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The Peanuts gang celebrates Christmas.
The Peanuts gang celebrates Christmas.
United Feature Syndicate

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The bleak world of Peanuts, one of the 20th century's greatest works of art, explained

The comic strip is so much deeper than the cutesy characters you see on greeting cards.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The last time you saw Snoopy or Charlie Brown, it was probably on a greeting card, or a mug, or in a commercial for MetLife Insurance. This is how you know them now: smiling and happy and spouting some sort of bland platitude — the better to sell you something. Even if you're consciously aware of their history as characters from Peanuts, even if you've read every comic strip they've appeared in, it's easy to accept this version of them as reality.

Now, with the release of a new computer-animated movie starring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the whole Peanuts gang, a whole new wave of attention is surging toward the characters. The movie is surprisingly good (and beautiful to look at), but it, like so much licensed Peanuts merchandise, frequently imagines the characters as happy little engines of good feeling, constantly striving for a better day — even when one doesn't come. While it occasionally aims for the melancholy once captured by the comic strip and its attendant TV specials, it rarely goes beyond bittersweet.

And that's too bad. The bulk of the comic strip's 50-year run is brilliant, bleak, and brutal. It's a deeply funny work about the utter depths of human despair, and about the ways we constantly seem to set ourselves and each other up to fail.

Peanuts, in other words, is one of the single greatest works of art of the 20th century.

Peanuts is about how dreams never come true

Snoopy imagines himself to be many things but can never actually be them.
20th Century Fox

The nice thing about Peanuts is that its popularity and level of influence mean it continues to live on in print to this day. The comics publisher Fantagraphics has published the complete run of the strip in books that have been released since 2004, with the final installment coming out in 2016. But even if you don't have access to the books, you can actually read the strip online, from the very first.

What you'll surely notice almost immediately is how damn bleak the strips are. Famously, the very first one features a boy introducing "Good Ol' Charlie Brown" (a moniker the character would continue to bear for much of the strip's run), before the kicker, when the boy grumbles, "How I hate him!"

The very first Peanuts strip.
United Features Syndicate

In Peanuts' early going, Charlie Brown is the only character with a definable personality, with goals, with a first and last name, even. And everybody else either seems to despise him or ignores him. He loses, constantly. He doesn't get anything he wants. He is defeated by his own failures (as in how he can't simply go over and talk to the Little Red-Haired Girl, his longtime crush) but also by his friends (as when he can't kick the football Lucy holds), and by the universe conspiring against him (as when trees devour his kites).

More broadly speaking, though, nobody in Peanuts ever gets what they really want. They are defeated by delusions of grandeur (see: would-be classical pianist Schroeder, who tootles away on a toy piano), or their own harsh natures (see: Lucy, whose certainty about how the world should run is always undercut by reality). Even Snoopy longs to be a World War I flying ace, but has only a doghouse and the power of his imagination.

In the original world of Peanuts, then, it's Snoopy who's most cursed. He, alone, can come up with an existence that isn't the spare, lonely one he exists in — where he can have complex thoughts but never communicate them to those around him — but he, alone, is doomed to realize how trapped he is.

Peanuts is also a perfect reflection of its creator

Charles Schulz
Charles Schulz poses with a drawing of the boy who made him famous.
Library of Congress/New York World Telegram and Sun collection

For the entirety of its run, Peanuts was the work of one man: Charles Schulz.

Unlike many comics, Peanuts was never farmed out to other writers or artists. It wasn't produced on an assembly line, as, say, Garfield is. It was, for the entirety of its run, the work of Schulz, who filtered his own darkest feelings into the trials and tribulations of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Linus and Lucy, and all the rest. In television interviews, especially late in his life, Schulz appeared to be a warm-hearted, paternal figure, who had a sort of gentle, Midwestern amusement at his own good fortune.

But Schulz included at least a little bit of himself in every character he wrote, and for years, Peanuts hinted at the sorts of personal grievances and frustrations he felt toward other people in his life and in his personal and professional relationships.

For instance, as David Michaelis points out in his essential biography of the author, Schulz and Peanuts, when Schulz's first marriage was dissolving, he turned, again and again, to the theme of Lucy railing against Schroeder for caring more about his art than about her — which wasn't hard to read as Schulz's critique of his own wife.

And yet Schulz could be Lucy, too, or Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, or Linus, or any of the Peanuts gang. The characters who proved to be the most successful were those who had singular obsessions — sometimes many of them — and great fantasies they could never quite escape, even if they were as seemingly harmless as believing there was a strange pumpkin who visited children every Halloween. (For more on this, read Sarah Boxer in the Atlantic.)

The characters who never took off were either bland everykids like Shermy and Patty (not of the Peppermint variety; a different one), or gimmick characters, like Pig-Pen, who lacked personality beyond a couple distinguishing characteristics. Without something to strive for — or something to struggle against — they simply faded into the woodwork. Schulz might have achieved his childhood dream of becoming a successful cartoonist, but he was always driven by his own feelings of inadequacy.

Thus, the longer you read Peanuts, especially its golden age from 1954 to 1974, the more obvious it becomes that the strip is an extremely personal work. It feels, at all times, as if you're looking directly into Schulz's soul to survey his values and cares. There are hints of gentle folksiness throughout that make the more depressing stuff bearable — but it's utter despair that makes the strip so bracing.

That's why Peanuts' rise in the 1960s was so precipitous. Here was an empty, stark comic strip for an age in which mankind had the capacity to destroy itself — and yet it was laced with a gag (sometimes a very dark one, but a gag nonetheless) every day. It was the ultimate Midwestern expression: horror served with a smile.

And then Snoopy got turned into a stuffed animal, and everything changed.

Licensing and merchandising irrevocably changed Peanuts

Snoopy Visits NYC ASPCA Adoption Center
Look! It's Snoopy!
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

The most popular argument about what ruined Peanuts (and "ruined" is a bit of a misnomer, as the strip continued to crank out occasionally great installments right up until the end — in very similar fashion to the way The Simpsons operates nowadays) is that the increasing prominence of Snoopy and Woodstock in the early '70s eventually gave way to a cutesiness that Peanuts couldn't overcome. The best version of this argument I've read appears in this Kotaku piece by Kevin Wong. Wong writes:

As the strip progressed, the beagle hogged more and more of the spotlight in increasingly negative ways. And the intelligence and darkness of the strip, which once made it so distinctive on the comics landscape, was replaced by more mainstream, cutesy humor.

Schulz himself even seemed a little rueful about how introducing other animals for Snoopy to pal around with ruined his relationships with the kids. The Atlantic's Boxer found a 1987 quote from the artist to this effect:

I realized it myself a couple of years ago when I began to introduce Snoopy’s brothers and sisters … It destroyed the relationship that Snoopy has with the kids, which is a very strange relationship.

There's a grain of truth to all of this. I've always said 1974 marks the fall-off point for Peanuts because that year's output contains some of my favorite strips of the whole run, but already contains some of the flaws that would become more apparent in the years ahead. It's also the year before Snoopy's desert-bound brother, Spike (whom I consider the weakest major character in the strip), made his debut.

But 1974 is also the year Schulz resolved a major conflict with his syndicator, which granted him complete control over the creative content and licensing of Peanuts. Up until that point, he could be overruled. From then on, he was completely in charge. The comic immediately lost some of its weightiness, now that he no longer faced a constant fight. (For more on this, see Luke Epplin in the LA Review of Books.)

This ties into the much more insidious reason fans can easily blame Snoopy and Woodstock for the perceived decline of Peanuts: They were by far the easiest characters to sell. Unlike Calvin and Hobbes's Bill Watterson, who railed against merchandising and insisted that it cheapened comics' hold on the reader's imagination, Schulz had few qualms about signing over his characters to appear on all manner of products.

The subsequent licensing deals weren't always bad. The many, many TV specials featuring Peanuts characters (which were often taken directly from Schulz's strips by the man himself) count as some of the best television programs ever made — including A Charlie Brown Christmas, which turns 50 next month. While the four feature films made with Schulz's input were more hit-or-miss, Snoopy Come Home nicely captures the melancholy ruefulness of the comic strip, especially in its songs. And no child's toy collection is complete without a stuffed Snoopy.

But when characters become commercial pitchmen, they necessarily can't be sad, melancholic representatives of humanity's potential annihilation. They have to be chipper go-getters, which is what the Peanuts characters you can buy (as opposed to those you can read in the newspaper) tend to represent. They're always smiling, always ready for fun. And that couldn't be further from the strip's intentions.

This disparity might have been fine if the strip had remained as bleak as it always had been, but merchandising took an already successful Schulz and made him incredibly rich. And while bleakness is certainly possible for the very rich, it seemed harder and harder for Schulz to reconnect with that part of the strip as he got older and richer. He even lived in sunny Santa Rosa, California, far from the bleak wintry landscapes that had inspired the strip.

Some things remained unchanged; Charlie Brown never kicked the football, for instance. But other things shifted. He did, in fact, hit a home run in the mid-'90s, in a strip that Schulz described as having emerged from how much he enjoyed drawing Charlie Brown being happy for once.

Charlie Brown hits a home run.
Charlie Brown hits a home run.
United Features Syndicate

Schulz, in other words, had finally won, and now Charlie Brown would too.

Licensing has kept Peanuts alive as a false version of itself — but may also return the comic to its roots

The Peanuts Movie.
The computer-animated Peanuts movie is better than it has any right to be.
20th Century Fox

The irony, of course, is that merchandising efforts are what kept Peanuts alive. The decline of print media has essentially dismantled the newspaper comics page that once supported some terrific artists and continues to boast a few truly daring pieces — to say nothing of webcomics. As a comic strip, Peanuts itself ceased production of new installments with Schulz's death in 2000. (It lives on in reruns in many papers.) But the characters are still around on all those products you can buy.



Thus, there's a sense that those characters have become a bit untethered from their original reality, the one that made them so popular. It's easy to imagine a child born, say, 10 years ago who knows Snoopy very well but has next to no idea that he's a comic strip character — or even a character from the Peanuts TV specials. In that regard, the Peanuts gang joins other 20th century icons, like the Muppets, in trying to regain relevancy.

And the biggest bid it's made for that relevancy in years arrives with The Peanuts Movie, which doesn't completely return the characters to their comic strip roots — there's a big, climactic speech meant to help Charlie Brown realize what a great person he is — but clearly understands that Peanuts is, fundamentally, a story of wistful, bittersweet sadness.

Schulz's genius, as many have noted, was that he understood how cruel children could be — and that he also understood how this might appeal to adults. The Peanuts Movie doesn't get to that point, but it does manage to capture the comic strip's rawness in its best moments, particularly in a sequence of scenes where everything Charlie Brown touches turns to ruin.

The film's episodic structure neatly captures the feeling of reading a newspaper comic strip, day in and day out, where things are alway s the same but subtly different. In places, it even quotes some of the strip's most famous bits, and the very last thing audiences see is Schulz's famous signature being scrawled across the lower right corner of the screen, a lovely homage.

The Peanuts Movie is also notable for understanding that Snoopy is a side character, not the major focus, which is the most heartening thing about it. The film's version of Snoopy might imagine himself as the flying ace in the film's obligatory, action-packed sequences — which look eye-popping in 3D and should succeed in their aim to keep restless kids from bolting — but he always has to return to being a dog sitting atop a doghouse.

There's a lot more of Schulz in The Peanuts Movie than its ill-defined promise of a "computer-animated Peanuts movie" might suggest. Instead of the vaguely plasticine look of most other CG extravaganzas, the strip's familiar characters look more like they're made out of fabric or felt, two-dimensional beings moving across three-dimensional backdrops.

The film struggles in places — like all projects from Blue Sky, the studio that produced it, The Peanuts Movie feels assembled from leftover bits and pieces scrounged from the back of Pixar's refrigerator — but at its heart, it understands Schulz as well as any Peanuts project since his death. It feels, in many ways, like a piece of the past perhaps too slavishly brought into the present; it's been allowed to keep everything that marks it as "of another era," while looking like it belongs here. It's the best chance at renewed interest in these characters in decades.

How fitting would it be, then, if licensing, the very thing that once seemed to turn Peanuts against itself, was the thing that also brought it back to life?


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