Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts:

The Longest Jazz Solo in History

The panel opens on a barren sidewalk.  Two unnamed children, a boy and a girl, sit on some steps, leading to another, equally barren sidewalk.  There are no trees, no buildings, no animals, no cars … no other people save one smiling boy walking towards them.  The boy on the steps tells us the name of the approaching boy—Charlie Brown.  He repeats it three times, like a mantra—“Good ol’ Charlie Brown.”  Then, once the oblivious Charlie Brown has walked past them, heading off towards some unnamed, off-panel limbo, the boy on the steps finally completes his thought about good ol’ Charlie Brown:  “How I hate him!”

The whole sequence could easily be a moment in a play from the theater of the absurd.  Three years before Samuel Beckett would complete Waiting for Godot, a young cartoonist from Minnesota, Charles M. Schulz, introduced Peanuts to the world with these four panels.  For the next 50 years, he would continue to explore this most narrow of universes, a microcosm of modern suburbia with a core cast of only about a dozen old souls, adults trapped by the physical limitations of a perpetual childhood.  The characters play childhood games and go to school, but their perceptions, fears, hopes, and neuroses are decidedly adult.  Even though their story spans a half-century, Schulz, with the single-minded belligerence of an uncompromising artist, never broke form.  He used the comic strip to reflect the existential struggles of humanity in the Postmodern world, and like a saxophonist improvising the longest jazz solo in history, he continued to play until he had squeezed out every note and every last variation on the theme.  Then, like something out of a pop culture myth, on the day before his final installment appeared, he dropped the mic, walked offstage, and died.

I’ve been reading Peanuts my whole life.  My bedroom floor was littered with my own paperback and hardback collections, which I read and re-read until they fell apart in my hands.  They were never Peanuts to me—I hated that name as much as Schulz did.  To me, they were simply “Charlie Brown books,” and my library card was little more than a time-share contract entitling me to partial ownership of some of the older collections—the ones you couldn’t find on the spinner rack at Walmart.  I may have only been in elementary school, but I felt like a double-enrollee at university thanks to these “Charlie Brown books.”  From Professor Schroeder, I earned my music appreciation credit, learning the names of not just Beethoven, but also Bach, Handel, Brahms, Chopin, and Haydn.  Likewise, Professors Brown, Van Pelt, and Snoopy offered courses in Citizen Kane, Tolstoy, Willie Mays, the Bible, Woodrow Wilson, and even psychoanalysis.  Often, it would be years before some of these “lectures” would finally pay off, but as I grew older I was always delighted to discover that for most new subjects, I already had a head start.  Peanuts was the ultimate, catch-all, pre-requisite course for life.

And most of what the comic strip had to offer was distilled in that opening sequence of four panels with the children we would later learn to call Shermy and Patty, brooding over the existence of Charlie Brown.  Shermy’s hatred is deeply felt, torn from the bottom of his soul, but much like a Beckett character, the hatred is completely irrational.  There is no cause-and-effect.  Charlie Brown does nothing to warrant the hatred—it’s simply his existence that so offends Shermy, and there would be no resolution to the issue—no closure.  The intensity is simply there—for the moment—just long enough for a beat of ironic humor.  A few days later, the two would be interacting again as normal.  The moment of that punchline temporarily defines reality for both—it defines their relationship—but it’s an arbitrary reality, constructed out of whole cloth, and it’s only true for that one, singular moment.  There is no essential truth buried underneath it.  The world, no doubt, would look different to Shermy tomorrow, just as it would to Charlie Brown.  Just as it would to us.

But what of the girl whom we would later know as Patty?[1] She remains a mute, stoic witness to Shermy’s expression of contempt, acknowledging neither Shermy nor the passing Charlie Brown.  What does she think?  Does her silence connote consent?  In the second installment we get our answer.  In the first two panels, as Patty strolls down another one of Schulz’s barren sidewalks, leading, no doubt, to the same backstage alcoves haunted by Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, she recites an old nursery rhyme:  ”Little girls are made of sugar and spice … and everything nice.”  In the third panel she crosses paths with “good ol’ Charlie Brown.”  Without missing a beat, she whacks him in the face, blackening his left eye, before completing the now ironic line, “That’s what little girls are made of.”

After only two installments, Schulz had solidified the rules for his comic strip.  Random acts of cruelty would punctuate this irrational world, and Schulz’s trapped little adults would be forced to act out simulations of human behavior, using hollow gestures to try to create meaning in a universe where no other meaning was evident.  If Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been a cartoonist, the results of his daily grind, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” might have looked somewhat similar—each character a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” until he or she was heard from no more.

And in the center of this swirling black hole of meaninglessness, Schulz slowly developed his protagonist, Charlie Brown.  Originally a bit of a prankster, he would gradually establish himself as the comic strip’s martyr, his signature striped shirt a crown of thorns, scarring him as he trudged through one disappointing failure after another.  He knew he couldn’t play ball well, he knew he wasn’t smart, he knew he wasn’t charming or attractive, but rather than opting out or building a cavalier, ironic demeanor, he took on the old, outmoded mantle of the hopeless Romantic.  He was the torchbearer for an older world—a prelapsarian paradise where things still made sense.  Charlie Brown became the repository of hope in a universe where it hurt to hope.  He was like Jay Gatsby, forever pining, forever trying to improve, forever loving a world that would never love him back.  He might never kick the football—the system was rigged, after all—but he couldn’t help but try, and symbolically, in his greatest moment of failure, when he tries, he flies—an upside-down Superman for an upside-down world.

Taken cumulatively, Peanuts is a monument like few others, far greater and more profound than any of its single installments.  The art style is minimalist and cartoony, reminding us of Scott McCloud’s observation that cartoon imagery expresses concepts far better than realism.  The characters are universal—Snoopy, the fantasist; Linus, the philosopher; Lucy, the pragmatist; Schroeder, the artist—their attitudes resonate with us just as surely as we identify with their round heads and semi-circle noses.  And Schulz stamps all the strip’s heartache, angst, pain, and cruelty with a tone of wry humor, delivered in perfect deadpan.

Looking back, I’ve never quite known why I was so captivated by the Peanuts gang.  They were suburban kids; I was rural.  They were social; I was isolated.  They were independent; I most certainly was not.  But much like Richard Dreyfuss was drawn to the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I’ve always been drawn to the sidewalks, baseball diamonds, and doghouses from those “Charlie Brown books.”  I always intended to write a letter, thanking Charles M. Schulz for what his work meant to me, but I never got the chance.

Until now.

[1] Not to be confused with Peppermint Patty, a more popular character who was added to the strip many years later.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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