but instead of protesting, he gave in and just named all his children with numbers. Hard to believe the same man who wrote "Happiness is a warm puppy," also spun those same dour tales.

Schulz walked the line between adorable and depressing. He captured the truth of how the two worlds of adulthood and childhood mingled at the edges. His cast of kids were often quite violent with each other, sister punching brother, Charlie Brown suffering threats and insults from just about every female character. And every adult when weighted with the worries of an average life feels as small and helpless as a child. Despite the millions of toys and stickers and dolls, the theme parks, the commercials for life insurance, Peanuts will always have at its core an honest eye for human emotion and human frailty. And we'll all forever have a good group of little folks to call friends.

Peanuts Library at comics.com
Charles Schulz Museum
Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

A Year With Peanuts


foolscap Home       Podcast       Essays       Poems       Songs       Videos       Stories       Images foolscap

Vestigial
now available for purchase or download
.
Vestigial by Michael Channing