Friday, March 12, 2010

Charles M. Schulz – visionary and humanist: Part Two

Umberto Eco believes that Charles Schulz is essentially a poet and Peanuts is nothing but poetry in graphic form. In his 1963 essay The World of Charlie Brown, Eco has observed that the strip has an extraordinary capacity of “carrying tenderness, pity, wickedness to moments of extreme transparence” and a distinctive eminence where readers are accustomed to “…identify with the surface of things, a revelation that causes us to touch the depth of things.” Panel after panel Schulz’s artistic mastery is manifested in the graceful way he had moved from one kind of role to another. He can effortlessly drift from a funny cartoonist to a lyrical poet, from a keen social observer to a visionary philosopher almost unnoticed. Eco has also found that regardless of the diverse role he plays while creating the strip, Schulz’s art essentially remains “his version of the human condition” produced from everyday events. Peanuts can be read on several levels due to this assorted appeal and Schulz could create a pensive mood by infusing a tempting optimism and hope within the milieu of despair. Quite obviously, unrequited love became a central theme of Peanuts. The narrative has also given emphasis to various Christian themes. Even if the strip has distinctly represented the American way of life and Schulz had undoubtedly transpired himself into America’s conscience, the strip’s sheer chemistry of blending social and moral subjects with complex themes and ideas, its appealing characterization and lucid dialogues has touched million hearts across the globe. Readers have found it easy to relate themselves with the characters.

Although Peanuts featured only the children, the strip is certainly not about childhood. The losses, rejections and disillusionments faced by the children are mostly related with the psychosomatic torments of the modern industrial society. “Happiness,” Schulz had pointed out, “does not create humor.” According to David Michaelis, the author of Schulz’s recent biography, “In Peanuts, the game was always lost, the football always snatched away … the kite was not just stuck in a tree, it was eaten by it; the pitcher did not just give up a line drive, he was stripped bare by it, exposed.” The genius of Schulz lies in shattering the delusion about childhood inside the adult psyche. The children in Peanuts are actually representing the epitome of human life confronting all the unavoidable complexities of the adult world – depression, loneliness, melancholy, humiliation, struggle to succeed, fear, failure, anxiety and self-doubts. Schulz himself had hinted on the real essence of the strip by saying, “Anybody who says Peanuts is cute is just crazy.”

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Through the years, the strip has skillfully addressed various socio-political issues with a dry sense of humor. Reading Peanuts in a socio-political context can uncover interesting aspects of the strip. An early strip had lampooned present-day consumer culture by showing Charlie Brown getting disempowered by the false needs of consumerism. Charlie Brown purchases a wastebasket, unpacks it, and feels gratified by the usefulness of his purchase after throwing the useless wrapping paper into it. In a 1957 strip, Snoopy is seen holding his fist in the air and moving around like the fascist dictator Mussolini to suggest Lucy’s fascistic temperament. In a July 1970 episode, Snoopy gets trapped and tear-gassed with the rest of the crowd while delivering a speech at Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. The trouble was caused by a riot that broke out during a demonstration against dogs being sent to Vietnam, and then not getting back. In another remarkable episode, Charlie Brown’s African-American friend Franklin reveals that though he had three good memories once, he has forgotten all of them. Franklin’s revelation comes after the opening panels where Schulz had related “good memories” with “hope”.

The crabby Lucy’s psychiatric booth is another superb idea conceived by Schulz to ridicule the neurosis of modern civilization and its citizens. Lucy, who probably achieves tranquility through her insensitivity, councils the alienation, fear, anxieties and frustration of any patient, “who has a problem and a nickel,” with her aggressive psychobabble. In one of the episodes, Lucy counsel Charlie Brown to develop a personal philosophy which will carry him through times of stress. After thinking hard, Charlie Brown finds one: “Life is like an ice cream cone…you have to learn to lick it” which caused a stunned Lucy to yell, “That’s the most stupid philosophy I’ve ever heard!” In an early 1958 strip, Lucy’s tousle-haired brother Linus gets terrified after he mistakenly interpreted snowfall with nuclear fallout. In another episode, Linus finds a note carrying several parental advices in his lunch packet and anxiously reads it. When Charlie Brown inquires about his lunch menu, Linus replies, “Carrots, Peanut butter and Guilt”. A 1969 series show Linus’s teacher Miss Othmar losing her job for participating in an ongoing teacher’s strike. In a parody of the space race hype, Snoopy imagines himself as the first beagle to land on the moon and feels jubilant for “beating Russians”.

The strip had also carried an interesting number of popular culture references. Charlie Brown wears a Davy Crockett hat and is seen surrounded by Crockett merchandise, Linus turns depressed because Bob Dylan was about to turn thirty. Peppermint Patty tells Marcie “Has anyone ever told you that when you're mad, you look just like Billie Jean King?” and refers to Marcie’s “Billie Jean King glasses”. Snoopy imitates Mickey Mouse and leans against a wall putting on black glasses to resemble Joe Cool. There are many other popular culture references like pop singer Pat Boon, rock king Elvis Presley, baseball star Duke Snider, comedian Mort Sahl, the popular children television show Howdy Doody, The Beat Generation and sci-fi movies that can also be found scattered in the strip. In a 1958 strip Charlie Brown asks Lucy, “How did you ever get to be such a fuss-budget?” Lucy explains her source of inspiration by displaying all the “fuss” titled books she has studied. Every of the titles were a distorted version of actual popular book titles of that time. Lucy’s favorite title I Was a Fuss-Budget for the F.B.I. was derived from I Was a Communist for the FBI, a radio show and later film based on an undercover agent infiltrating communist organizations.

Charlie Brown’s baseball team had three regular girl members Lucy, Marcie, and Violet on the side – an ideal example of gender equality. He even refused sponsorship for his team because the sponsor objected having girls or dogs on the side. Toy piano prodigy Schroeder with his obsession with Beethoven becomes the symbol of cultural snobbism. Pig Pen is always dirty and messy but when his companions accuse him for his filthy appearance, Pig Pen loudly proclaims that he has clean thoughts and an immaculately clean conscience. When Charlie Brown laments after losing a baseball game, “How can we lose when we’re so sincere”, he epitomizes all the misfits of a human society gone paranoid. This superb dialogue is a testimony of why Charlie Brown is called “the most sensitive child ever to appear in a comic strip”.

Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally’s school building has a habit to drop bricks on people it didn’t like. Sally loves to talks with the building and frequently questions its authoritative existence. Burdened with numerous complains and criticism, the building collapses from depression. While presenting a report on rain in her class Sally reads, "This is my report on rain. Rain is water which does not come out of faucets...after a storm, the rain goes down the drain, which is where I sometimes feel my education is also going". Sally also considers her a good evangelist because she was able to “convince” a classmate about the superiority of Christianity – by hitting him with her lunchbox. In an obvious display of the darker side of his humor, Schulz once showed Lucy’s “still on the bottle” baby brother Rerun Van Pelt getting involved in a gambling scandal while playing for Charlie Brown's baseball team. But Rerun has a point. How will he know that gambling is wrong when he is “still new in the world”? Besides, he had only bet a nickel. “What else can you do with a nickel these days?” baby Rerun candidly spells out.

“I want to remind adults of the pressures children are always being put under,” Schulz once said. In various instances his calm observation has revealed several absurdities of the modern world. In a 1988 interview with Michael Barrier, Schulz had spoken about the strip’s relation to social issues:

I think the social issues that I deal with are much more long-lasting and more important than losing the White House…..People say, “Don’t you ever deal in social issues?” “Well, don’t you read the strip?” If you read the strip every day, you’ll see that I deal with more social issues in one month than some of these deal [with] in a whole year. But you have to be a little more sensitive to it. (Source)

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In the year 1968, Schulz introduced the little African-American kid Franklin in Peanuts. Franklin is the first African-American character to feature in a mainstream American comic strip. From the introductory episode located at a public beach, Franklin informs Charlie Brown that his father is fighting over in Vietnam. They quickly become friends and Charlie Brown invites Franklin to visit him at this house. Schulz had never emphasized on Franklin’s racial background and denied any political motivation behind this character. But showing Franklin at a racially integrated beach at the time when the presence of African-American families on American public beaches was rare, Schulz might have made an effort to express his view on race discrimination with his characteristic subtlety.

At the time when the civil rights movement was at its peak, the introduction of Franklin was obviously controversial. Schulz received a letter of objection from a Southern editor for showing Franklin sitting in the same row in school with Peppermint Patty. United Features too didn't like to see an African-American child inviting his white friend to come on over to his house and asked Schulz to change it. In the same Michael Barrier interview, Schulz had expressed his displeasure against the syndicate for objecting Franklin’s introduction into the strip. The dispute on the issue finally ended after Schulz threatened United Feature's President Laurence Rutman: “Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit.” Schulz continued to draw Franklin attending school with his white friends.

Franklin is a thoughtful and sensitive kid who frequently quotes from the Old Testament. He is an active and serious student who reads psychology books and refuses to play a game of marbles after school because “I have a guitar lesson at three-thirty…right after that I have little league, and then swim club, and then dinner and then a ‘4H’ meeting.” He can ingenuously ridicule Lucy’s psychiatric booth by calling it a lemonade stand. He is the center fielder of Peppermint Patty’s baseball team and has a common subject to converse with Charlie Brown – about his grandfather. Unlike the other characters, Franklin has the least anxieties and obsessions but when Peppermint Patty cries after she is forced by the school principal to wear shoes that hurts her, Franklin comments, “All I know is, any rule that makes a little girl cry has to be a bad rule!”

Schulz had sought to depict the character in an unprejudiced manner and refused to make any overt political statement through him. Franklin was naturally accepted into the integrated milieu of the strip, treated as any other character and his existence was as normal as the other members of the gang. But still Schulz could not avoid being impaled by critics for showing Franklin as a “token black” character who had “no personality traits at all”. (Source) He had never addressed the ‘race issue’ openly because he believed that race was not his subject. He didn’t want to draw things unless he really understood them. Though on occasions, race did appear as an issue in the strip. While watching Franklin practicing ice-hockey to “become a great hockey player”, Peppermint Patty asks him, “How many black player in the NHL, Franklin?” Readers are divided on whether this is a racial comment or a question addressed to white America. (Source) In the animated film A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, a particular scene became the subject of severe criticism due to its “casual racism on display”. In that scene, seven members of the gang, including Snoopy, joins together to celebrate Thanksgiving and Franklin is shown sitting alone on one side of the table, on a fragile beach chair below the level of others. The scene has been read by critics as a subtle but insidious depiction to ascertain Franklin as a “racial outcast”. (Source) Whether this one-off example proves anything about Schulz’s race outlook remains arguable. But Schulz’s handling of Franklin is definitely different from the typical African-American stereotype depicted in American comics.

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Charles M. Schulz had “changed the entire face of comic strips” thinks Bill Watterson, the author of Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson further acknowledges that “there's not a cartoonist who's done anything since 1960 who doesn't owe Schulz a tremendous debt.” The Times called the Peanuts characters “international icons of good faith”. The New York Times editorial defined Peanuts as “an ongoing parable of contemporary American existence”. Garry Trudeau called it, “the first (and still the best) postmodern comic strip”. The strip continues to receive heaps of praise and gratitude even today. But there is also a growing school of thought that wants to remove the visor of appreciation and read the strip differently.

Like all great art, Peanuts also must be read objectively; with extreme care and attention. There are skeptics who believe that a genius with a tremendous mastery on medium can also elusively intoxicate minds and push people towards the realm of fabricated believes. How a comic strip that is devoted to failure did achieve such a universal success? Is Peanuts successful because it has worked like a palliative in the mind of the readers and diverted them from the rigors of their daily survival? Does Charlie Brown’s inability to establish meaningful relationships, his guilt, futility and subjection somehow create an off-putting feel about the complexities of life? Was there an innate but generous escapist feel that worked silently within the brilliant ideas of Peanuts? Did Schulz deliberately underestimate the social powers that controls life and ignored to expose them? Did he instead, accentuated too much to comprehended and explain psychological and emotional aspects through funny episodes involving funny looking children? For a genuine evaluation of Schulz and his creation, these awkward questions need to be debated.

(Return to Part One)

1. Chip Kidd edited: The Art of Charles M Schulz
3. Charles M Schulz: You really don’t look 50 Charlie Brown
4. Charles M Schulz: The Complete Peanuts 1969-1970 (Vol. 10)
4. website
5. Annotations of The Complete Peanuts
6. Umberto Eco: The world of Charlie Brown (reprinted in the collection of essays Apocalypse Postponed)
7. Calvin Harlan: Visions and Invention, an introduction to art fundamentals

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Charles M. Schulz – visionary and humanist: Part One

When Charles M. Schulz died in February 2000 after a battle with cancer, he was already famous and richer than any other comic strip artist in the world. He had achieved this phenomenal commercial success after a quiet start and became the highest paid newspaper cartoonist in the history of the medium. Over the course of fifty years till his death at the age of 77, Schulz had grown into a cultural icon of his era along with his creation Peanuts, reaching the peak of recognition between 1965 and 1982. The licensing agency United Features Syndicate Inc. earns billion dollars every year from Peanuts merchandise and paraphernalia. Schulz is the only American comic strip artist who was honored by Louvre with a retrospective show in 1990 – a rare honor for a cartoonist, keeping in mind that comic strips are generally considered as a trivial art form and hence not taken seriously by connoisseurs of art. Peanuts has introduced some of the most loving fictional characters of the twentieth century and is considered to be amongst the greatest comic strips of all time. While this strip has primarily dealt with the daily conflicts, complexities and torments of human life through a filter of innocence, the deeply insightful work cannot be tagged just as a bleak representation of every day reality. Schulz’s intention was to deliver dignified humor to his readers; he wanted to see them happy. He gradually developed a sensitive but highly personal language that spoke with absolute integrity and depth. His simple looking art was able to connect with his worldwide readers emotionally, equally charming innocent children and complex adult minds. The central theme of Schulz’s art was relationship – a timeless subject having a universal appeal.

Schulz had a rare ability to overcome all sorts of professional constrains and obstacles rising from the contradictions of a profit driven industrial-commercial production cycle. Instead of falling to its prey he had excellently converted them into his advantage. His artistic efforts and humanistic style has deeply inspired and influenced many of his fellow travelers who have passionately admitted to be greatly indebted by him for expanding the possibility and dimension of the art form. One among them is Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. While paying a warm homage, Trudeau explained how Schulz had, “... completely revolutionized the art form, deepening it, filling it with possibility, giving permission to all who followed to write from the heart and intellect.”

The creative journey of Charles M. Schulz started in 1947 with Sparky’s L'il Folks, a single-panel weekly comic strip. United Features soon changed the strip’s title into Peanuts which made its debut in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950. All through his life Schulz never ceased to loathe the new title imposed on his strip as he always considered it as the “worst title ever thought up for a comic strip”. However, the production manager from United Features who was responsible for the title later tried to justify himself with the claim that he had to name the strip without actually seeing it! The four panel format carrying Schulz’s highly expressive drawings ran everyday on 2,600 newspapers in seventy-five countries and reached to more than 355 million readers. The strip got translated into twenty-six languages and was merited to be the world’s most widely read comic strip during its heyday. Even today, Peanuts continues to appear in most of the newspapers that was publishing the strip when Schulz was active and alive. According to the United Features website, the strip “consistently ranks at the top of newspaper readership polls worldwide.”

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The foremost appeal of Peanuts is certainly its unique visual style. The extremely funny, simple looking yet highly sensitive drawings have always provided a rare freshness to the 17,897 strips that Schulz had created during his lifetime, all by his own hand. One can imagine how difficult it was to create a comic strip each day for fifty long years – the “never-ending burden of having to do something day after day after day”, to regularly generate new ideas and maintain a high level of quality. Schulz had to repeat his motifs and few basic themes time and again but was largely successful to preserve the magical quality of his strip all the way through. This is undoubtedly a phenomenal achievement.

It is well-known that Schulz had worked on every part of the strip alone, carrying out all the drawings with lettering, inking the backgrounds and writing the immaculate dialogues. He even drew the sheet music in the strips by hand. The apparent ingeniousness of his child-like drawings is in fact extremely sophisticated and formal in nature. Lucy leaning on Schroeder’s toy piano, Linus holding his security blanket, Charlie Brown hitting or pitching in his game outfit, a running, dancing or flying Snoopy, Peppermint Patty snoozing on her school desk, the typical somersaults and falls – all look fairly simple as a form but not really easy to draw. Schulz succeeded as a pictorial storyteller because his eyes were able to recognize the minimum clues that can express maximum message.

While drawing the strip, Schulz used pencil mock-ups as less as possible – only “to get the heights and space right”. He drew the faces directly from a 914 Radio crow-quill nib. The inward and outward pressure of the nib has provided a free linear rhythm and spontaneity to his strikingly beautiful drawings. As a pictorial composition, the panels of Peanuts are a spectacle of playful, expressive, polyphonic and tectonic line elements with directional contrasts. Schulz could inject a rare energy and grace in his tender and neatly rendered line drawings with remarkable variety, inventiveness and wit. On many occasions these drawings have achieved their expressive extremes to create visual poetry.

The linear tension of a Schulz composition is limited within the boundary of a square or a rectangle. These flat formats have an inherent psychological and physical peculiarity. The two-dimensional surface of a square or rectangle has a strange compatibility with the three-dimensional concept of the viewer’s mind. A diagonal line placed on a flat surface can project forward and backward depth instantly. When a line or a shape is placed upon a flat surface, the eye instead of focusing only on the line or shape is more likely to create a sense of pictorial depth. This perceived depth enhances the quality and scope of the given surface and converts it into a lively pictorial space. The perceptual forces are also relatively easy to control within the fixed boundaries of a square of rectangular panel space. Schulz became extremely aware of this phenomenon and cleverly used the perceptual relation between objects, shapes and figures as a structural and expressive advantage while drawing his strip.

There are some unique features in his cartooning style. Graphic marks are the indispensable property of a Schulz drawing. Juxtaposed or detached placement of dots, inverted commas, hyphens, a spiral, a little curve or wavy line became the graphic shorthand of Schulz that could lucidly express all sorts of human emotion – wonder, gloom, happiness, annoyance, grief, adoration or weariness. Most of the panel space is filled by one or two figures and their speech bubbles. The remaining space is either left empty or divided by using bare minimum props and settings. In several panels, only a horizontal or vertical stroke of line is sufficient to create the illusion of perspective. Except the speech bubbles, Schulz never required a voice-over narration to tell his story. A master with an economy of expression, Schulz can magnetize the readers by repeating a horizontal wall or a fence and two talking heads in every panel of an entire strip without being dull for a moment. Through this form of graphic simplicity Schulz continued to produce funny looking expressions and endearing gestures. A minimalist approach, sensible meandering of line, insightful use of pictorial space and a cinematic medium-shot viewpoint, all with impressive economy, has contributed the trademark visual style of the strip to stand out from the rest.

Peanuts took a long time to develop its readers. It also took many years for Schulz to mature from a draftsman to a highly skillful artist. He gradually eliminated all the aesthetic deficiencies from his artwork. The enormous round head of Charlie Brown in the early drawings were scaled down and fine tuned to get the perfect proportion and balance. The forehead of the figures flattened; the body curves became loose, wavier lines was introduced to enhance the design impact of the drawings. The beagle Snoopy deformed brilliantly to stand on his hinder legs from a four-legged semi-realistic beginning. Schulz later confessed that every time he drew Snoopy “he probably changes a little bit”. The naturalistic birds of the earlier strips transformed into Woodstock. The personalities of all Peanuts characters too developed alongside the transformed visual aspects of the strip. But under no circumstances did Schulz ever depart from his primary objective of drawing cartoons – the objective to draw funny pictures.

Schulz was conscious that he cannot draw the children from an adult perspective and so brought his viewpoint down to the level with children. His sarcastic humor rose from the everyday struggles of life as it passed through a filter of innocence. The eminence of sarcasm is noticeable in the way the strip has depicted the losses, cruelty and rejections of life in an apparently placid tone. Schulz, who was also a gifted writer of remarkable skill, knew how to effectively express all the complex ideas through his eloquent prose. Through words and graphic images he had created an illuminating and aesthetically refined language of his own. Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco has found his prose “almost courtly, in a language worthy of Harvard”. Eco has correctly observed that “these children rarely laps into slang or commit anacoluthon.” The Peanuts children were never seen to use an offensive word stronger than “Good grief!” while expressing their feelings even during the most despondent situations. The use of dignified verbal language with sparkling laconic wit is an indisputable feature of the strip.

Title image: Poster of the 1990 Schulz retrospective at the Louvre Museum, Paris; curated to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Peanuts.
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