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Comics: Good Grief

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The little, tousle-haired boy has built a magnificent sand castle, complete with turrets and battlements. Then the rains come. Standing amid the washed-out ruins of his “house upon the sand,” the youngster seems to be groping for a half-forgotten truth from Sunday school. “There’s a lesson to be learned here somewhere,” he says wanly. “But I don’t know what it is.”

A black-haired moppet draws a picture of a heart on a fence and explains to the little boy: “One side is filled with hate and the other side is filled with love. These are the two forces constantly at war with each other.” The boy clutches his chest: “I think I know just what you mean. I can feel them fighting.”

From behind a lemonade stand labeled “Psychiatric Care,” the same little girl listens to a little blonde girl’s troubles: “My problem is I’m afraid of kindergarten. 1 don’t even know why! I try to reason it out, but I can’t.” Responds the junior psychiatrist: “You’re no different from anybody else. Five cents, please.”

Religion, psychiatry, education—indeed all the complexities of the modern world—seem more amusing than menacing when they are seen through the clear, uncompromising eyes of the comic-strip kids from Peanuts. The wry and wistful characters created by Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz have all but come to life for readers in the U.S. and abroad as they demonstrate daily and Sunday an engaging wisdom beyond their years, a simplistic yet somehow impressive understanding of the assorted problems that perplex their elders.

Comics have espoused many causes; the strips have been crammed with all kinds of propaganda. But Peanuts is the leader of a refreshing new breed that takes an unprecedented interest in the basics of life. Love, hate, togetherness, solitude, the alienation in an age of anxiety—such topics are so deftly explored by Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts crew that readers who would not sit still for a sermon readily devour the sermon-like cartoons. Some 60 million people follow the strip in 700 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada and 71 abroad. Peanuts is translated into a dozen languages, from Danish (in which the title becomes Little Radishes) to Spanish to Japanese. Schulz’s theology has even merited a solemn book, The Gospel According to Peanuts, in which Divinity Student Robert Short has found the strip filled with profound Christian understanding (TIME, Jan. 1).

On the Upswing. The impact of Schulz’s introspective, sophisticated humor is magnified, perhaps, by its novelty in an entertainment medium that has traditionally gone in for improbable adventure and is now up to its ears in the cold war world. Detective Dick Tracy, who once stalked gangsters on the streets, now marries Junior off to a moon maiden. Terry, who once snared pirates on the China coast, is now in the wilder blue yonder with an Air Force fighter squadron against the Viet Cong. Tired of designing fashions, Winnie Winkle has joined the Peace Corps, and is headed for underdeveloped Pornacopia. But Peanuts and pals are far removed from melodramatic plots and realistic art. They employ instead a deceptively casual style of drawing (the “toothpick school,” says one cartoonist) and a whimsical, often biting humor.

“The funnies are becoming funny again,” says Comics Researcher David Manning White of Boston University. “It is a verbal humor and it sticks. It hurts a little bit.” Adds Al Capp, who has produced some pungent humor of his own—and added Lower Slobbovia to popular geography—in the hillbilly world of Li’I Abner: “The new comics are the real Black Humorists.” In Walt Kelly’s Pogo, a group of peculiarly human denizens of Okefinokee Swamp —a cigar-chewing alligator, a bespectacled owl, a turtle sporting a derby—play with words, con one another, and offer the only trenchant political satire to be found in the comics today. In Johnny Hart’s B.C., indolent cavemen, sharpshooting anteaters and terrified ants make droll comments on the modern world. In Mell Lazarus’ Miss Peach, megacephalic, supersophisticated school tots show up their elders’ ignorance. In Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, a gawky, hapless buck private makes a hash of military life.

Thanks largely to these new strips, the whole comics industry—300 syndicated strips and panels in 1,700 newspapers—is pulling itself out of the doldrums. In the 1950s the comics lost both readers and advertisers to television. Now that TV’s appeal has begun to tarnish, the comics are on the upswing. Advertising revenue for the Sunday comics supplements reached an estimated 6,000,000 in 1964, double what it was the year before. While adventure strips may be hard-put to compete with TV shoot-’em-ups, there is nothing on television that packs quite the same punch as a comic strip that succeeds in being funny. From time to time, when editors have made the mistake of trying to drop one of these newer strips, the reader reaction has usually been so vehement that the strip reappeared.

Furrowed Brow. Of all the newcomers, Peanuts, which arrived on the comics page 15 years ago, is by far the most appealing. And Charlie Brown, the principal Peanut, is a likely candidate for most popular kid in the country. With the merest wisp of hair and a perpetually furrowed brow, Charlie gazes blankly on a world that is far too ferocious for him. Each strip is usually a lesson, complete in itself, on the futility of good intentions. “Believe in me,” Charlie cries, but no one pays any attention. When he calls to apologize for being late to a party, his host replies, “I didn’t even know you weren’t here.” When he carves a girl’s initials on a small tree, the tree collapses. When a little girl he admires approaches him in the playground, he gets so nervous he ties his peanut-butter sandwich in knots. When he wins a bowling trophy—a rare triumph—his name turns out to be spelled wrong. “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” he cries after losing his umpteenth baseball game. “Charlie,” says Milt Caniff, creator of the adventure strip Steve Canyon, “is everybody’s Walter Mitty.”

Charlie’s chief tormentor, Lucy van Pelt, is a tiny, black-haired termagant, a caricature of the modern aggressive female. “Here’s a perfect parody of what American life is supposed to be,” says Pogo’s creator Walt Kelly: “The ineffectual male and the domineering female.” “Blockhead!” Lucy shouts at Charlie, and the insult throws him into a somersault. When she has outwitted him, she purrs: “I admire your boundless faith in human nature.” Bellows this girl who aspires to go to military school: “I don’t want any downs—I just want ups and ups and ups.”

Lucy’s little tousle-haired brother Linus is the strip’s intellectual, but he is thrown into a tizzy whenever he loses his security blanket. “Sucking your thumb without a blanket,” he confides, “is like eating a cone without ice cream.” Linus is Horatio Alger in reverse: “No problem is so big or so complicated that it cannot be run away from.” Snoopy, the dog with the floppy ears and foolish smile, is the perfect hedonist. He dances, skates, jumps rope, hunches like a vulture but above all likes to lie flat on his back on the top of his doghouse awaiting supper —which sometimes includes a dish of sherbet on the side. Snoopy is no great shakes at chasing rabbits (“I don’t even know what a rabbit smells like”), but he never fails to sniff out ice cream cones and candy. “Snoopy is not a real dog,” says Schulz. “He is an image of what people would like a dog to be.”

Pathos in a Line. Other Peanuts characters pop up from time to time. Lucy has several fuss-budget understudies: Patty, Sally, Violet and Frieda. Pig-Pen is a “human soil bank” who raises a cloud of dust on a perfectly clean street and passes out gumdrops that are invariably black. Mop-haired Schroeder is always banging out Beethoven on the piano or gazing soulfully at a bust of the master (“I picked Beethoven,” says Schulz, “because he is sort of pompous and grandiose. I like Brahms better”). Lucy is in love with Schroeder, but he is too busy with Beethoven to care. She gets revenge. She invites Schroeder to play at a “dinner party,” and Schroeder finds himself serenading Snoopy over a bowl of dog food.

By economizing on words and lines, Schulz produces a lean, spare, dryly witty strip that avoids the archness and sentimentality of most comics that deal with children. With the barely perceptible wriggle of a line, he can convey a pathos and tenderness beyond the reach of most of his colleagues. The dots at either end of Charlie’s mouth sum up six years of concentrated worry. So subtle is Schulz’s drawing that some of his best panels are wordless —as when the Peanuts are gathered to observe somberly the first snowflake of winter.

“The Peanuts characters are good mean little bastards,” says Al Capp, “eager to hurt each other. That’s why they are so delicious. They wound each other with the greatest enthusiasm. Anybody who sees theology in them is a devil worshiper.” Maybe so. But there is no doubt that Schulz, a fervent Bible reader, is aware of original sin. He owns up to making his Peanuts mean because he believes that kids are born mean. But by making his characters cruel on occasion, he has also made them believable. They have a dignity and a formality that is touching; children are people, too, Schulz seems to say. “I want to remind adults of the pressures children are always being put under.”

There is, in fact, a lifetime of observation encapsulated in Charlie Brown, although Schulz is at once serious and casual about it all: “Of course, there is lots of meaning. But I can’t explain it. What the people see in it, that’s what’s in it.”

Nice Boys Lose. Certainly much of Schulz’s own life is in the strip: the harrowing little frustrations, the countless near-misses. “I guess I’m 100% Charlie Brown. Sixty million people read about the dumb things I did when I was little.” Born in Minneapolis in 1922, Schulz was dubbed Sparky (after the rambunctious, blanket-draped horse in the strip Barney Google) when he was two days old, and the name stuck. As a boy, Sparky avidly read the comics, sketched illustrations of Sherlock Holmes stories and of his own dog Spike (Snoopy’s model). “He was,” says Schulz, “the most intelligent dog there ever was. You could say ‘Spike, go get a potato,’ and Spike would go down to the cellar and come back with one. When I was about 16 I used to chip nine-iron shots to him from about 25 feet away and he never missed catching them in his teeth.”

In the Charlie Brown pattern, Sparky’s life was one good grief after another. School was a “harsh and strict jail.” Sparky skipped a year in grade school, but later atoned for that triumph by flunking every course and being left back. His one pride was his drawing skill, and he proudly submitted some sketches to the high school yearbook; inevitably, they were rejected. He joined pickup baseball games, but his team almost always lost. “People are skeptical about Charlie Brown’s losing a game 40 to nothing, but I distinctly remember a day when our team was beaten 40 to nothing.” Sparky was afraid to talk to girls and did not have his first date until two years after graduating from high school. Once he overheard a friend of his mother’s remark: “He’s such a nice boy, isn’t he?” Thought Sparky: “Oh boy, is that all I’ll be all my life?”

Naturally, Sparky did not go to college: “It was obvious I wasn’t smart enough.” He was drafted into the army in 1943 and trained as a machine gunner, but he fluffed his one chance to use his weapon. While riding a half-track in the last days of the war, he spotted a couple of German soldiers, wheeled his gun into position and pulled the trigger. “It just went click.” He had forgotten to load it.

After the war, Sparky returned to live in St. Paul with his widowed father. He also joined the nondenominational Church of God: “I was a lonesome young man, and the church gave me a place to go.” In 1946he finally landed a job lettering a comic magazine; later that same year, he went to teach at a Minneapolis art school. There he finally overcame his shyness long enough to ask Joyce Halverson, an instructor’s pretty, blue-eyed sister, for a date. As Charlie Brown’s luck would have it, Joyce slipped on a candy wrapper while they were skating and she tumbled on the ice. But she picked herself up unhurt, and soon they were married.

Sugar & Spice. In 1948, Sparky sold his first cartoon to the Saturday Evening Post: a smug little boy sitting on the end of a chaise longue with his feet propped on a footstool. Not long after, Sparky was hired to do a weekly cartoon panel that ran wherever the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press could find room for it. Called Li’I Folks, the panel included some forerunners of Peanuts, but it was doomed. After turning it out for nearly a year, Sparky asked the editor for more money. His answer: “No.” Then how about giving it a regular spot on the comics page? “No.” Then maybe Schulz should stop drawing it altogether? Said the editor: “O.K., let’s drop it.”

That was Sparky’s last spectacular mishap. In 1950, after many rejections by other syndicates, Li’I Folks was accepted by Manhattan’s United Feature Syndicate as a comic strip. Over Sparky’s protest, the syndicate renamed it Peanuts. “I wanted to keep Li’I Folks. I wanted a strip with dignity and significance. ‘Peanuts’ made it sound too insignificant.”

Whether or not he was right about the name, Sparky was off to a fast start with one of his first strips, which forecast, in a way, all that was to come. In the first two panels, Patty walks down the street reciting the feminist verse: “Little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice.” In the third panel, she spots Charlie Brown and slugs him. In the fourth, she continues on her way, finishing the verse: “And that’s what little girls are made of.”

In his first month of cartooning, Schulz made $90; the second, $500; the third, $1,000; and his pay has gone up ever since. Today he makes $300,000 a year from his strip, plus sales of Peanuts books, pillows, napkins, games and dolls, and the Ford ad for the Falcon.

Some of Schulz’s early readers, who formed an almost worshiping cult, contend that Peanuts has gone downhill since Schulz went commercial. But if anything, the strip has improved over the years; both its drawing and satire have sharpened. While Lucy’s face is a little fleshier and meaner, Charlie’s head is no longer a perfect circle: he is less cute and more pathetic.

Cheerful Sadism. The comics were a long time working up to Peanuts’ special style and humor. Conscientious historians like to trace the strips back to Egyptian papyrus, Grecian ceramics, medieval tapestries, or Hogarth’s illustrations of 18th century London lowlife; but as a matter of practical fact, the modern comics were not born until the New York newspaper circulation wars of the 1890s, in which crude but funny comics were valued for their hold on readers.

The Yellow Kid, considered by many to be the first bona-fide comic strip, contributed the phrase “yellow journalism” to the language. Wearing a bright yellow nightgown on which words were scrawled (forerunners of later balloons), the jug-eared little tough got away with sadism that is no longer permitted. He bashed his pals over the head with a golf club, pummeled a little Negro boy while a goat nibbled his woolly hair. Other kids followed: the Katzenjammers (“Mit dose kidds, society iss nix”), Buster Brown, Little Nemo, and the long-gone Kinder Kids, a strip exquisitely drawn by the cubist artist Lyonel Feininger.

By 1910, the public had wearied of yellow journalism, and the comics calmed down. There was less jaw breaking, more jawing, though the humor was still basic. Mutt, originally a horseplayer, was soon joined by Jeff, and the pair still quietly swindle each other today. Abie the Agent, an ethnic comic character, often cracked jokes in Yiddish and was not above haranguing a waiter: “It ain’t the principle either; it’s the ten cents.” In Bringing Up Father, Irish-born Jiggs plans desperate stratagems to escape his starched collar and shrewish wife for the solid comforts of Dinty Moore’s saloon.

In the roaring ’20s, the family comics came along. Such respectable folk as the Gumps neither played the stock market nor swilled bathtub gin; it was probably no accident that Andy Gump was chinless. Blondie began life as a sharp-tongued flapper, but she soon settled down to suburban housewifely routine and is still the most widely read strip.* Little Orphan Annie veered from the family pattern since she lacked parents. But Daddy Warbucks, a billionaire arms manufacturer, has more than made up for their absence. With his help, ageless Annie has plowed under no end of evildoers while issuing a steady stream of far-right propaganda attacking everything from the New Deal to modern psychiatry.

Thwarted Love. In the 1930s, the once funny comics grew ever more solemn. Dick Tracy introduced blood and bullets that had long been taboo, plus an assortment of grotesquely drawn but weirdly fascinating hoods: Prune Face, Fly Face, No Face. In Terry and the Pirates, Milton Caniff soon replaced the pirates with the Japanese—Terry was the first comic strip to go to war. Later Caniff gave up the youthful Terry for the more mature Steve Canyon, a seat-of-the-pants pilot who fights the battles of the Air Force so effectively that Caniff was once denounced by a Congressman as a highly paid military lobbyist.

Among others, Joe Palooka has survived 34 years as a world heavyweight boxing champion with nary a scar to show for it on his boyish face. Buck Rogers, the spaceman who confronted atom bombs as early as 1939, no longer plies the interplanetary routes. But Flash Gordon still zips through space at supersonic speed on the trail of highflying gangsters, while Prince Valiant moves at a snail’s pace through meticulously drawn medieval sagas. And the whole idiom has been parodied by Li’I Abner, in which a collection of bulbous-nosed, ham-handed hillbillies makes monkeys out of assorted stuffed shirts-judges, politicians, business tycoons—who are unlucky enough to stumble upon the idyllic world of Dogpatch. The grandmummy of soap-opera strips, Mary Worth, who evolved from a seedy apple seller to today’s genteel gadabout, has spawned innumerable imitators: Brenda Starr (girl reporter), Dondi (boy orphan), On Stage (actress), Apartment 3-G (career girls). Along with soap, Rex Morgan, M.D. dispenses medical advice on everything from leprosy to euthanasia.

During all the years of solemnity, one strip provided an antidote of sophisticated wit, and all the modern humor strips are in its debt. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which ran from 1910 until its creator’s death in 1944, rarely strayed from the established routine: Krazy, a thwarted idealist like Charlie Brown, loves the mouse Ignatz, but Ignatz is so incensed at this unnatural love from a cat that he hurls a brick at her; whereupon he is carted off to jail by the guardian of law and order, Offissa Pupp. Herriman injected so much poetry into his guileless strip that it was regarded by many as high art and even made into a ballet.

Analyzing the Alienated. As the comics have grown up, people have begun to take them more seriously. In 1963, Rome’s Communist newspaper L’Unita ran a ponderous analysis of Peanuts in which it concluded that Lucy is a Fascist and all the Peanuts are sad little “alienated” Americans. “It is true,” concedes Communist Critic Gianni Toti, “that the comics have their own particular visible universality and are therefore democratic. It is true that during the war Tarzan left to fight Hitler, the Phantom was mobilized to fight the Japanese, and Mandrake engaged in counterespionage. It is true that Goebbels, when he found out that Superman had destroyed the Atlantic Wall with one of his krypto-rays, wrote: This Superman is a Jew!’ ” But Toti concludes on a properly proletarian note: “The great majority of the comics are in the hands of the monopolistic culture industry and are an integral part of a great machinery of profits.”

As in the case of jazz and Faulkner, Europeans pride themselves on having discovered an American art form long before Americans got around to recognizing it. At comics clubs, which have sprung up in France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland, zealous members pore over antique editions of American comics (old strips now fetch about $50 each), discuss by the hour the imperialism of The Phantom or the anarchism of Li’I Abner.

Europeans generally read American strips, but they have produced a couple of sophisticated versions of their own. England’s Andy Capp (which also runs in U.S. papers) is a rude little cockney runt who breaks all the comics’ rules of decency: he’s unable to hold a job, boozes it up, beats his wife. “Andy sets an appalling example for the youth of England,” says the London Mirror Group’s Editorial Director Hugh Cudlipp, “but he is irresistible.” France’s Barbarella, an unmistakable likeness of Brigitte Bardot, is an oversexed, underdressed space girl who beds down with some fantastic creatures, including a gigantic blind angel and a gentlemanly robot. Sprawled nude in bed with the robot, Barbarella praises his masterful technique. “Ah, madame,” replies the self-deprecating robot, “my impulses are rather mechanical.”

Breathtaking Censorship. For all the seriousness of European commentators and for all the new approach of style and subject matter, the comics are still regarded by their U.S. creators as largely a pleasant, well-paying business, in which salaries of successful cartoonists run to six figures. Handling this $100 million-a-year business are a dozen powerful syndicates and some 240 smaller ones—many of which handle only a single strip. The syndicates sign up the artist, sell his strip to the newspapers, and then try to convince the papers to keep running it in what Milt Caniff calls a “murderous business.”

For their services, the syndicates demand a high price: 50% of the strip’s sales and usually a copyright, so that if the creator quits or dies, another cartoonist can be hired to carry on the work. On top of that, the syndicates exercise a censorship that is breathtaking. When Dale Messick included a Negro girl among a group of teenagers in Brenda Starr, the syndicate rubbed her out for fear of offending Southern readers. When Milt Caniff used the Air Force slang word abort (to cancel) in Steve Canyon, the syndicate figured it came too close to abortion and changed it. In their own defense, the syndicates claim that newspaper editors are extremely touchy about reader reaction and demand immaculate strips. But as one indignant cartoonist puts it: “A syndicate editor reminds me of my mother’s maidenhair fern—you touch it and it’ll cringe. It literally shrieks.”

“Some of the more spirited cartoonists buck, kick and squirm,” says a syndicate editor, and Charles Schulz bucks as much as any. He complained about his second strip when United Feature sketched in a black eye Patty gave Charlie. Recently, United objected to the Peanuts sequence in which Linus’ blanket attacks the other Peanuts. “That’s monster stuff,” complained United Feature’s President Laurence Rutman, who prevailed on Schulz to abandon eight strips. “It’s not the real you.” In retaliation, Schulz bought a baby blanket, drew a monster on it saying “Boo!” and sent it to Rutman. Replied Rutman in a thank-you note: “It’s chasing me around the office.”

Schulz fights for his strip with vehemence because he puts so much of himself into Peanuts’ world. So vivid have his strip characters become to him that he talks of them as if they were members of the household. (They are as real to readers, who have sent blankets to Linus, valentines to Charlie, and a variety of clothes to Snoopy.) The psychiatry Schulz includes in Peanuts comes from his own intuition; he seldom reads any weighty tomes. “I try to remember that basically cartooning is drawing funny pictures. So I just draw some kind of wild action, or a kid with a funny expression on his face, and then try to think of an idea to fit.”

Schulz arranges his own life in the interests of his strip. He can rarely be enticed to leave home for fear of losing touch with what he calls the “ordinary way of life.” What the ordinary way of life means for Schulz is a 28-acre estate in Sebastopol, north of San Francisco, where he and Joyce and their five children live in uncommon luxury. Artificial waterfall, tennis court, riding ring, park, baseball diamond, barbecue pit, pool, all testify to Sparky’s determination to give his children everything he lacked as a boy. Keeping the family company are five cats, four horses, three dogs, two turtles and a mouse. In true Peanuts fashion, the dogs, says Joyce, are “watchdogs in the sense that a burglar might trip over them in the dark.” “Things are too easy for children nowadays,” says Schulz. But things also remain the same. At least one of his sons, Monte, 13, is an avid ballplayer who expects to play this summer in the Pony League.

Otherwise, Schulz leads just the sort of life his readers would suspect. His favorite hobby is golf. He attends the annual Bing Crosby Invitational tournament, aspires some day to play with Sam Snead: “I keep using his name in the strip, hoping that he will write to me. But he never does.” Neither he nor Joyce drinks, smokes or swears. Like his creation Charlie Brown, who never uses an expletive stronger than “Good grief!” Schulz insists: “I’ve never used a cuss word in my life. I don’t even like ugly words like stink or fink. Perhaps I’m just ridiculously sensitive.” He believes that “comic-strip artists have a responsibility to be uplifting and decent. This is not difficult. My book, Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, is completely innocent; yet in 1963 it outsold every other book, despite the waves of smut sweeping the country.”

Fun Without Flagellation. For the perennial critics of the comics, the new strips like Peanuts should come as a welcome relief. Taking the comics, in their own way, as seriously as Europeans, some Americans have castigated the funnies for offering a distorted, often brutalized view of life. In Love & Death, a brilliant indictment of the medium, Folklorist Gershon Legman writes: “Children are not allowed to fantasy themselves as actually revolting against authority—as actually killing their fathers. A literature frankly offering such fantasies would be outlawed overnight. But in the identifications available in the comic strips—in the character of the Katzenjammer Kids, in the kewpie-doll character of Blondie—both father and husband can be thoroughly beaten up, harassed, humiliated and degraded daily. Lulled by these halfway aggressions—that is to say, halfway to murder—the censorship demands only that in the final sequence Hans & Fritz must submit to flagellation for their ‘naughtiness,’ Blondie to the inferior position of being, after all, merely a wife.”

However merited such criticism, it thankfully does not apply to Peanuts and his breed. The newcomers offer shrewd insight and warm affirmation without stooping to violence or escapism. Gingerly, tentatively but hopefully, the comics are beginning to comment on life, confront social issues and satirize some sacred cows. And none of them do this so engagingly—or so successfully—as Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.

*As measured by the number of papers in which she appears (1,600). Rankings of comics are hazy, since syndicates disagree about one another’s figures, but Peanuts ranks in the top half-dozen.

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