For a comic strip so overwhelmingly popular (over the course of 50 years it became a $1 billion empire), it’s relatively rare to find someone who will admit to enjoying Peanuts, much less love it devotedly.
I am that person.
Though Peanuts is my only true fandom, the only franchise I actively (though modestly) collect merchandise from, I am not willfully blind to many of the strip’s faults. I understand how the prevailing themes of failure in the face of adversity, crippling self-doubt, bullying, isolation, nihilism about the state of the world, unrequited love, betrayal, mental health issues and vague theological overtones, are off-putting for many readers.
The first complaint I ever heard (from my mother when I bought a stack of Peanuts books at a yardsale), and still most often hear, is how painful it is to witness the constant abuse Charlie Brown meekly accepts at the hands of his so-called friends.
It’s really a testament to Charles Shultz‘s writing that the reader feels so personally implicated in the perennial tearing-down of Chuck’s ego. It’s not just that there’s something so identifiable about Charlie Brown that it’s almost impossible not to sympathize with him, we are also so familiar with the petty indignities he suffers. Shultz was a master of exposing the subtle cruelties, banal hypocrisies and creeping isolation of the typical 20th century North American suburb.
Peanuts is, if nothing else, a bleak existential treatise exploring the harsh truth that we are all alone with the cards stacked against us. You always strike out. Your true love is indifferent to you. Your dog hates you. Your friends take advantage of your weaknesses. The house always wins.
At the same time as these dark, socio-pychological dramas are playing out, there’s something sickening wholesome about the strip. The Peanuts neighborhood is made up of white picket fences, sandlot baseball diamonds, icecream cones, puppies, whistling birds, lemonade stands and kids flying kites. It’s the kind of place you’d expect the fire department only exists to rescue kittens from trees.
At first blush the comic is as cloyingly quaint as Family Circus or Leave It To Beaver. It’s easy to understand why so many dimiss Peanuts as a white-washed relic of the 1950s. People are often surprised (and more often doubtful) when you explain to them there’s deeper, more cynical social commentary underpining the strip.
And it’s both these distasteful aspects combined which allowed the comic to transcend the confines of the funny pages and become one of the first examples of graphic literature.
As popular as Snoopy’s frivolously absurd cosplay adventures (blech!) might have been, without the foundation of Chuck’s misguided perseverance, Lucy’s mean-spirited attempts to bolster her low self-esteem, Linus’ fragile psyche held together by his whimsical intellect and unwaivering faith, Sally’s borderline narcisism, Shroeder’s self-absorbed sarcasm, Peppermint Patty’s perpetual struggle with societal gender norms, and Marcie’s long-suffering adoration, the strip’s popularity would have faded over time like so many yellowed newspapers.
Most comic strip punchlines are based on situations the characters are placed in. With Peanuts the punchline was almost secondary to the outcome of the day’s strip. The characters weren’t plopped into a situation for the sake of a quick gag, situations were built around characters. Yet, even with the longer story arcs that developed, the strip never devolved into a cartoon soap opera.
For 50 years Shultz managed to balance light and dark, silly and serious, childish and adult, cute and cringing, without (entirely) losing sight of what resonated with his audience. Very few strips—Calvin and Hobbes being the obvious example—have managed to create characters as rich and rounded as the Peanuts gang. They are partners in storytelling instead of mere punchline delivery systems. Well, except for Snoopy. Snoopy is terrible.
In fact, the strip is even better without the punchlines at all. They almost always feel to me like tacked-on afterthoughts anyway as if Schultz just added them as a compromise to United Features Syndicate. I often breeze over them knowing the meat of the comic was in the first three despairing panels. Similar to Garfield Minus Garfield, the Tumblr site 3eanuts graciously does us the service of doing away with that pesky, hard to ignore fourth panel.
Links + Videos:
Official site (with comics archive!)
Why, indeed, Charlie Brown, why?
Troop Beverly Hills: