The 1968 Peanuts Treasury — a collection of late 1950s to mid-1960s Peanuts strips — is, perhaps, one of the most influential books of my life.
It was given to me for my fifth birthday, and I remember laying on my stomach in an armchair in the den, my head hanging down over the front of the seat, looking down at the book on the floor. Right away I was fascinated by the panel on the front cover that showed Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher’s mound with his head simultaneously facing two directions at once as he watched the conversations taking place around him. Why does he have two faces? I wondered — and then suddenly, in one of those Eureka! moments I’ll never forget, I understood what it was that Schulz was doing.
It was my First Contact With The Genius of Charles Schulz, certainly, but it was so much more.
The Peanuts Treasury was the place where I learned you could tell a story with words and pictures, though in a way that was different from the Little Golden Books. Each page was filled with four-paneled cartoons — reprinted in glorious black and white — each of which had its own little drama and a punchline. Each was wonderful on its own, but when taken as a whole, they created something remarkable — a complete universe with its own continuity and characters.
To my five-year-old mind, Schulz was writing these just for me. Characters yelled at each other, threatened to slug each other (or, my favorite, knock your block off!), watched television, played baseball, and read comic books. It was like a soap opera starring kids, for kids — except, of course, that Schulz wasn’t just writing for kids, but for everyone. The fact that he could make you think you were his target audience is part of what made him so terrific at what he did.
But there was more. The Peanuts Treasury was where I first puzzled my way through words and concepts like “grief,” “psychiatrist,” “Beethoven” (which I pronounced “BEE-thuvven”) and “humanity.” There were references to people I’d never heard of, like Sam Snead, Dr. Spock and Gordie Howe, and to odd concepts like “new math.” I learned friends could be fickle — playing with you one day, laughing at you the next — and that basic human decency, like Charlie Brown’s, almost always prevailed.
I was particularly fascinated by Snoopy and the range of characters he played: a sinister vulture, a mountain lion, and my favorite, the helmeted World War I Flying Ace (which I always pronounced in my head as “World War Eye Flying Ace”). I was proud that I knew the name of his doghouse plane (the Sopwith Camel!) and I had my mom sing the song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” slowly and deliberately for me so I could remember it, since Snoopy’s Flying Ace seemed always to be singing it in some lonely European pub that existed, I knew, only in his imagination.
Snoopy, in fact, was my hero for years. I learned to draw by drawing Snoopy, with that big looping head, the floppy ears, the button nose, and the slashed dots for eyes that had to be placed juuuust right. I drew my own comic books in which Snoopy — dressed in a Batman costume, of course — fought crime and drove the Batsnoopymobile. Snoopys of every size covered my notebooks at school and every classmate asked me if I wanted to draw Snoopy when I grew up. I would smile and nod enthusiastically and say that I did.
Alas, I never did get to take over the Peanuts comic strip. But I’m pleased to say today that I can still draw a pretty mean Snoopy.
“basic human decency, like Charlie Brown’s, almost always prevailed.”
It was even more profound than that. Charlie Brown is defeated at every turn; his basic decency is never openly vindicated, as Lucy and Patty and Frieda unceasingly tread all over his vulnerability. And yet it never changes his core.
More simplistic storytellers — the ones who wrote most of the Saturday morning cartoons we watched — would have us believe that if you maintain your integrity, remain true to yourself, you will win in the end.
Schulz knew different. He knew that the good often lose, at least according to the rules of the game. But he understood that we, the readers, didn’t need to see Charlie Brown triumph in order to find him sympathetic.
What’s really great is that Charlie Brown is no Pollyanna. He is often discouraged or depressed. Again, a lesser cartoonist would be unable to resist having the protagonist cheerfully preach to the audience about his faith and perseverance.
By allowing Charlie Brown’s decency to go unrewarded, Schulz invited us to imbue him with our own hopes. That respect for his audience was probably one of the key qualities that made us admire Schulz and Peanuts.
…and there you go, folks, that’s my brother up there! Now you know why I love talking with him!
Never step on my line again, pal!