Review: The Comics of Charles Schulz

Hey, folks – I’m doing pretty much the same review both here in the blog and on the podcast, although I’ll be winging it a bit in the audio recording. So choose which medium you prefer.

Someone once told me that a certain person of import on the Peanuts world had referred to me as “professorial.” Instinctively, I rejected that term, even despite the fact that “professor” was the nickname bestowed on me my one year at summer camp. But I realized I should be rigorous before I rejected it. By “professorial” did she mean dull and obscure? Did I have a tendency toward detail? Was I deeply analytical? Like to spread what knowledge I have? Drawn to tweed jackets? (Guilty there.) Focused? And after spending some time analyzing it, I realized what I was doing, and how it showed that the accusation (or was it praise?) was not without some merit.

But I am not an academic. I do not dwell in the world of ponderous papers and rigid references. Most of the reading that I do for my work is comics. And when I write about them, I try to write for the average person. So The Comics of Charles Schulz: The Good Grief of Modern Life, a new collection of academic essays from The University of Mississippi Press, is not aimed directly at me, but is nonetheless clearly within the realm of my interest. So I put on my “professorial” hat and waded in.

The Comics of Charles Schulz cover

The first thing that I should note is that the title is a bit of a misnomer. This book is not about the comics of Charles Schulz; it is about Peanuts. The essays that editors Jared Gardner and Ian Gordon have selected for this work include only a couple of very brief mentions or footnotes on any cartooning Schulz did beyond what is obviously the key work of his career, but do include full essays on such beyond-the-listed-topic items as the TV specials and Peanuts licenses. And there’s nothing wrong with a book about Peanuts.

I read the book over roughly the course of a month, and did not take extensive notes, and wrote this review over the course of another month, so what I’ll be giving here are what rough impressions remain from what I’ve read…. which is in some ways a legitimate way of looking at a work, seeing what lingers, and in some ways, not.) I read the essays (which are broken up into sections – “Philosophy and Poetics”, “Identity and Performance”, “Peanuts and History”, and “Transmedial Peanuts”) in order, so the view on the later chapters may be based more on fresh memories than the earlier ones which I’ve had more time to digest.

  • “Peppermint Patty’s Desire: Charles Schulz and the Queer Comics of Failure” by Ben Saunders: this is a look at Peppermint Patty in regards to lesbianism, which is hardly a shocker, and is indeed a reasonable topic when handled reasonably, and not just every comedy sketch’s first reference in a Peanuts parody. Peppermint Patty has a subtextual alignment with lesbianism, and certainly provided an embracable queer symbol at a time when such things were scarce. Saunders makes a lot of good statements along the way about her awkwardness and struggles align with queer concerns. Along the way, however, he dispenses with those who note that PPatty, despite being a tomboy, has textual hetero impulses by acting as if the only textual support for that is her desire for Charlie Brown. While he makes the reasonable case the she doesn’t so much desire Charlie Brown as she wants him to desire her, he makes no mention of the fact that PPatty actually had a boyfriend for a while, and while even though she saw Pig-Pen as a fixer-upper, one can reasonably assume that many people will see areas for Pig-Pen to improve in that don’t require some gender switch. (None of this to say that PPatty, were she allowed to grow beyond the top of the panel border, might not eventually accept a lesbian identity; I’ve known enough women who have dated males before finally accepting that that wasn’t for them. But if you want what’s textual, that isn’t established, and there is some danger in stereotyping all tomboys as lesbian.)
  • “‘There Has to be Something Deeply Symbolic in That’: Peanuts and the Sublime” by Anne C. McCarthy – What the title here does not reveal or even suggest is that the content is largely about delving into the strips where Lucy pulls the football away… and putting that all within Emmanuel Kant’s views of the sublime. Taking a glance back at this piece months later, I cannot say it lingered at all in my memory.
  • “Saying, Showing, and Schulz: The Typography and Notation of Peanuts” by Roy T. Cook – this is the one that I didn’t finish. It was so grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of how comics work that reading it was making me mad. To sum up my disagreement: Cook was saying that when we see musical notes in a comic strip, we imagine that we hear music. He’s writing as if comics is some sort of MIDI code to create a full movie in our brain… when seeing music notes may merely cause us to recognize that the character is hearing music. While there certainly may be individuals who, in certain works, will create an animated flow from the static images on the page, that is not something constant and universal to be treated as the way comics work.) Watching him build on such shoddy foundations just made it impossible for me to get through this piece.
  • “Consuming Childhood: Peanuts and Children’s Consumer Culture in Postwar Era”  by  Lara Sagasuisag – this is very much the kind of essay that I (as me) would want to see in a book like this (which it is.) The writer is taking a solid base of knowledge of something outside of the central topic and using that to give context to the central topic. It delves into how the world was transitioning to seeing children as consumers, and the way in which those changes were reflected in the strip.
  • “‘How can we lose when we’re so sincere?’: Varieties of Sincerity in Peanuts” by Leonie Brialey is a readable essay on what the nature of sincerity is – or natures, really – and the various ways that is reflected and discussed in the strip, and the ways in which sincerity is true or not true of the very strip itself.
  • “I Thought I was Winning in the Game of Life… But There was a Flag on the Play: Sport in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts” by Jeffrey O. Segrave is a reasonable overview of how Schulz used baseball, football, competitive snowman building, and more to express and develop character, and to comment on the world of sports as it was being practiced in the latter part of the twentieth century. It does resist being a light read (as that was never it’s goal); a sentence like “The message encoded in Charlie Brown’s athletic tribulations is that while life may well be futile, perhaps even absurd, and certainly comic; while death is inevitable and fame ephemeral; and while the heaviness of the Weltschmertz is inescapable, nobility lies not in the victory but in the challenge.” It speaks reasonable truth, but… well, I love me a good semicolon, but pause at having more’n one in a sentence. But hey, I write comics. There’s only so much one can fit in a word balloon.
  • “Footballs and Ottim Liffs: Charlie Brown in Coconino” by Michael Tisserand: This is a look at Peanuts relative to the comic strip “Krazy Kat”, including not just parallels but to what degree a relatively late introduction the “Krazy Kat” might have influenced Schulz. The writer, author of Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, an acclaimed biography of an interesting figure in cartooning history, is coming from a strong base of knowledge. My limitation on this article is that I’m not well-versed in Krazy Kat; I’ve read very little of it, and while I probably should settle down with a nice middle-of-the-run volume and throw myself into it (as I gather one should), folks suggestions that I do so often come across less as recommendations and more as prescriptions. I’m more interested in enjoying the strip than in appreciating and respecting it, much as that may be due. The piece is well-written and comprehendable, and it’s all on me that I was not invested in it.
  • “Schulz and the Late Sixties: Snoopy’s Signs of the Times” by Joseph J. Darowski puts the comic into the context of the times… in ways that often instinctively seem obvious to me, but then I have to remind myself that I was actually alive through the late 1960s, and the things that are obvious now may be less obvious and become ever less obvious as time goes on. But he does delve in well about how some of Snoopy’s World War I adventures looked viewed through the Vietnam era in which they actually appeared. (But that opens up a question for me: when is the most effective time to look into the context of something. Look at it to soon, and you don’t see the forest for the trees, your way of looking at it is still filtered through what may seem as The Way One Always Looks At Things but is really the way one is looking at things at the moment. Look at them from too far after the fact, and you may be viewing the entire period through the nostalgia version of the time rather than what the times were authentically like.)
  • “Franklin and the Early 1970s” by Christopher P. Lehman – this is a good overview of Franklin, why he was put in the strip, and why he persisted when other bland characters in the strip disappeared… but also as very non-bland characters in other strips failed to take hold. It reflects on how Franklin was on the forefront of integration of the comics page but missed his chance to take a similar spot on television, not appearing on screen until 1973… but that in ways he was better served on TV than in the strip. I think the author at times makes too much of a single strip, whether it was the one that established that Franklin’s dad was in Viet Nam or the one where Peppermint Patty made a crack about the lack of black hockey players in the NHL, but there are worse accusations than that one paid too much attention to details. A good piece, all in all.
  • “Making a World for All God’s Children: A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Aesthetics of Doubt and Faith” by Ben Novotny Owen – this is another good one, although it does of course take the book away from the “comics” claim of the title. It looks at the first Peanuts special in terms of the creative decisions made, about how the specific style of the limited animation and the use of the children’s voices have specific intent in achieving a certain effect in the show, and ties that to the history of limited animation, particularly the UPA cartoons that gave limited animation its own sensibility, instead of seeming like a poor attempt at something more lush.
  • “Charles Schulz, Comic Art, and Personal Value” by M.J. Clarke  seems astonished and fascinated by the value of a piece of physical comic art may be tied to personal reactions to the work or the body of work that it comes from, rather than some of the standard markings of financial value in the art investment world. Maybe I’m just blinded by my own purchases of comics art, which are driven by enjoying owning something that was part of something that I like or by an artist whose work I generally enjoy rather than by any intent to profit, but this just seemed a fundamentally trivial discovery.
  • “Charlie Brown Cafés and the Marketing of Peanuts in Asia” by Ian Gordon attempts to delve into the various Peanuts-themed restaurants that have opened up in Asia through the years, which is an interesting topic – I ran into a lot of this when I was working on The Peanuts Collection and The Snoopy Treasures. But the piece here felt weak, because the sourcing felt weak; so much of the coverage comes from a handful of web reviews of these locations. Those may be okay sources for an off-the-cuff blog post, but it didn’t feel like the author had enough for a reasonable academic work.
  • “Chips Off the Ol’ Blockhead: Evidence of Influence in Peanuts Parodies” by Gene Kannenberg Jr. – this one I had high hopes for. I’d love good overview of Peanuts parodies, what are the common factor, how they reflect both Peanuts and the world beyond Peanuts, how they change over time, and so forth and so on. I like Kannenberg, we exchange messages from time to time online. However, this essay was aimed at a specific audience, being an expanded version of a talk that he gave to the Modern Language Association Convention. This explains why the focus is on the communicative aspects of a few key parodies. (It also explains why, midway through, he refers to something as “a final example of Peanuts parody” and then goes on to discuss several more after; the expansion may not have been perfectly smoothed.) The work is academic in ways that I’m not that interested in; the moment I run into the word “semiotics” in any reading, my brain tells me that I’m about to hit a morass of reading, where I’m going to spend more effort decoding what is being said than I will gain value out of it. I could treat it as a puzzle to work out what is being said, and hey, I like a good puzzle, but then the victory comes in the decoding and I’m not experiencing the work as intended. The failure here is my failure, not the work; this seems like a good work for the right audience, and it was created for what sounds like that right audience.

Clearly, this book is not for everyone. It may well be for you, it’s hard to tell from this side of the blog. If it is, well, you can buy the $65 hardcover version if you want it now, or you can preorder the $25 paperback that will be out in April. (or, if you want it even cheaper and now, get the Kindle edition!)

Note: the publisher provided a copy for review. Also note: that usually doesn’t happen. Note further: I hope it happens more.

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