Beautifully Cruel

December 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

[In honor of A Charlie Brown Christmas celebrating its 50th year on broadcast television, I give you this post from my old blog, written in 2005. –N.]

Last year a friend gave me one of those stylish Fantagraphics editions of Peanuts for Christmas, and a few weeks ago I got around to reading through it. Compared to, say, Calvin and Hobbes or FoxTrot, I have always been sort of lukewarm to Peanuts; growing up I always viewed its large, full-color panel above the fold of the Sunday paper as a sort of warm-up to the better comics inside. The gags are innocent and often trite, and the characters, when you look at them closely, aren’t really all that likable. They are all selfish, stubborn and inordinately obsessed. But when you read the strips as a series, the humor comes across as more of a side effect of a much more sobering point: the world is a vast, cruel place, and children are its most acute practitioners. Perhaps this comes as only too obvious when we are children ourselves.

The edition I have spans the years 1953-54, when Charles Schulz was still fleshing out his characters and, it seems, still learning to draw. To someone who became acquainted with the strip in the eighties, as I did, the backdating takes some getting used to. The faces look like they are shaped differently at this stage. Characters like Shermy, Violet and Schroeder all have more prominent roles, and the Patty in the strip is not Peppermint Patty. Lucy and Charlie Brown are apparently preschool age, and Linus, whose knack for articulation always made him my favorite character, is a toddler unable to speak, but somehow still manages to be the strip’s most astute personality. He crawls around on the living room floor, plays contentedly by himself, falls asleep, and gets pushed around by his older sister. (The security blanket makes it first appearance in June 1954.) Without speech, the boy’s only defense is physical comedy: when Lucy gets her panties in a twist and claims that everything in the house belongs to her, Linus smugly takes off his shirt and hands it to her.

The cover design of each book is exquisite. Each character seems to be caught in a startling, too-close-up candid that they probably would not wish to be made public. The 1953-54 edition shows an image of Lucy in dark gray tones against a field of dark blue. Tears spring from her eyes; her mouth is a huge black oval that consumes half of her face. It goes further than we expect; it breaks a rule. We routinely see these characters at their worst, in alternating stages of frustration, minor satisfaction, and grief, but never do we see them really cry. Lucy in particular is too much in control of things to let something like that slip by. Perhaps most jarring about the early strips, though, is the fact that the parents have more of an established presence outside of the frame, reminding us that this is not exclusively a children’s world. Lucy sits at the dinner table in her high chair, wanting to be let down, and gets lectured by an adult voice from above. She gets scolded for abusing Linus. Breaking down this wall takes something away from the strip, giving the children a knowledgeable referent to the proper workings of the world. It is too easy. In order to construct their bizarre rationalizations and suffer their consequential smarting failures, the actors must work alone. Schulz must have realized this as the years wore on.

Only children, in governing their own small neighborhood society, can be as swiftly cruel and calculating as this (the dashes are panel breaks):

Violet: Can you come to our party on Monday, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: Monday? Sure, I can be there on Monday.
Patty: How about if we had it on Tuesday?

Charlie Brown: No, I couldn’t be there if you had it Tuesday.
Violet: That settles it then…

Violet: We’ll have our party on Tuesday!

The round-headed kid with the striped shirt is a glutton for punishment. He is the strip’s emotional adult, jaded and finding comfort in failure. As an apparent precursor to the pulled-away football gag, Charlie Brown loses ten thousand games of checkers in a row to Lucy, then after having his conniption, comes back to set up another game. He is too trusting for his own good, and also too perceptive:

Charlie Brown: I have the feeling that everybody is laughing at me…

Violet: All the time?

Charlie Brown: Well…almost…

Charlie Brown: The only time nobody laughs at me is when I’m trying to be funny.

To my knowledge, none of the characters in Peanuts went to church. But as we discover upon turning on network television one weeknight every December, they do celebrate Christmas. None of the children seem to know why they do this, but the traditions are in place, and no one has any desire to question them. They exchange cards, skate on ponds, decorate homes, compose letters to Santa, and put on a play. The “play” seems to be little more than a musical jubilee, apparently with shepherds and an innkeeper, but it is enough for the children to sincerely devote themselves. And because Charlie Brown can’t stop thinking in terms of reason and morality, he almost goes and brings down the whole affair.

The disconnect that he feels is there in all of us who bother with this whole Christmas charade. We sense it first as children, repress it because we’re having too much fun, and then feel the guilt as it resurfaces. But Charlie Brown, the suffering soul, would instead prefer some answers. Fighting through the lights, the wish lists, and the aluminum trees, the boy asks aloud, isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about? Nobody seems to know, and worse yet, no one seems to care:

Lucy: I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that.
Charlie Brown: What is it you want?
Lucy: Real estate.

But Linus, now older and wise beyond his years, knows what Christmas is all about, and to prove it he walks out to center stage and paraphrases the gospel of Luke. He lets go of his blanket—the only time he does so during the entire program—when he gets to the part about the angel approaching the shepherds, telling them not to fear him. Linus’s oration is concluded by a simple wish: And on earth peace, good will towards men. Charlie Brown is inspired to save a dying tree (let it begin with me), and in the snow the herald angels around him sing.

Only children can offer us this lesson truthfully; they are the only ones with the bravery to take Christmas seriously. That it is commercialized is not the point. Everything is a commercial, including holiday TV specials and Hallmark cards and Peppermint Patties. What gets us off track is our frustration with making things perfect merely to satisfy our own wishes. Peace and good will requires the ability to forget yourself. Adults want peace and good will too, but are too familiar with failure and injustice to try. When we get trounced at checkers, fall on our asses, and have our kites eaten by trees, we figure we did something to deserve it. It is how we flatter ourselves, and satisfied with this minor comfort, we give up hope.


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