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Review of The Comics of Charles Schulz: The Good Grief of Modern Life

By Jacob Murel
Jared Gardner and Ian Gordon, eds. The Comics of Charles Schulz: The Good Grief of Modern Life. UP of Mississippi, 2017.

Peanuts has long been known for its humble and ponderous attitude towards life’s existential longings and inquiries: the search for meaning, happiness, security, and acceptance; hope and doubt; the yearning to be loved; and the pain of unrequited love. Writers from Chuck Klosterman to Barack Obama have seen in Peanuts a cartoon-philosopher wrestling with humanity’s universal quandaries. But despite its wide appeal, commercial success, and enduring cultural significance, Peanuts has accrued surprisingly little attention in academia. Jared Gardner and Ian Gordon’s essay collection The Comics of Charles Schulz: The Good Grief of Modern Life (2017) stands as one of the few attempts to explore Peanuts’ pervasive and enduring influence through a critical lens.

Of course, other comics have likewise explored the human condition’s timeless quandaries, such as George Herrmann’s Krazy Kat. But unlike Krazy Kat, at least according to Jared Gardner and Ian Gordon, “The themes we read about in Peanuts—the profound existential concerns about loneliness, love, faith, and grief—are there for the taking. No advanced degree or theoretical apparatus is required” (5). Gardner and Gordon are not the first, and certainly not the last, to compare these two comic strips. Umberto Eco addressed both simultaneously in a 1985 issue of The New York Review of Books, and Michael Tisserand explores their similarities and differences in his own essay included in Gardner and Gordon’s collection. But while Tisserand finds their central difference in that Peanuts creates humor from sadness while Krazy Kat creates humor from happiness (119), Gardner and Gordon see the difference in Peanuts’ ostensible simplicity. Peanuts, the product of a Midwestern man so adamantly unpretentious about his success and work, “seems to offer its riches too easily, too democratically for an academic scholarship built on the fetishization of ‘rigor’ and intellectual priestcraft.” (5-6, emphasis in original). In short, what makes Peanuts so remarkable is its professed simplicity.

Of course, there’s an irony in beginning a critical collection exploring Peanuts’ structural and thematic complexity with promulgations of its thorough simplicity. This critical collection’s very existence, with its contained close readings and historical/cultural analyses, seems to suggest such simplicity is all deception. But this is not the first work to champion, either overtly or tacitly, Peanuts’ supposed complexity. The Presbyterian minister Robert L. Short wrote much on the spiritual themes permeating Peanuts, and the strip serves a central position in Barbara Postema’s theoretical Narrative Structure in Comics (2013)—although this does not necessarily mean Postema subscribes to Peanuts’ latent sophistication, as she may employ the strip to exemplify her theory because she sees it as a “simple,” a bare-bones, non-sophisticated demonstration of her narratological principles. Umberto Eco even found in the strip a meditation on the neuroses of modern civilization. But despite any such disparate academic criticism, there remains, as Gardner and Gordon note, little academic work focusing solely on Peanuts despite the recent growth of comics studies as a field. There are, perhaps, many reasons for this, but the strip’s ostensible simplicity and humble spirit undoubtedly play a role, at least so Roy Cook claims in his essay included in this collection: “Schulz’s simple, minimalist drawing style and his tendency to focus on the funny, touching, or sad aspects of small, everyday events has encouraged interpretations…that fail to recognize [Peanuts’] structural complexities” (Gardner and Gordon 59). One can perhaps understand the whole of Gardner and Gordon’s essay collection as attempting to reveal these thematic and structural complexities in the hope of prompting further, more lengthy studies of Peanuts.

Alongside ostensible simplicity, Peanuts has garnered a conservative image it must contest in a postmodern culture that often values diversity and destruction of the normative or traditional for its own sake. As Art Spiegelman once quipped, “By the early 70s I’d come to associate ‘Peanuts’ with square Republican girls. Rereading it now, I’m astonished that a strip so universally popular could be so personal, authentic, and…Good!” (34). Indeed, one question concerning Peanuts’ success is how a strip so apparently white and middle-class—I daresay, bourgeois—can appeal to such a diverse array of readers. Several contributors to Gardner and Gordon’s collection tackle this ostensible conservatism either overtly or tacitly. As Ben Saunders argues in his included essay, “Schulz’s cartoons subvert this superficial conservatism by refusing to participate in the fundamental American myth of success,” most notably in Charlie Brown’s eternal failures (Gardner and Gordon 26). For Saunders, a further example of this latent anti-conservatism arises in Peppermint Patty’s queerness, which he claims mirrors Charlie Brown’s failure in being her own “failure” to conform to American femininity as defined by dominant heterosexist culture. In doing so, Peppermint Patty represents one of the “antinormative impulses of Schulz’s work” (26). In this way, Saunders argues the recurrent theme of failure in Peanuts demonstrates a latent anti-conservatism through “Schulz’s investment in failure…as a sign of a fundamental (and exciting) rejection of the normative within his work” (25).

Contributor Anne McCarthy makes a similar claim in a later essay on Peanuts and the sublime, in which she claims Charlie Brown’s recurrent failure to kick a football subverts another traditional myth of American culture: life’s inherent meaning. As she shows in her essay, whenever Charlie Brown fails to kick Lucy’s football, he tries to read some larger meaning into his failure. Here, “Charlie Brown’s error lies not in his trust of Lucy but his attempts to analyze his situation for a deeper or hidden meaning…His crash landing is also the crash landing of a desire to uncover hidden continuities in a constitutively discontinuous world” (39). For McCarthy, this manifests in the football strips’ visual structure: though the reader reads left-to-right, Charlie Brown always runs right-to-left. The conflict between reading direction and action visualizes how “Peanuts is fundamentally about the experience of coming face-to-face with the illegibility of the world” (39). In the face of this illegibility, Peanuts never offers any easy comfort. Charlie Brown finds no condolences or larger plan behind his failure. He fails and that is all. So here, we find one example of the subversive tendencies lurking beneath Peanuts’ superficial conservatism that Saunders mentioned. These structural and thematic complexities explored by McCarthy underscore Peanuts’ overlooked depth that Gardner and Gordon have sought to highlight with this collection.

But Peanuts further disrupts normative myths regarding the more critically in vogue realm of identity politics, at least according to Ben Saunders (addressed above) and Christopher Lehman in their respective essays from the collection. In the essay“Franklin and the Early 1970s,” Lehman explores the role of Franklin in relation to late-twentieth century civil rights movements. As Lehman notes, the introduction of Franklin made Schulz a pioneer of integration in comics, a creative maneuver heightened by the fact that Franklin, unlike other black comics characters at the time, was not the means to deploying racial humor. His relationships with both Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty became one of the only instances throughout seventies pop culture in which characters across races demonstrated empathy for one another. Though, as Lehman points out, Schulz never developed Franklin to the extent he did his white characters, Schulz’s introduction and use of Franklin’s presence, much like Peppermint Patty for Saunders, challenged American media’s conservative societal values.

Such culturally subversive readings may be surprising in that Peanuts, unlike Doonesbury or The Boondocks, has never been known for its political or cultural commentary. Indeed, the strip seems stridently apolitical, even when compared to traditionally non-political comics. For instance, comparing Peanuts’ representation of consumer culture to other strips, Lara Saguisag writes, “The biting criticism of commercialism in Calvin and Hobbes is largely absent in Peanuts…although Peanuts sometimes mocked commercialization, it did not offer a direct, overt repudiation of it” (75-7). But despite this apparent apoliticism, essays in Gardner and Gordon’s collection explore how Peanuts often served as a platform for Schulz to explore the Space Race, the Vietnam War, and high-low distinctions in American culture. Though he clearly favored more personal, quasi-spiritual plights, such as loneliness and faith, as Joseph Darowski remarks in his essay “Schulz and the Late Sixties,” “Schulz did publish commentary about the larger political landscape of the time” (131). One needed only to look deeper, past the strip’s deceptive simplicity.

Meanwhile, Leonie Brailey’s included essay does not explore Peanuts’ latent political quandaries but how Schulz addresses the ethical minutiae of day-to-day existence. She writes, “When we read Peanuts, we learn about being human: about failure, loneliness, and the acute mental anguish caused by a consciousness that is trying to solve the ethical dilemmas of life, to live honestly and actively, but that is profoundly hindered by uncertainty and indecision” (91). Despite all of the strip’s cuteness and beneath all the marketing, Schulz’s ostensibly simple drawings stand toe-to-toe with all the inner anguish and dilemmas involved in simply being. It becomes “the work of one person attempting to find truth and beauty in a harsh and complex world,” primarily through sincerity (90). As Brailey argues, Schulz portrays sincerity as “both an antidote for loneliness and one of the loneliest states to be in” (91). Sincerity may cause Charlie Brown’s suffering, but it also often becomes the only comfort he has therein. Perhaps, in this way, Schulz was concerned less with answering the quandaries of the human experience and more with demanding that we continue questioning, that we remain sincere and curious.

As Schulz likewise never offered definite answers to the quandaries explored in Peanuts, so The Comics of Charles Schulz: The Good Grief of Modern Life is more exploratory than definitive. Gardner and Gordon write in the introduction, “Peanuts offers countless possibilities for study and analysis, and we hope that this volume serves as an invitation to a new generation of scholars and students…Peanuts’ place in American culture demands further inquiry, as does its global reach” (9). In other words, this essay collection serves less as definitive critical matter and more as a demonstration of Peanuts’ critical potential. As Schulz explored the depths of the human struggle, so this collection explores Peanuts’ thematic and structural depths, a topic Gardner and Gordon find unfortunately lacking in academic spheres.

Ben Saunders notes the irony of Charles Schulz’s success, “that his most reliable source of inspiration over the course of his half-century-long career is failure: failure at sports, academic failure, romantic failure, even the experience of being failed by one’s idols” (13). It may seem odd that arguably the most famous, or at least most widely recognizable, character from comic strip history is also the most well-known loser of American pop culture. Charlie Brown may be America’s most successful loser, but a lack of academic attention is one failure he need not continue to endure. Gardner and Gordon’s edited collection is one step towards correcting this critical gap.

Works Cited:

Postema, Barbara. Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments. RIT Press, 2013.

Spiegelman, Art. “Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy,” in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories: Volume 1, edited by Ivan Brunetti. Yale UP, 2006, 32-4.

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