Thursday, January 10, 2002

RISE AND FALL OF PEANUTS: Jim at Unqualified Offerings points out this Peanuts appreciation and analysis by Christopher Caldwell. Caldwell's theory is that Snoopy's takeover of Peanuts is what made it in its later years a run-of-the-mill strip. Snoopy, in the beginning, was a secondary character (like Frieda or Schroeder) and the farther Schulz embraced him and goofy dogs-are-cute humor the weaker his comics became --what Caldwell calls a "a calamitous artistic misjudgment." He also identifies the core of the good Peanuts years as Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy. I love this take on Charlie Brown's character:

Charlie Brown is caught in a bind, because his sense of his own worthlessness is also the source of most of his virtues. Of his worthlessness he’s fully convinced. ("They say that opposites attract...," he says of the Little Red-Headed Girl whom he can never work up the courage to meet. "She’s really something and I’m really nothing... How opposite can you get?") But Charlie Brown’s low estimation of himself means a high estimation of others. The tremendous 1959 strip in which he learns on the phone that his baby sister Sally has been born ("A BABY SISTER? I’M A FATHER! I MEAN MY DAD’S A FATHER! I’M A BROTHER! I HAVE A BABY SISTER!! I’M A BROTHER!") shows that Charlie Brown worships his family and his friends. He’s so empathetic that his favorite big-league ballplayer is not Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle but the bench-warmer Joe Shlabotnik. When Linus gives him a gripping recap of a football game in which a team facing a six-point deficit scored a spectacular touchdown with three seconds left, Charlie Brown asks only, "How did the other team feel?" He is a deeply good person.

I don't know how novel any of this is, as I don't think they're teaching Peanuts at the academy yet. (The textbook would have to be big enough to fit fifteen years of strips, which is the 1955-1970 period Caldwell calls the Golden Age.) But it's a great read if you're a Peanuts fan, or just want to read some good criticism of an important American comic strip.

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