Apr 11, 2014

Peanuts: Pacing, Progress, and Peppermint Patty

I recently came across a copy of Peanuts: A Golden Celebration, and I burned through it within a couple of days, making a few observations and feeling the need to share them with you. So here I am now, talking about...

Peanuts: Pacing, Progress, and Peppermint Patty
by Duy

I've got a bit of a weird relationship with the life's work of Charles Schulz, as I certainly was exposed to Peanuts from an early age, but I could never really get into it or see what the big deal was. It didn't seem particularly funny, and let's admit it, it was kind of depressing. Schulz made it so that his characters, Charlie Brown in particular, were always struggling with life and could barely ever find success in whatever it was they set out to do.

Over the years, the appeal of Peanuts has been explained to me ad nauseum, by friends, fans, critics, and curators. I even went to the Peanuts Art Exhibit when it came to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2003. Schulz's work has been likened, several times, to a haiku, in terms of its rhythm and the fact that it tends to have a lingering final panel instead of an actual punchline. Peanuts stays in the air after you read it, leaving you to figure out what it means, or wondering what comes next. A lot of the time, it feels as if it ends prematurely. Like I said, it lingers. In a way, that's what makes Peanuts so palatable to adults; adults get it (or, more aptly, they get not getting it).

One thing I noticed this does, when reading a lot of Peanuts strips in one go and there's a long-running storyline, is the pacing gets kind of staggered. There is, to be sure, a clear flow within each strip, but the transition in between installments is a little stilted. That's of course in large part because of the serialized nature of the strip, but you know where else I find that kind of pacing? Very frequently, in grounded, down-to-earth, "indie" comics, such as the works of Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Seth. It's very similar to the way they jump or transition from one scene to the next, by ending one scene in a kind of open-ended way and then moving on rather abruptly. Reading A Golden Celebration is when I actually thought, "Oh, so that's where they get it from," something that never occurred to me even after a lot of them discussed the influence of Peanuts on their works in Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions.

Peanuts seems like simple work, but it's very nuanced. There's a complex web of interpersonal relationships that, when closely examined, kind of highlights the tragedy of the whole setup. Charlie Brown takes care of Snoopy, but Snoopy can't even remember his name, often referring to him as "the round-headed kid." Sally Brown doesn't seem to care what happens to anyone around her, and Lucy Van Pelt is as nice to her little brother Rerun as she is mean to her middle brother Linus, even if she's continually mentioning how similar they are to each other. Perhaps most tragically, for all the times Lucy pulls away the football or tries to bring down Charlie Brown, she also seems to genuinely like him, as much as someone like her is capable of genuinely liking anyone. This kind of characterization, when done in superhero comics, tends to get lost on fans, who mostly take whatever any character says or does at face value.

Side note to the whole thing: Lucy was based on Schulz's first wife. Make of that what you will.

Check out the facial expressions up there. It's easy to read Lucy's words and see that she's angry, and she is, but her brow's not furrowed at all. She's legitimately worried. Schulz could do subtle emotions; it's just easy to overlook them because of the simplicity of the art style.

Another thing that struck me was the letters that Schulz received, one being this particularly negative reaction to Franklin, the African-American character.

In today's "Peanuts" comic strip Negro and white children are portrayed together in school.
School integration is a sensitive subject here, particularly at this time when our city and county schools are under court order for massive compulsory race mixing.
We would appreciate it if future "Peanuts" strips did not have this type of content.
Thank you.

Look, this is a big deal. I know we want to get to a part in our history where this kind of thing is no longer a big deal, and Schulz probably just wanted to reflect reality as he saw it, but there was really no way, I think, he was drawing Franklin going to the same school as Peppermint Patty and Marcie and not thinking, in 1969, that he was going to get that kind of reaction. And you know what? It's okay. People like to complain about "diversity for the sake of diversity," but to that I say, (1) really, what else would it be for the sake of?, and (2) what is so wrong about doing something for the sake of diversity?

It would be easy to continually create all-white casts and it would still sell if it were entertaining, but you do need to make a conscious effort if you wish to diversify your casts. And that's important. People of all races and orientations should be able to project themselves into these things. People complain about that kind of thing today, but it requires a conscious effort. Diversity is and has always been an important thing to work towards. So in that sense, my hat's off to Charles Schulz. I can't even imagine what Franklin meant to young black kids growing up in the late 60s.

So I think I get Peanuts now, but I can't really say it works for me or that I'd seek it out, since a good portion of it still kind of leaves me cold on an emotional level. Except if Peppermint Patty is in it.

Patricia Reichardt is and has always been my favorite Peanuts character. She's insecure and kinda dumb, but she's got gumption and spunk and she stands up for what she believes in. I think that combination makes her adorable, and she's definitely, for me, the most consistently entertaining character in the whole strip. Schulz has called her "the part of us that goes through life with blinders on," and he's right. Peppermint Patty is nonstop, full gear, on with life. She enjoys life, even though she doesn't get it, and when something stops her in her tracks, we feel it, because she's such a great vehicle for driving a story forward.

When Peppermint Patty shows up in A Golden Celebration, my speed of reading increased immediately. When her first appearance came on in my GoComics subscription, I suddenly started paying attention to Peanuts. She's just that entertaining for me.

Here are some of my favorite Peppermint Patty strips.

Charles Schulz has called Peppermint Patty a strong enough character to carry her own strip, and I'll be honest, if she had headlined her own daily newspaper strip, I'd probably have been a fan, and I'd have read it all the time.

As it is, I'll have to settle for Peppermint Patty strips in a larger strip that doesn't always work for me. But that's okay. Even if it doesn't always work for me, I can still appreciate it.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Debra Jane Shelly, who convinced me to give Peanuts another try, and who passed away days before I found a copy of the Golden Celebration.

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