By the end of its run in 1999, Peanuts was an institution. It had become an omnipresent part of American culture -- and that's not a compliment. The general response to reading the average Peanuts strip in the 80s and 90s was a "meh" half-smile -- a snicker, maybe, but never a full-blown laugh. The strip had run for over 50 years, but it was a flicker of its former flame, mostly coasting on its reputation and its endurance. Mobile users, please note this article contains a lot of images.
Humour-wise, it was aggressively safe and took no risks, which of course, made it ripe for global, unprecedented popularity. There was a figurative mountain of Peanuts merchandise everywhere, and the smiling faces of Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy stared back at us from shelves.
Perhaps Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, had the right idea. He stopped working on his strip after only 10 years -- a fifth of the time that Schulz spent working on his -- and he never licensed his characters. Because as legendary as Peanuts is, it was only 'great' for a 15-20 year period -- from about the mid-50s to the early 70s. And even by the 70s, there was a slow, but definite drop-off in quality. By the 80s, with the exception of a few notable storylines, the strip was essentially dead. The 90s was just more of the same.
And unfortunately, much of the blame for this can be traced back to Snoopy, the most beloved of Schulz's creations. 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 humour.
The now famous debut strip is an important reminder of what Peanuts used to be. Note that it stars Shermy and Patty, both of whom stopped being featured in the strip in the 70s:
It establishes, from its very debut, that this strip is not about the adorable inanities of being a child. It's about the cruelties and hardships of being a child; children can be bullying, backstabbing, petty people. And sometimes, children can be irrational, and hate someone for no reason -- simply 'because.'
Now, granted: the earlier years of the strip had plenty of easy, cutesy humour -- Schroeder, Linus, and Lucy were toddlers and infants at the beginning of the strip's run, instead of the seven and eight-year-olds they would eventually become. But it was still expressive humour -- Schulz played around with facial expressions and wordless punchlines to hilarious effect. Like in this strip, from 1952:
Or in this strip from 1953, which negotiates the indignities and politics of being a young kid, amongst bigger kids:
It was around the mid-late 50s that the strip really came into its own, and started cultivating an adult's despair and rejection. It allowed for Schulz to make pointed commentaries about the American dream, and the pressures of fulfilling it:
Schulz started repeating some earlier jokes, but in their retelling, he gave them additional depth and subtlety, like this Sunday strip from 1955, which is a longer take on the debut strip with Shermy and Patty:
And then there were other strips that were just pitch black, with no happy resolution or redemption. Because sometimes, life isn't fair. Here are a few strips from 1957. Notice how Schulz uses distancing in the first strip to show how small Charlie Brown feels -- not to mention how he uses blank space to conjure despair.
Even Schroeder, one of his most loyal friends, abandons him in a time of need. It's difficult to think of a strip that so cruelly battered its main character in the way that Peanuts did.
Schulz saw darkness in America's youth, and he highlighted their painful realities, particularly their social strata. Take Violet, for example; if Charlie Brown, with his working class roots and bad luck, was at the bottom of the pecking order, then Violet was at the top. She was the rich, pretty, mean girl of the troupe, and she spent her free time lording her privilege over the other characters. Most of the time, Violet got away from it. But whenever she did get taken down, she got taken down hard, and it was such sweet redemption.
The happiness we feel for these characters, when they occasionally get the final word or win, is poignant because they're dragged through the muck so many times. One of the most famous Peanuts strips is this one:
But that's all most people know of Peanuts, and that's a gross oversimplification of the strip. Because in his prime, Schulz always balanced the sentiment with the flipside of it, sometimes over the course of multiple strips, and sometimes in the context of a single Sunday strip, with multiple panels.
Which brings us to Snoopy.
Snoopy was always the wild card of the strip, because he was not tied to the same social conventions and behaviour of the other characters. He was a dog, and since there were no other animals in the strip (at least at first, but we'll get to that) he was forced to interact with the children in a different way, usually from a place of subordinance.
Snoopy began the strip as a normal dog, and the majority of his gags were of him doing traditional dog stuff. But a couple of years in, Schulz figured out how to characterise Snoopy; he was a dog who resented being a dog. So, Snoopy spent most of his time trying on other identities -- usually those of other animals, and occasionally those of humans.
But the end result was always failure -- for whatever reason, he would always revert to being a dog, because the new identity didn't fit him properly. It was a great commentary on self-acceptance, but also on embracing creativity and the need to dream of something better.
Failure was the key to Snoopy's charm; as it was to Charlie Brown, who never kicked the football; as it was to Linus, who couldn't give up his security blanket; as it was to Lucy, who never got Schroeder to look her way. On the rare instances Snoopy tried to be human, Frieda or Lucy tried to cut him down.
And on the occasions that he cultivated human emotions, he got hurt:
But near the end of the 60s and well into the 70s, the cracks started to show. Snoopy began walking on his hind legs and using his hands, and that was the beginning of the end for the strip. Perhaps he was technically still a dog, but in a very substantial way, Snoopy had overcome the principal struggle of his existence. His opposable thumbs and upward positioning meant that for all intents and purposes, he was now a human in a dog costume. One of his new roleplays was to be different Joes -- Joe Cool, Joe Skateboard, etc.
None of this had any greater, narrative payoff, or ended with Snoopy realising he was a dog. It was always a pure visual gag, and it lacked the subtlety, pain, and vision that had previously been the strip's trademark. In short, there was no balance. It was just a series of Snoopy in new costumes, almost as if Schulz was anticipating merchandise demands. Cuteness had replaced depth in a strip that had always celebrated the maturity and adult-like nature of precocious children. And since the strip had become globally, universally loved, there was little impetus to revisit the darker social commentary of years past.
Snoopy even passed for a human in many circumstances -- Peppermint Patty referred to him as the "funny-looking kid with a big nose," and took him to her school dance. And thus, the 'humanising' of Snoopy also meant that the real kids were used less and less. Snoopy filled their roles, and eventually, many human characters were discarded altogether. By the 80s, Shermy and Patty, who started the strip with Charlie Brown and Snoopy in 1952, were gone, or reduced to brief cameos. Violet and her high bred snobbery were gone. Frieda, who used to challenge Snoopy more than any of the other characters, was also gone. Instead, we got more strips of Snoopy in cute costumes.
This is no funnier than any standard Hallmark card. And as for Woodstock, he did the strip no favours either. Here, we had a character who didn't use words at all, and primarily existed just to be cute. It broke the chemistry of the main cast, because now, Snoopy wasn't forced to interact with the kids; he could just adventure with the birds and disappear into his own little world. There was a defined split between the Snoopy strips and the human strips, and both suffered as a result.
By the end of the strip's run, the artwork had also started suffering. Sometimes, due to poor health and unsteady hands, the lines were no longer clean. Schulz stopped detailing the characters' facial expressions, and they all took on a bland, monotone sameness -- but then again, most of the characters were subdued versions of their former selves, and rarely projected emotions with their words either.
Occasionally, Schulz threw us some abstract thoughts and reflections, but they were neither fleshed out nor followed up on -- they seemed like random, depressed musings, rather than fully-formed jokes or insights. Per usual, Snoopy (and now, multiple members of his family) dominated the strip to its detriment. And look at all those ellipses -- every thought trails off into the ether, unresolved:
Do you see how different this strip is from the one in 1955? But more people are familiar with the latter, and that's unfortunate. Two generations of comics readers think of Peanuts in a very limited way, when it was actually so much more, and so much better.
The new Peanuts movie is getting a lot of hype. We've only seen a handful of promotional clips and images, but at least visually, it seems to have made its transition from 2D sketch to CGI with its soul in tact. In the poster, there are even some nice nods to the show's history:
You can see Violet, Patty, and Frieda, right in the front rows. You can even see the Little Red-Haired Girl, and of course, she's covering her face. But we're a long way from the 1960s, and most people don't even remember what the strip used to be like before Snoopy hijacked it.
Yes, the movie will make a lot of money. And yes, it will likely put Charlie Brown and his friends back on the pop culture landscape, at least temporarily. But to be truly successful, it needs to have the thoughtfulness and sincerity that these characters were originally imbued with. Less Woodstock, more Linus. Less Snoopy, more Marcie. It needs to have a little darkness and a little sadness to balance with the silliness. Because as Schulz proved over 60 years ago, it's the combination that will make the audiences laugh -- and cry -- even harder.