Schulz, Carlitos y Snoopy. Una biografía – David Michaelis

Schulz, Carlitos y Snoopy. Una biografía – David Michaelis

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Charles M. Schulz, el historietista más leído y querido de todos los tiempos, sigue siendo, diez años después de su fallecimiento, una de las figuras más incomprendidas y a la vez influyentes de la cultura norteamericana. David Michaelis nos presenta la primera crónica completa de la vida de un hombre brillante y hasta ahora desconocido; una historia de creación artística, a la vez que retrato íntimo de un genio que contribuyó a moldear la imaginación de Norteamérica. Schulz fue el primer autor capaz de manejar temas nunca antes vistos en los tebeos y raramente tratados en la cultura de masas —soledad, aislamiento, depresión, melancolía, la interminable búsqueda del amor—, aligerando siempre el lado oscuro con la risa y aportando a los tradicionales retratos de la infancia un conocimiento muy adulto y muy moderno de los sinsabores de la vida. Con un trazo inconfundible y un reparto de personajes memorables, retrató los dilemas esenciales del ser humano. Michaelis trenza con maestría la historia de Schulz con el devenir histórico del siglo XX y retrata la evolución de unos personajes hoy completamente familiares para nosotros, revelando hasta qué punto llegó la vida del autor a formar parte de sus tebeos. Basada en años de investigación, entrevistas exclusivas con la familia, amigos y colegas del artista, un acceso sin precedentes a su estudio y sus archivos, y colecciones de cartas y dibujos recién recuperados, Schulz, Carlitos y Snoopy es la biografía épica y definitiva de uno de los artistas más populares de este último siglo.
Pequeños monstruos
 MARTIN PEREZ
En el mundo de Peanuts, nadie quiere a Charlie Brown. Es el protagonista de la tira, es cierto, pero todos se ríen de él. Se ríen porque anda siempre deprimido, porque hay un árbol que siempre se come sus barriletes o simplemente porque tiene la cabeza grande. Eterno perdedor, Charlie Brown no podía serlo menos en ese mundo real que, dicen, imita al arte: Charlie supo prestarle su nombre a una de las naves de la misión Apolo. Se trató, por supuesto, de la Apolo X, el ensayo general para la triunfal Apolo XI. Así fue como Charlie Brown giró alrededor de la luna e incluso despegó su módulo –bautizado Snoopy–, pero nunca alunizó. La gloria quedó para los que vinieron después que él: la nave Columbia y el módulo Eagle. La gloria para los otros, nunca para Charlie Brown. Como en Peanuts, ni más ni menos.
Considerada por muchos como la primera tira diaria inteligente y por otros como la última de toda una época, Peanuts (“Maníes”, o más coloquialmente “Monedas”, pero bautizada Rabanitos en su versión en castellano) revolucionó el medio con sus pequeños personajes que hablaban, se enojaban y odiaban como los adultos, cuando apareció por primera vez en 1950. Los niños de Charles Schulz, cada uno de ellos un manojo de neurosis con patas cortas, llamaron la atención de todos los intelectuales una década más tarde, cuando se transformaron en la tira ideal para encauzar la crisis generacional de los años 60. “Estos niños nos afectan porque de alguna manera son monstruos. Son monstruosas e infantiles reducciones de todas las neurosis del ciudadano moderno de la civilización industrial”, escribió Umberto Eco.
A pesar de que su dibujo está alejado del esquematismo cada vez más perfecto de la última época, la primera tira de Peanuts sirve como síntesis ideal de su mecanismo: sus cuatro cuadritos muestran cómo un chico y una chica sentados en el césped ven pasar a un tercer chico. “Ahí viene el bueno de Charlie Brown”, le anuncia él a ella en el primer cuadro. “El bueno de Charlie Brown, sí señor”, sigue diciendo él, como para que lo oiga Charlie cuando pasa frente a ellos, y lo repite en el cuadro siguiente, viéndolo alejarse. En el último cuadro, sin embargo, cuando Brown ya está lejos y no puede oírle, el niño finalmente agrega: “¡Cómo lo odio!”. Según Al Capp, uno de los clásicos dibujantes norteamericanos de la historia del comic: “Los personajes de Peanuts son pequeños y malévolos bastardos, siempre listos para lastimarse entre ellos. Es por eso que son deliciosos. Se hieren los unos a los otros con gran entusiasmo”.
Con el transcurso del tiempo, es cierto, los personajes de Peanuts fueron limando su agresividad. Sin embargo, la lucha entre ellos ha estado siempre presente. La crueldad de Lucy contra su hermano Linus, por ejemplo. O contra su blanco predilecto, Charlie Brown. Pero el gran cambio de la tira, y lo que seguramente la transformó en inmortal, fue su paulatino alejamiento del mundo real. El gran aliado de ello es el dibujo, que lentamente se fue haciendo totalmente bidimensional, para permitirle a la tira crear su propio mundo. Según su autor, el mejor ejemplo es la cucha de Snoopy: “En un principio, solía dibujarla en perspectiva. Pero me di cuenta de que así se hacía imposible jugar con la posibilidad de que Snoopy durmiese acostado en el techo o hiciera lo que quisiese ahí arriba. Por eso, con el tiempo, pasé a dibujarla sólo de costado, plana. De esa manera, todo es posible ahí arriba”.
Es Snoopy, precisamente, quien mejor da cuenta de las transformaciones de Peanuts. En un principio, el perro andaba en cuatro patas y su juego preferido era hacerse el buitre. Con el tiempo, como todo el mundo sabe, Snoopy no sólo comenzó a escribir novelas, sentadito muy orondo sobre el techo de su perrera, sino que también persigue al Barón Rojo en sus aventuras durante la Primera Guerra Mundial. Hasta que la imagen del sabueso narigón capaz de pararse como un humano se convirtió en el logo por excelencia de un producto que se ha hecho más conocido en todo el mundo por el merchandising que por la historieta. En ocasión de un número especial en homenaje a los 75 años de Schulz realizado por el prestigioso The Comic Journal, el periodista Gary Groth escribía: “El fenómeno global de Peanuts a través de toda clase de merchandising obliga a recordar permanentemente el hecho de que Charles Schulz es uno de los grandes autores de comics del siglo XX”.
Ésa es, de hecho, la gran trampa en la que han caído las creaciones de Schulz. Una trampa que supo evitar Bill Watterson, el autor de Calvin & Hobbes y tal vez su gran heredero, que siempre se negó a licenciar los derechos de sus personajes, evitando así todo tipo de merchandising. Hijo de otra época, Schulz no supo reconocer a tiempo los problemas de semejante multiplicación. En Argentina, sin ir más lejos, su obra es más conocida por los stickers, las remeras y los muñecos de sus personajes, que por sus tiras, que durante mucho tiempo sólo era posible leer en el diario La Prensa. Lo que habla de la universalidad de su mensaje, ya que en tiempos en que aquel matutino editorializaba decididamente en contra de “Los Simpsons”, se podía disfrutar en sus páginas de la terrible belicosidad de Lucy cargando contra el piano de su amor imposible Schroeder, tirándolo por la alcantarilla al grito de: “¡La mujer gana!”.
Si en un comienzo el alter ego de Schulz en Peanuts supo ser Charlie Brown, con el tiempo el autor se identificó más y más con Snoopy y su mundo privado. Con todos sus fracasos finalmente remontados gracias al éxito de su tira, Schulz se pudo dedicar a retozar en el mundo de Snoopy hasta que cayese el telón. El telón cayó casi con el fin del milenio, hace un mes, cuando –luego de un tratamiento de quimioterapia a causa de un cáncer de colon– su autor decidió que ya tenía suficiente de Peanuts en su vida. A los 77 años, y un año antes de cumplir las bodas de oro con su creación, Schulz decidió retirarse. Después de haber entrado al museo de Louvre a comienzos de los 90 y con una muestra en permanente exhibición en el Museo del Comic de Florida, la última plancha dominical de Peanuts está anunciada para el próximo 14 de febrero. Mientras tanto, este lunes 3 de enero apareció la última tira diaria, en 2600 diarios de 75 países alrededor del mundo. Acompañada de un dibujo de Snoopy al lado de su Remington –más alter ego que nunca de su autor–, la carta de Schulz que ocupa toda la tira comienza diciendo: “Queridos amigos: he sido afortunado de poder dibujar a Charlie Brown y sus amigos durante casi cincuenta años. Con ello completé el sueño de mi infancia”.
Durante esos cincuenta años Schulz pasó de ser Charlie Brown a ser Snoopy. Quizá porque Charly Brown es un perdedor (ése es su encanto) y Snoopy… bueno, Snoopy siempre gana. Pero lo hace en un juego al que sólo juega él. Y así, como bien lo debe saber Schulz, nunca se puede perder.
Pequeño gran hombre
  Rodrigo Fresán
Hay imágenes que dicen más que mil palabras y hay dibujos que dicen más que mil imágenes y ahí están –la fotografía y el retrato– como evidencia incontestable de ello.
La foto del niño Charles Monroe Schulz y el dibujo del niño Charlie Brown.
Tal para cual.
Difícil precisar (tan sólo las gafas del primero imponen una casi inútil interferencia que no alcanza a ser diferencia insuperable) dónde termina la sangre de uno y comienza la tinta del otro. Unidos para siempre –con trazo sencillo pero nunca simple– en una tira cómica que, en realidad, nunca fue tan cómica. Porque su gracia era (y sigue y seguirá siendo) rara y reflexiva y, sí, diferente; aunque apoyada en el examen minucioso de “lo normal” y en la exploración proustiana –pero de polaridad inversa– de la infancia como territorio eterno y recuperable.
Ahora, una portentosa y apasionante y definitiva (y, por lo tanto, cuestionada) biografía –Schulz and Peanuts, de David Michaelis– pone los puntos sobre las íes y los * suspiros * (siempre entre esos asteriscos sin centro, como estrellas que no duran nada) dentro de los globitos y las notas en la partitura eterna que ejecuta Schroeder y las pelusas en la frazadita de Linus y las letras en la máquina de escribir de Snoopy para contar la historia de un hombre muy triste. Un muy perdedor que triunfó y se hizo universalmente muy multimillonario contándole al mundo la historia de un niño muy melancólico para mucha felicidad de muchos grandes y muchos chicos.
 VIDA DE ESTE CHICO
 “Cuando yo era un niño, creía que mi rostro era algo tan soso que la gente no me reconocería si me viera en algún sitio diferente de donde solían verme. Siempre me sorprendía que cuando, de compras con mi madre por el centro de St. Paul, me encontraba con algún compañero de escuela o con una maestra, éstos supieran que era yo. Yo pensaba que mi aspecto muy común era como un disfraz perfecto. Fue esta extraña manera de pensar y sentir las cosas que inspiró el rostro redondo y común de Charlie Brown”, recordó Schulz (Minneapolis, 1922) en una de las innumerables y casi nunca negadas entrevistas que concedió a lo largo de su carrera. Entonces, en lo más alto de la colina (una colina mucho más alta que la lomita desde la que Charlie Brown pitcheaba sus desesperadas derrotas) Schulz también apuntaba que “durante mi infancia en el colegio no es que me odiaran porque yo no le importaba tanto a alguien como para odiarme” y que “Charlie Brown tiene que ser el que sufre, porque es la caricatura de la persona común. Y la mayoría de nosotros estamos mucho más familiarizados con el fracaso que con el triunfo”.
Esta génesis pesimista para una de las más impresionantes historias de éxito se continúa en varios de los acápites de los 28 capítulos que componen la biografía firmada por Michaelis. Frases extraídas de reportajes en los que Schulz suena como el más vencido y cínico de los maestros zen. Sentencias sin apelación, aforismos sin doble sentido. Ideas tan redondas como infinidad de las contenidas en el globito del último cuadrito de una tira que muy a menudo conseguía la resonancia de haikus. El lugar más alto pero un tanto desolado al que llegó un espíritu romántico obsesionado y radiado en su juventud, revela Michaelis, por las luces verdes de El gran Gatsby y las nevadas de Citizen Kane y que muchos años más tarde sintetizaría, a la perfección, lo que podría considerarse como el perfecto destilado del Sueño Americano en un remate de comic-strip donde un perro llamado Snoopy razona: “Cuando era pequeño, a Gatsby le regalaron un trineo para Navidad y lo bautizó Rosebud”.
A saber, así habló el verdadero dueño del perro, inspirado en un inteligentísimo perro de su infancia llamado Snooky: “Yo no tenía idea de si podría encajar en algún lugar, pero no importaba. Yo quería ser un dibujante de tiras cómicas, y punto”; “La tira que tenía a los chicos como protagonistas fue la que finalmente se vendió. Así que seguí dibujando chicos. Los chicos son más fáciles de dibujar que los adultos”; “Los dibujantes de tiras cómicas no viven en ninguna parte. No son personas reales”; “Siempre habrá un mercado para la inocencia en este país”; “Tal vez mi destino sea el de morar a solas detrás de un tablero de dibujo”.
Y esta elegante melancolía de trazo fino es la que acaba revelando el libro de Michaelis: la alegre historia de un tipo triste que comprendió muy temprano en su carrera que no hay nada menos divertido que la alegría y que la felicidad jamás será “un cachorro calentito”.
Algo que se lee casi como una Gran Novela Americana que –como Babbit, Herzog, Stern, Jeringan, McTeague, Studs Lonigan– podría llamarse nada más y nada menos que Schulz: porque hay contadas ocasiones en que un apellido lo cuenta todo.
Algo que John Updike –fan confeso de Peanuts, al igual que Jonathan Lethem o Jonathan Franzen y tantos otros escritores norteamericanos que entienden a Peanuts como una de las escalas imprescindibles en su educación literaria– celebró en las páginas de The New Yorker como un acontecimiento y un espécimen a admirar del arte biográfico resultante de siete años de investigación y más de 200 entrevistas.
Algo que Monte Schulz –hijo de Schulz y en principio entusiasta promotor del proyecto, editor también de la loable Snoopy’s Guide To The Writing Life, donde colaboran, entre otros, Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Budd Shulberg, Dominick Dunne, Danielle Steele y Sue Grafton– condenó con un: “Este libro es un estupidez y David Michaelis es un idiota”.
*Suspiro*, diría Snoopy.
DOBLE VIDA DE ESTE CHICO
Lo que molesta al hijo y alrededores (amigos y familiares que se sometieron encantados a la investigación de Michaelis esperando que el retrato resultante de la deidad fuera muy diferente) es, me parece, que el Schulz fuera de Peanuts fuese tan diferente de lo que suponían los lectores tenía que ser el autor de Peanuts: un tipo amable, ligeramente neurótico, sensible, antiheroico, etc. Es decir: los allegados de Schulz –cercanos y distantes– necesitaban que Schulz fuera Charlie Brown. Pero no. El fantasma palpable que invoca Schulz and Peanuts –y que ya había sido apenas y cariñosamente insinuado en 1989 en Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz de Rheta Grimsley Johnson– es el de un hombre atormentado, amargado, depresivo, religioso pero dubitativo, frío con su familia y constantemente proclive a culposos arrebatos de soberbia y eternamente insatisfecho, alguien que, en realidad, quería ser un novelista “como Joan Didion”. Alguien que habiendo creado un clásico donde se dan la mano la cultura popular y la alta cultura todavía no puede olvidar la afrenta de que en sus inicios le hayan impuesto el nombre de Peanuts (que detestaba) a lo que originalmente se llamaba Lil’ Folks y que en más de una ocasión (Michaelis presenta en su libro 240 “casos” al respecto) utilizaba la tira para revelar escondiendo, de manera encriptada y decodificable sólo por él, sus pasiones más oscuras, sus crisis matrimoniales y un profundo desprecio por buena parte del mundo en general y por Mickey Mouse en particular.
He aquí la saga intimista del hijo de un barbero de St. Paul que jamás había podido superar la muerte de su gélida madre, que había creado a la iracunda Lucy Van Pelt como contraparte infantil de su temperamental y agresiva primera esposa y que, como Charlie Brown, nunca había dejado de soñar con una joven pelirroja paradigmática (una tal Donna Mae Johnson quien, en 1950, rechazó sus avances amorosos) y que, en Peanuts, sólo era una presencia invisible y distante de la que los lectores sólo llegaron a ver su sombra en apenas una ocasión, en un legendario cuadrito de 1998 que más de uno habrá enmarcado o tendrá como fondo de pantalla en su computadora.
Pero –más allá de las revelaciones sobre su “protagonista”– Schulz and Peanuts es, también, un libro apasionante por otros motivos. Michaelis retrata aquí magistralmente el ambiente de los dibujantes de comic-strips y de los sindicatos periodísticos. Rastrea los orígenes de la mecánica de Peanuts hasta los loops narrativos de Little Nemo y Krazy Kat (tira esta última que Schulz consideraba insuperable y que fue la única que venció a los chicos de Charlie Brown en una encuesta de 1999 como la más importante del siglo XX). Devela el porqué de la anatomía macrocefálica de sus dibujos inspirada por una compañera de trabajo enana. Investiga la perturbadora historia del “verdadero” Charlie Brown –Charles Francis Brown–, olvidado amigo al que Schulz le robó el nombre y condenó a una vida psicótica de alcoholismo y homosexualidad oculta narrada en una perturbadora memoir hoy descatalogada. Retrata el pasmo en ocasiones envidioso de los colegas de Schulz (abundaron las acusaciones de “sentimentalismo”) ante el suceso de una tira que, de golpe, no respetaba ninguna de las pautas impuestas por todas las otras tiras de éxito. Analiza el modo en que Peanuts es abducida por el personaje de Snoopy convirtiéndose en un fenómeno de masas y cómo es abrazada por la intelligentzia en los ’60 (recordar que Schulz y los suyos son piezas fundamentales de los Apocalípticos e integrados de Umberto Eco, en 1965) así como por la Generación de Acuario (a la que Schulz le hace un guiño cómplice con la incorporación del canario lisérgico llamado Woodstock). Y explica cómo, paso a paso, el pequeño y humilde Schulz acaba convirtiéndose en el Gran Schulz y el Citizen Schulz, dueño de un museo y artífice de un bestial imperio de merchandising que le reporta más de sesenta millones de dólares anuales sin contar los beneficios de publicar Peanuts –considerada como la historia más larga jamás narrada por un solo autor– en 2600 periódicos de 75 países con un público lector de 355.000.000 millones en 25 idiomas diferentes.
Y aun así… ya saben… Snif.
VIDA DE ESTE OTRO (PERO EL MISMO) CHICO
Y de alguna manera, la primera comic-strip de Peanuts –2 de octubre de 1950– ya lo anuncia y lo dice todo:
Cuadrito 1: Un niño está sentado conversando con una niña y contemplan a otro niño que se acerca. El niño le dice a la niña: “Bueno, pero si aquí viene el viejo Charlie Brown”.
Cuadrito 2: El niño –Charlie Brown retratado con trazos primerizos pero ya claros– pasa junto a ellos sin mirarlos y sonriendo. El otro niño comenta: “El bueno y viejo Charlie Brown, sí señor”.
Cuadrito 3: Charlie Brown ya ha pasado y el niño y la niña miran al extremo de la viñeta por la que ha salido. “El bueno y viejo Charlie Brown”, dice el niño.
Cuadrito 4: El niño y la niña continúan sentados y a solas. El niño comenta: “Cómo lo odio”.
Y aquí ya está el germen identificable de un futuro e inmediato virus más que interesante: niños de cabeza grande que hablan con expresiones de adultos (ese insistente good ol’ ya en la primera entrega) y a los adultos no se los ve ni se los verá jamás por ninguna parte. Se habla de ellos pero han desaparecido como exterminados por una bomba atómica que sólo acaba con los mayores de la especie. Y entonces lo comprendemos: es 1950 y estos niños –los niños de Peanuts– son, culturalmente, los hijos de los personajes disfuncionales y martirizados y martinizados de John Cheever y John O’Hara y Richard Yates. Así que, tal vez, mejor no verlos junto a niños, porque los niños suelen terminar muy mal en sus relatos. Y otra cosa: uno de los niños –pero pronto sabremos que no será el único– no vacilará en reconocer y hasta intentar propagar el odio por uno de los suyos desde ese mundito en la página de historietas de un diario. Y ese mundito –el campo de béisbol, los jardines nevados, las aulas, las ventanillas de autobús, los cordones de vereda, los livings, la colonia de vacaciones, el “kiosco” de la psicoanalista, el frente al que se pasa en un aula, las camas y la casita del perro– es una jungla.
MUERTE DE ESTOS CHICOS
Los personajes de Peanuts tienen un curioso patrón de crecimiento: apenas sumaron un par de veranos e inviernos desde 1950 y los que empezaron como bebés se desarrollaron hasta alcanzar la estatura de los mayores y allí se quedaron y allí seguirán para siempre. En algún lugar entre los ocho y los diez años de edad. No importa demasiado porque los niños de Peanuts han crecido en otras partes: en los Glass de Salinger, en las pesadillas de los comics de Chris Ware y Daniel Clowes y Charles Burns, en la conciencia política de esa prima lejana que es Mafalda, en películas como The Royal Tenembaums, en series de televisión como Seinfeld, en el indestructible vínculo de ese otro niño con ese animado tigre de peluche, en todas partes y, muy especialmente, en el recuerdo de los tormentos pesados y las ligeras alegrías de nuestras propias infancias cuando la cabeza (y lo que ésta contenía) pesaba tanto más que nuestros frágiles cuerpitos.
Schulz –quien siempre se enorgulleció de haberse encargado de todos los aspectos de su tira, dibujo, entintado, letras, 18.170 veces– dejó claramente especificado que nadie podrá continuar con el trabajo de una vida que influyó en tantas otras. La verdad que no hace falta. El poder residual y auto-reciclador de Peanuts no requiere de puestas al día. No hace falta agregar nada a aquello de lo que Ronald Reagan era fan confeso (decía identificarse con Charlie Brown) y los astronautas honraron nombrando a sus módulos como personajes de la tira y los Beatles homenajearon ácidamente (el célebre slogan perruno mutando al feroz “Happiness is a Warm Gun”). Eso que más de uno –me incluyo– jamás olvidará. Esa mezcla de calidez con los temblores causados por esa escena en esa película de Charlie Brown donde las cabezotas de los participantes de un infantil concurso de deletreo eran sucesivamente pinchadas como globos y eliminadas del escenario a medida que se iban equivocando. Si mal no recuerdo, Charlie Brown quedaba segundo. Charlie Brown perdíaAgraciada por una sencilla e inteligentísima portada del gran Chip Kidd, donde el minimalismo de la guarda negra en el jersey amarillo de Charlie Brown asciende al maximalismo de una línea zigzagueante que lo cubre y simboliza todo –atención: Kidd es responsable también del diseño del imperdible Peanuts: The Art of Charles M-Schulz, 2002–, la biografía de Michaelis recorre los cuadritos y paneles de un hombre para el que su tira lo era todo. Un artista que, en un ejemplo de compromiso existencial y simetría poética –sólo la muerte pudo separar al creador de su criatura– publicó la última entrega a la mañana siguiente de su muerte, el 12 de abril del 2000, como consecuencia de un cáncer de colon.
Allí, en la última página, se ve a Charlie Brown al teléfono y diciendo: “No. Creo que está escribiendo” y, en el siguiente cuadro, aparece Snoopy con su máquina de escribir sobre su casita redactando una carta a los lectores (Queridos amigos…, empieza), diciendo adiós, diciendo hasta siempre, suspirando, mientras abajo Charlie Brown, el que sufre, esquiva y seguirá esquivando, en vano, una y otra vez, las infinitas bolas de nieve que le arroja su pequeña gran vida.
Dog days
Jonathan Franzen
For Jonathan Franzen, as a young boy, the Peanuts comic strip was inspiration and comfort – Snoopy a soulmate, and Charlie Brown, in his gloomy glory days, a companion in disillusion and guilt.
The Guardian, Saturday 12 March 2005
In May 1970, a few nights after the Kent State shootings, my father and my brother Tom, who was 19, started fighting. They weren’t fighting about the Vietnam war, which both of them opposed. The fight was probably about a lot of different things at once. But the immediate issue was Tom’s summer job. He was a good artist, with a meticulous nature, and my father had encouraged him (you could even say forced him) to choose a college from a shortlist of schools with strong programmes in architecture. Tom had deliberately chosen the most distant of these schools, Rice University, and he had just returned from his second year in Houston, where his adventures in late-60s youth culture were pushing him toward majoring in film studies, not architecture. My father, however, had found him a plum summer job with Sverdrup & Parcel, the big engineering firm in St Louis, whose senior partner, General Leif Sverdrup, had been a US army corps of engineers hero in the Philippines. It couldn’t have been easy for my father, who was shy and morbidly principled, to pull the requisite strings at Sverdrup. But the office gestalt was hawkish and buzz-cut and generally inimical to bell-bottomed, lefty film studies majors; and Tom didn’t want to be there.
Up in the bedroom he and I shared, the windows were open and the air had the stuffy, wooden-house smell that came out every spring. I preferred the make-believe no-smell of air conditioning, but my mother, whose subjective experience of temperature was notably consistent with low gas and electricity bills, claimed to be a devotee of “fresh air”, and the windows often stayed open until Memorial Day.
On my night table was the Peanuts Treasury, a large, thick, hard-cover compilation of daily and Sunday funnies by Charles M Schulz. My mother had given it to me the previous Christmas, and I’d been rereading it at bedtime ever since. Like most of the nation’s 10-year-olds, I had an intense, private relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house. My brothers, who are nine and 12 years older than I, were less like siblings than like an extra, fun pair of quasi-parents. Although I had friends and was a cub scout in good standing, I spent a lot of time alone with talking animals.
I was an obsessive rereader of AA Milne and the Narnia and Doctor Dolittle novels, and my involvement with my collection of stuffed animals was on the verge of becoming age-inappropriate. It was another point of kinship with Snoopy that he, too, liked animal games. He impersonated tigers and vultures and mountain lions, sharks, sea monsters, pythons, cows, piranhas, penguins and vampire bats. He was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone’s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognised as a child.
Tom and my father had been talking in the living room when I went up to bed. Now, at some late and even stuffier hour, after I’d put aside the Peanuts Treasury and fallen asleep, Tom burst into our bedroom. He was shouting with harsh sarcasm. “You’ll get over it! You’ll forget about me! It’ll be so much easier! You’ll get over it!”
My father was offstage somewhere, making large abstract sounds. My mother was right behind Tom, sobbing at his shoulder, begging him to stop, to stop. He was pulling open dresser drawers, repacking bags he’d only recently unpacked. “You think you want me here,” he said, “but you’ll get over it.”
What about me? my mother pleaded. What about Jon? “You’ll get over it!”
I was a small and fundamentally ridiculous person. Even if I’d dared sit up in bed, what could I have said? “Excuse me, I’m trying to sleep”? I lay still and followed the action through my eyelashes. There were further dramatic comings and goings, through some of which I may, in fact, have slept. Finally, I heard Tom’s feet pounding down the stairs and my mother’s terrible cries, now nearly shrieks, receding after him: “Tom! Tom! Tom! Please! Tom!” And then the front door slammed.
Things like this had never happened in our house. The worst fight I’d ever witnessed was between Tom and our older brother, Bob, on the subject of Frank Zappa, whose music Tom admired and Bob one day dismissed with such patronising disdain that Tom began to sneer at Bob’s own favourite group, the Supremes, which led to bitter hostilities. But a scene of real wailing and doors slamming in the night was completely off the map.
When I woke up the next morning, the memory of it already felt decades-old and semi-dreamlike and unmentionable. My father had left for work, and my mother served me breakfast without comment. The food on the table, the jingles on the radio and the walk to school were all unremarkable; yet everything about the day was soaked in dread. At school that week, in Miss Niblack’s class, we were rehearsing our fifth-grade play. The script, which I’d written, had a large number of bit parts and one very generous role that I’d created with my own memorisation abilities in mind. The action took place on a boat, involved a taciturn villain named Mr Scuba, and lacked the most rudimentary comedy, point or moral. Not even I, who got to do most of the talking, enjoyed being in it. Its badness – my responsibility for its badness – became part of the day’s general dread.
There was something dreadful about springtime itself, the way plants and animals lost control, the Lord Of The Flies buzzing, the heat indoors. After school, instead of staying outside to play, I followed my dread home and cornered my mother in our dining room. I asked her about my upcoming class performance. Would Dad be in town for it? What about Bob? Would he be home from college yet? And what about Tom? Would Tom be there, too? This was quite plausibly an innocent line of questioning – I was a small glutton for attention, forever turning conversations to the subject of myself – and, for a while, my mother gave me plausibly innocent answers. Then she slumped into a chair, put her face in her hands and began to weep. “Didn’t you hear anything last night?” she said.
“No.”
“You didn’t hear Tom and Dad shouting? You didn’t hear doors slamming?”
“No!”
She gathered me in her arms, which was probably the main thing I’d been dreading. I stood there stiffly while she hugged me. “Tom and Dad had a terrible fight,” she said. “After you went to bed. They had a terrible fight, and Tom got his things and left the house, and we don’t know where he went.”
“Oh.”
“I thought we’d hear from him today, but he hasn’t called, and I’m frantic, not knowing where he is. I’m just frantic!”
I squirmed a little in her grip.
“But this has nothing to do with you,” she said. “It’s between him and Dad and has nothing to do with you. I’m sure Tom’s sorry he won’t be here to see your play. Or maybe, who knows, he’ll be back by Friday and he will see it.”
“OK.”
“But I don’t want you telling anyone he’s gone until we know where he is. Will you agree not to tell anyone?”
“OK,” I said, breaking free of her. “Can we turn the air conditioning on?”
I was unaware of it, but an epidemic had broken out across the country. Late adolescents in suburbs like ours had suddenly gone berserk, running away to other cities to have sex and not attend college, ingesting every substance they could get their hands on, not just clashing with their parents but rejecting and annihilating everything about them. For a while, the parents were so frightened and so mystified and so ashamed that each family, especially mine, quarantined itself and suffered in isolation.
When I went upstairs, my bedroom felt like an overwarm sickroom. The clearest remaining vestige of Tom was the Don’t Look Back poster that he’d taped to a flank of his dresser, where Bob Dylan’s psychedelic hairstyle wouldn’t always be catching my mother’s censorious eye. Tom’s bed, neatly made, was the bed of a kid carried off by an epidemic.
In that unsettled season, as the so-called generation gap was rending the cultural landscape, Schulz’s work was almost uniquely beloved. Fifty-five million Americans had seen A Charlie Brown Christmas the previous December, for a Nielsen audience share of better than 50%. The musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown was in its second sold-out year on Broadway. The astronauts of Apollo X, in their dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing, had christened their orbiter and landing vehicle Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Newspapers carrying Peanuts reached more than 150 million readers, Peanuts collections were all over the bestseller lists and, if my own friends were any indication, there was hardly a kid’s bedroom in America without a Peanuts wastebasket or Peanuts bedsheets or a Peanuts gift book. Schulz, by a luxurious margin, was the most famous living artist on the planet.
To the countercultural mind, a begoggled beagle piloting a doghouse and getting shot down by the Red Baron was akin to Yossarian paddling a dinghy to Sweden. The strip’s square panels were the only square thing about it. Wouldn’t the country be better off listening to Linus Van Pelt than Robert McNamara? This was the era of flower children, not flower adults. But the strip appealed to older Americans as well. It was unfailingly inoffensive (Snoopy never lifted a leg) and was set in a safe, attractive suburb where the kids, except for Pigpen, whose image Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead pointedly embraced, were clean and well-spoken and conservatively dressed. Hippies and astronauts, the Pentagon and the antiwar movement, the rejecting kids and rejected grown-ups were all of one mind here.
An exception was my own household. As far as I know, my father never in his life read a comic strip, and my mother’s interest in the funnies was limited to a single-panel feature called The Girls, whose generic middle-aged matrons, with their weight problems and stinginess and poor driving skills and weakness for department store bargains, she found just endlessly amusing.
I didn’t buy comic books, or even Mad magazine, but worshipped at the altars of Warner Bros cartoons and the funnies section of the St Louis Post-Dispatch. I read the section’s black-and-white page first, skipping the dramatic features such as Steve Roper and Juliet Jones, and glancing at Li’l Abner only to satisfy myself that it was still trashy and repellent. On the full-colour back page, I read the strips strictly in reverse order of preference, doing my best to be amused by Dagwood Bumstead’s midnight snacks and struggling to ignore the fact that Tiger and Punkinhead were the kind of messy, unreflective kids I disliked in real life, before treating myself to my favourite strip, BC. The strip, by Johnny Hart, was caveman humour. Hart wrung hundreds of gags from the friendship between a flightless bird and a long-suffering tortoise who was constantly attempting unturtlish feats of agility and flexibility. Debts were always paid in clams; dinner was always roast leg of something. When I was done with BC, I was done with the paper.
The comics in St Louis’s other paper, the Globe-Democrat, which my parents didn’t take, seemed bleak and foreign to me. Broom Hilda and Animal Crackers and The Family Circus were offputting in the manner of the kid whose partially visible underpants, which had the name CUTTAIR hand-markered on the waistband, I’d stared at throughout my family’s tour of the Canadian parliament. Although The Family Circus was resolutely unfunny, its panels clearly were based on some actual family’s life and were aimed at an audience that recognised this life, which compelled me to posit an entire subspecies of humanity that found The Family Circus hilarious.
I knew very well, of course, why the Globe-Democrat’s funnies were so lame: the paper that carried Peanuts didn’t need any other good strips. Indeed, I would have swapped the entire Post-Dispatch for a daily dose of Schulz. Only Peanuts, the strip we didn’t get, dealt with stuff that really mattered. I didn’t for a minute believe that the children in Peanuts were really children – they were so much more emphatic and cartoonishly real than anybody in my own neighborhood – but I nevertheless took their stories to be dispatches from a universe of childhood that was somehow more substantial and convincing than my own.
Instead of playing kickball and foursquare, the way my friends and I did, the kids in Peanuts had real baseball teams, real football equipment, real fistfights. Their interactions with Snoopy were far richer than the chasings and bitings that constituted my own relationships with neighbourhood dogs. Minor but incredible disasters, often involving new vocabulary words, befell them daily. Lucy was “blackballed from the Bluebirds”. She knocked Charlie Brown’s croquet ball so far that he had to call the other players from a phone booth. She gave Charlie Brown a signed document in which she swore not to pull the football away when he tried to kick it, but the “peculiar thing about this document”, as she observed in the final frame, was that “it was never notarised”. When Lucy smashed the bust of Beethoven on Schroeder’s toy piano, it struck me as odd and funny that Schroeder had a closet full of identical replacement busts, but I accepted it as humanly possible, because Schulz had drawn it.
To the Peanuts Treasury I soon added two equally strong hard-cover collections, Peanuts Revisited and Peanuts Classics. A well-meaning relative once also gave me a copy of Robert Short’s national bestseller, The Gospel According To Peanuts, but it couldn’t have interested me less. Peanuts wasn’t a portal to the Gospel. It was my gospel.
Chapter 1, verses 1-4, of what I knew about disillusionment: Charlie Brown passes the house of the Little Red-Haired Girl, the object of his eternal fruitless longing. He sits down with Snoopy and says, “I wish I had two ponies.” He imagines offering one of the ponies to the Little Red-Haired Girl, riding out into the countryside with her, and sitting down with her beneath a tree. Suddenly, he’s scowling at Snoopy and asking, “Why aren’t you two ponies?” Snoopy, rolling his eyes, thinks, “I knew we’d get around to that.”
Or Chapter 1, verses 26-32, of what I knew about the mysteries of etiquette: Linus is showing off his new wristwatch to everyone in the neighbourhood. “New watch!” he says proudly to Snoopy, who, after a hesitation, licks it. Linus’s hair stands on end. “YOU LICKED MY WATCH!” he cries. “It’ll rust! It’ll turn green! He’s ruined it!” Snoopy is left looking mildly puzzled and thinking, “I thought it would have been impolite not to taste it.”
Or Chapter 2, verses 6-12, of what I knew about fiction: Linus is annoying Lucy, wheedling and pleading with her to read him a story. To shut him up, she grabs a book, randomly opens it, and says, “A man was born, he lived and he died. The End!” She tosses the book aside, and Linus picks it up reverently. “What a fascinating account,” he says. “It almost makes you wish you had known the fellow.”
The perfect silliness of stuff like this, the koanlike inscrutability, entranced me even when I was 10. But many of the more elaborate sequences, especially the ones about Charlie Brown’s humiliation and loneliness, made only a generic impression on me. In a classroom spelling bee that Charlie Brown has been looking forward to, the first word he’s asked to spell is “maze”. With a complacent smile, he produces “M-A-Y-S”. The class screams with laughter. He returns to his seat and presses his face into his desktop, and when his teacher asks him what’s wrong he yells at her and ends up in the principal’s office. Peanuts was steeped in Schulz’s awareness that for every winner in a competition there has to be a loser, if not 20 losers, or 2,000, but I personally enjoyed winning and couldn’t see why so much fuss was made about the losers.
In the spring of 1970, Miss Niblack’s class was studying homonyms to prepare for what she called the Homonym Spelldown. I did some desultory homonym drilling with my mother, rattling off “sleigh” for “slay” and “slough” for “slew” the way other kids roped softballs into centre field. To me, the only halfway interesting question about the Spelldown was who was going to come in second. A new kid had joined our class that year, a shrimpy, black-haired striver, Chris Toczko, who had it in his head that he and I were academic rivals. I was a nice enough little boy, as long as you didn’t compete on my turf. Toczko was annoyingly unaware that I, not he, by natural right was the best student in the class. On the day of the Spelldown, he actually taunted me. He said he’d done a lot of studying and he was going to beat me! I looked down at the little pest and did not know what to say. I evidently mattered a lot more to him than he did to me.
For the Spelldown, we all stood by the blackboard, Miss Niblack calling out one half of a pair of homonyms and my classmates sitting down as soon as they had failed. Toczko was pale and trembling, but he knew his homonyms. He was the last kid standing, besides me, when Miss Niblack called out the word “liar”. Toczko trembled and essayed, “L … I …” And I could see that I had beaten him. I waited impatiently while, with considerable anguish, he extracted two more letters from his marrow: “E … R?”
“I’m sorry, that’s not a word,” Miss Niblack said.
With a sharp laugh of triumph, not even waiting for Toczko to sit down, I stepped forward and sang out, “L-Y-R-E! Lyre. It’s a stringed instrument.”
I hadn’t really doubted that I would win, but Toczko had got to me with his taunting, and my blood was up. I was the last person in class to realise that Toczko was having a meltdown. His face turned red and he began to cry, insisting angrily that “lier” was a word, it was a word. I didn’t care if it was a word or not. I knew my rights. Toczko’s tears disturbed and disappointed me, as I made clear by fetching the classroom dictionary and showing him that “lier” wasn’t in it. This was how both Toczko and I ended up in the principal’s office.
I’d never been sent down before. I was interested to learn that the principal, Mr Barnett, had a Webster’s International Unabridged in his office. Toczko, who barely outweighed the dictionary, used two hands to open it and to roll back the pages to the “L” words. I stood at his shoulder and saw where his tiny, trembling index finger was pointing: lier, n., one that lies (as in ambush). Mr Barnett immediately declared us co-winners of the Spelldown – a compromise that didn’t seem quite fair to me, since I would surely have murdered Toczko if we’d gone another round. But his outburst had spooked me, and I decided it might be OK, for once, to let somebody else win.
A few months after the Homonym Spelldown, just after summer vacation started, Toczko ran out into Grant Road and was killed by a car. What little I knew then about the world’s badness I knew mainly from a camping trip, some years earlier, when I’d dropped a frog into a campfire and watched it shrivel and roll down the flat side of a log. My memory of that shrivelling and rolling was sui generis, distinct from my other memories. It was like a nagging, sick-making atom of rebuke in me. I felt similarly rebuked now when my mother, who knew nothing of Toczko’s rivalry with me, told me that he was dead. She was weeping as she’d wept over Tom’s disappearance some weeks earlier. She sat me down and made me write a letter of condolence to Toczko’s mother. I was very much unaccustomed to considering the interior states of people other than myself, but it was impossible not to consider Mrs Toczko’s. Though I never met her, in the ensuing weeks I pictured her suffering so incessantly and vividly that I could almost see her: a tiny, trim, dark-haired woman who cried the way her son did.
“Everything I do makes me feel guilty,” says Charlie Brown. He’s at the beach, and he has just thrown a pebble into the water, and Linus has commented, “Nice going … It took that stone four thousand years to get to shore, and now you’ve thrown it back.”
I felt guilty about Toczko. I felt guilty about the little frog. I felt guilty about shunning my mother’s hugs when she seemed to need them most. I felt guilty about the washcloths at the bottom of the stack in the linen closet, the older, thinner washcloths that we seldom used. I felt guilty for preferring my best shooter marbles, a solid-red agate and a solid-yellow agate, my king and my queen, to marbles farther down my rigid marble hierarchy. I felt guilty about the board games that I didn’t like to play – Uncle Wiggily, US Presidential Elections, Game Of The States – and sometimes, when my friends weren’t around, I opened the boxes and examined the pieces in the hope of making the games feel less forgotten. I felt guilty about neglecting the stiff-limbed, scratchy-pelted Mr Bear, who had no voice and didn’t mix well with my other stuffed animals. To avoid feeling guilty about them, too, I slept with one of them per night, according to a strict weekly schedule.
We laugh at dachshunds for humping our legs, but our own species is even more self-centred in its imaginings. There’s no object so Other that it can’t be anthropomorphised and shanghaied into conversation with us. Some objects are more amenable than others, however. The trouble with Mr Bear was that he was more realistically bearlike than the other animals. He had a distinct, stern, feral persona; unlike our faceless washcloths, he was assertively Other. It was no wonder I couldn’t speak through him. An old shoe is easier to invest with comic personality than is, say, a photograph of Cary Grant. The blanker the slate, the more easily we can fill it with our own image.
Our visual cortexes are wired quickly to recognise faces, then quickly to subtract detail from them, zeroing in on their essential message: is this person happy? Angry? Fearful? Individual faces may vary greatly, but a smirk on one is a lot like a smirk on another. Smirks are conceptual, not pictorial. Our brains are like cartoonists – and cartoonists are like our brains, simplifying and exaggerating, subordinating facial detail to abstract comic concepts.
Scott McCloud, in his cartoon treatise Understanding Comics, argues that the image you have of yourself when you’re conversing is very different from your image of the person you’re conversing with. Your interlocutor may produce universal smiles and universal frowns, and they may help you to identify with him emotionally, but he also has a particular nose and particular skin and particular hair that continually remind you that he’s an Other. The image you have of your own face, by contrast, is highly cartoonish. When you feel yourself smile, you imagine a cartoon of smiling, not the complete skin-and-nose-and-hair package. It’s precisely the simplicity and universality of cartoon faces, the absence of Otherly particulars, that invite us to love them as we love ourselves. The most widely loved (and profitable) faces in the modern world tend to be exceptionally basic and abstract cartoons: Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Tintin and, simplest of all – barely more than a circle, two dots and a horizontal line – Charlie Brown.
Schulz only ever wanted to be a cartoonist. He was born in St Paul in 1922, the only child of a German father and a mother of Norwegian extraction. As an infant, he was nicknamed Sparky, after a horse in the then popular comic strip Barney Google. His father, who, like Charlie Brown’s father, was a barber, bought six different newspapers on the weekend and read all the era’s comics with his son. Schulz skipped a grade in elementary school and was the least mature kid in every class after that. Much of the existing Schulzian literature dwells on the Charlie Brownish traumas in his early life: his skinniness and pimples, his unpopularity with girls at school, the inexplicable rejection of a batch of his drawings by his high-school yearbook and, some years later, the rejection of his marriage proposal by the real-life Little Red-Haired Girl, Donna Mae Johnson.
Schulz himself spoke of his youth in a tone close to anger. “It took me a long time to become a human being,” he told Nemo magazine in 1987. “I was regarded by many as kind of sissyfied, which I resented because I really was not a sissy. I was not a tough guy, but … I was good at any sport where you threw things, or hit them, or caught them, or something like that. I hated things like swimming and tumbling and those kinds of things, so I was really not a sissy. [But] the coaches were so intolerant and there was no programme for all of us. So I never regarded myself as being much and I never regarded myself as being good-looking and I never had a date in high school, because I thought, who’d want to date me? So I didn’t bother.”
Schulz “didn’t bother” going to art school, either – it would only have discouraged him, he said, to be around people who could draw better than he could. You could see a lack of confidence here. You could also see a kid who knew how to protect himself.
On the eve of Schulz’s induction into the army, his mother died of cancer. She was 48 and had suffered greatly, and Schulz later described the loss as an emotional catastrophe from which he almost did not recover. During basic training, he was depressed, withdrawn and grieving. In the long run, though, the army was good for him. He went into the service, he recalled later, as “a nothing person”, and came out as a staff sergeant in charge of a machine-gun squadron. “I thought, by golly, if that isn’t a man, I don’t know what is,” he said. “And I felt good about myself and that lasted about eight minutes, and then I went back to where I am now.”
After the war, Schulz returned to his childhood neighbourhood, lived with his father, became intensely involved in a Christian youth group, and learned to draw kids. For the rest of his life, he virtually never drew adults. He avoided adult vices – didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear – and, in his work, he spent more and more time in the imagined yards and sandlots of his childhood. But the world of Peanuts remained a deeply motherless place. Charlie Brown’s dog may (or may not) cheer him up after a day of failures; his mother never does.
Although Schulz had been a social victim as a child, he’d also had the undivided attention of two loving parents. All his life, he was a prickly Minnesotan mixture of disabling inhibition and rugged self-confidence. In high school, after another student illustrated an essay with a watercolour drawing, Schulz was surprised when a teacher asked him why he hadn’t done some illustrations himself. He didn’t think it was fair to get academic credit for a talent that most kids didn’t have. He never thought it was fair to draw caricatures. (“If somebody has a big nose,” he said, “I’m sure that they regret the fact they have a big nose and who am I to point it out in gross caricature?”)
In later decades, when he had enormous bargaining power, he was reluctant to demand a larger or more flexible layout for Peanuts, because he didn’t think it was fair to the papers that had been his loyal customers. His resentment of the name Peanuts, which his editors had given the strip in 1950, was still fresh in the 80s, when he was one of the 10 highest-paid entertainers in America (behind Bill Cosby, ahead of Michael Jackson). “They didn’t know when I walked in there that here was a fanatic,” he told Nemo. “Here was a kid totally dedicated to what he was going to do. And to label then something that was going to be a life’s work with a name like Peanuts was really insulting.” To the suggestion that 37 years might have softened the insult, Schulz said, “No, no. I hold a grudge, boy.”
I never heard my father tell a joke. Sometimes he reminisced about a business colleague who ordered a “Scotch and Coke” and a “flander” fillet in a Dallas diner in July, and he could smile at his own embarrassments, his impolitic remarks at the office and his foolish mistakes on home-improvement projects, but there wasn’t a silly bone in his body. He responded to other people’s jokes with a wince or a grimace. As a boy, I told him a story I’d made up about a trash-hauling company cited for “fragrant violations”. He shook his head, stone-faced, and said, “Not plausible.”
In another archetypal Peanuts strip, Violet and Patty are abusing Charlie Brown in vicious stereo: “Go on home! We don’t want you around here!” As he trudges away with his eyes on the ground, Violet remarks, “It’s a strange thing about Charlie Brown. You almost never see him laugh.”
My father only ever wanted not to be a child any more. His parents were a pair of 19th-century Scandinavians caught up in a Hobbesian struggle to prevail in the swamps of north-central Minnesota. His popular, charismatic older brother drowned in a hunting accident when he was still a young man. His nutty and pretty and spoiled younger sister had an only daughter who died in a one-car accident when she was 22. My father’s parents also died in a one-car accident, but only after regaling him with prohibitions, demands and criticisms for 50 years. He never said a harsh word about them. He never said a nice word, either.
The few childhood stories he told were about his dog, Spider, and his gang of friends in the invitingly named little town, Palisade, that his father and uncles had constructed among the swamps. The local high school was eight miles from Palisade. To attend, my father lived in a boarding house for a year and later commuted in his father’s Model A. He was a social cipher, invisible after school. The most popular girl in his class, Romelle Erickson, was expected to be the valedictorian, and the school’s “social crowd” was “shocked”, my father told me many times, when it turned out that “the country boy”, “Earl Who”, had claimed the title. When he registered at the University of Minnesota in 1933, his father went with him and announced, at the head of the registration line, “He’s going to be a civil engineer.”
For the rest of his life, my father was restless. He was studying philosophy at night school when he met my mother, and it took her four years to persuade him to have children. In his 30s, he agonised about whether to study medicine; in his 40s, he was offered a partnership in a contracting firm which he almost dared to accept; in his 50s and 60s, he admonished me not to waste my life working for a corporation. In the end, though, he spent 50 years doing exactly what his father had told him to do.
My mother called him “oversensitive”. She meant that it was easy to hurt his feelings, but the sensitivity was physical as well. When he was young, a doctor gave him a pinprick test that showed him to be allergic to “almost everything”, including wheat, milk and tomatoes. A different doctor, whose office was at the top of five long flights of stairs, greeted him with a blood-pressure test and immediately declared him unfit to fight the Nazis. Or so my father told me, with a shrugging gesture and an odd smile (as if to say, “What could I do?”), when I asked him why he hadn’t been in the war. Even as a teenager, I sensed that his social awkwardness and sensitivities had been aggravated by not serving. He came from a family of pacifist Swedes, however, and was very happy not to be a soldier. He was happy that my brothers had college deferments and good luck with the lottery. Among his patriotic colleagues and the war-vet husbands of my mother’s friends, he was such an outlier on the subject of Vietnam that he didn’t dare talk about it. At home, in private, he aggressively declared that, if Tom had drawn a bad number, he personally would have driven him to Canada.
Tom was a second son in the mould of my father. He got poison ivy so bad it was like measles. He had a mid-October birthday and was perennially the youngest kid in his classes. On his only date in high school, he was so nervous that he forgot his baseball tickets and left the car idling in the street while he ran back inside; the car rolled down the hill, punched through an asphalt kerb, and cleared two levels of a terraced garden before coming to rest on a neighbour’s front lawn.
To me, it simply added to Tom’s mystique that the car was not only still drivable but entirely undamaged. Neither he nor Bob could do any wrong in my eyes. They were expert whistlers and chess players, phenomenal wielders of tools and pencils, sole suppliers of whatever anecdotes and cultural data I was able to impress my friends with. In the margins of Tom’s school copy of A Portrait Of The Artist, he drew a 200-page riffle-animation of a stick-figure pole-vaulter clearing a hurdle, landing on his head, and being carted away on a stretcher by stick-figure EMS personnel; this seemed to me a masterwork of filmic art and science. But my father had told Tom: “You’d make a good architect, here are three schools to choose from.” He said: “You’re going to work for Sverdrup.”
Tom was gone for five days before we heard from him. His call came on a Sunday after church. We were sitting on the screen porch, and my mother ran the length of the house to answer the phone. She sounded so ecstatic with relief, I felt embarrassed for her. Tom had hitchhiked back to Houston and was doing deep-fry at a Church’s Fried Chicken, hoping to save enough money to join his best friend in Colorado. My mother kept asking him when he might come home, assuring him that he was welcome and that he wouldn’t have to work at Sverdrup; but there was something toxic about us now, which Tom obviously wanted nothing to do with. Charles Schulz was the best comic-strip artist who ever lived. When Peanuts debuted in October 1950 (the same month Tom was born), the funny pages were full of musty holdovers from the 30s and 40s. Even with the strip’s strongest precursors, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Elzie Segar’s Popeye, you were aware of the severe constraints under which newspaper comics operated. The faces of Herriman’s characters were too small to display more than rudimentary emotion, and so the burden of humour and sympathy came to rest on his language; his work read more like comic fable than like funny drawing. Popeye’s face was proportionately larger than Krazy Kat’s, but he was such a florid caricature that much of Segar’s expressive budget was spent on nondiscretionary items, such as Popeye’s distended jaw and oversized nose; these were good jokes, but the same jokes every time. The very first Peanuts strip, by contrast, was all white space and big funny faces. It invited you right in. The minor character Shermy was speaking in neat letters and clear diction: “Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! Good ol’ Charlie Brown . . . Yes, sir! Good ol’ Charlie Brown . . . How I hate him!”
This first strip and the 759 that immediately followed it have recently been published, complete and fully indexed, in a handsome volume from Fantagraphics Books. (This is the first in a series of 25 uniform volumes that will reproduce Schulz’s entire daily oeuvre.) Even in Schulz’s relatively primitive early work, you can appreciate what a breakthrough he made in drawing characters with large, visually uncluttered heads. Long limbs and big landscapes and fully articulated facial features – adult life, in short – were unaffordable luxuries. By dispensing with them, and by jumping from a funnies world of five or 10 facial expressions into a world of 50 or 100, Schulz introduced a new informational dimension to the newspaper strip.
Although he later became famous for putting words such as “depressed” and “inner tensions” and “emotional outlets” in the mouths of little kids, only a tiny percentage of Shulz’s strips were actually drawn in the mock-psychological vein. His most important innovations were visual – he was all about drawing funny – and for most of my life as a fan I was curiously unconscious of this fact. In my imagination, Peanuts was a narrative, a collection of locales and scenes and sequences. And, certainly, some comic strips do fit this description. Mike Doonesbury, for example, can be translated into words with minimal loss of information. Garry Trudeau is essentially a social novelist, his topical satire and intricate family dynamics and elaborate camera angles all serving to divert attention from the monotony of his comic expression. But Linus Van Pelt consists, first and foremost, of pen strokes. You’ll never really understand him without seeing his hair stand on end. Translation into words inevitably diminishes Linus. As a cartoon, he’s already a perfectly efficient vector of comic intention.
The purpose of a comic strip, Schulz liked to say, was to sell newspapers and make people laugh. Although the formulation may look self-deprecating at first glance, in fact it is an oath of loyalty. When IB Singer, in his Nobel address, declared that the novelist’s first responsibility is to be a storyteller, he didn’t say “mere storyteller”, and Schulz didn’t say “merely make people laugh”. He was loyal to the reader who wanted something funny from the funny pages. Just about anything – protesting against world hunger; getting a laugh out of words such as “nooky”; dispensing wisdom; dying – is easier than real comedy.
Schulz never stopped trying to be funny. Around 1970, though, he began to drift away from aggressive humour and into melancholy reverie. There came tedious meanderings in Snoopyland with the unhilarious bird Woodstock and the unamusing beagle Spike. Certain leaden devices, such as Marcie’s insistence on calling Peppermint Patty “sir”, were heavily recycled. By the late 80s, the strip had grown so quiet that younger friends of mine seemed baffled by my fandom. It didn’t help that later Peanuts anthologies loyally reprinted so many Spike and Marcie strips. The volumes that properly showcased Schulz’s genius, the three hard-cover collections from the 60s, had gone out of print. There were a few critical appreciations, most notably by Umberto Eco, who argued for Schulz’s literary greatness in an essay written in the 60s and reprinted in the 80s (when Eco got famous). But the praise of a “low” genre by an old semiotic soldier in the culture wars couldn’t help carrying an odour of provocation.
Still more harmful to Schulz’s reputation were his own kitschy spinoffs. Even in the 60s, you had to fight through cloying Warm Puppy paraphernalia to reach the comedy; the cuteness levels in latter-day Peanuts TV specials tied my toes in knots. What first made Peanuts Peanuts was cruelty and failure, and yet every Peanuts greeting card and tchotchke and blimp had to feature somebody’s sweet, crumpled smile. (You should go out and buy the new Fantagraphics book just to reward the publisher for putting a scowling Charlie Brown on the cover.) Everything about the billion-dollar Peanuts industry, which Schulz himself helped create, argued against him as an artist to be taken seriously. Far more than Disney, whose studios were churning out kitsch from the start, Schulz came to seem an icon of art’s corruption by commerce, which sooner or later paints a smiling sales face on everything it touches. The fan who wants to see an artist sees a merchant instead. Why isn’t he two ponies?
It’s hard to repudiate a comic strip, however, when your memories of it are more vivid than your memories of your own life. When Charlie Brown went off to summer camp, I went along in my imagination. I heard him trying to make conversation with the fellow camper who sat on his bunk and refused to say anything but, “Shut up and leave me alone.” I watched when he finally came home again and shouted to Lucy, “I’m back!” and Lucy gave him a bored look and said, “Have you been away?”
I went to camp myself, in the summer of 1970. But, aside from an alarming personal hygiene situation that seemed to have resulted from my peeing in some poison ivy and that, for several days, I was convinced was either a fatal tumour or puberty, my camp experience paled beside Charlie Brown’s. The best part of it was coming home and seeing Bob’s new yellow Karmann Ghia waiting for me at the YMCA.
Tom was also home by then. He’d managed to make his way to his friend’s house in Colorado, but the friend’s parents weren’t happy about harbouring somebody else’s runaway son, so they’d sent Tom back to St Louis. Officially, I was very excited that he was back. In truth, I was embarrassed to be around him. I was afraid that if I referred to his sickness and our quarantine, I might trigger a relapse. I wanted to live in a Peanuts world where rage was funny and insecurity was lovable. The littlest kid in my Peanuts books, Sally Brown, grew older for a while and then hit a glass ceiling. I wanted everyone in my family to get along and nothing to change; but suddenly, after Tom ran away, it was as if the five of us looked around, asked why we should be spending time together and failed to come up with many good answers.
For the first time, in the months that followed, my parents’ conflicts became audible. My father came home on cool nights to complain about the house’s “chill”. My mother countered that the house wasn’t cold if you were doing housework all day. My father marched into the dining room to adjust the thermostat and dramatically point to its “Comfort Zone”, a pale-blue arc between 72F and 78F. My mother said that she was so hot. And I decided, as always, not to voice my suspicion that the Comfort Zone referred to air conditioning in the summer rather than heat in the winter. My father set the temperature at 72 and retreated to the den, which was situated directly above the furnace. There was a lull, and then big explosions. No matter what corner of the house I hid myself in, I could hear my father bellowing, “Leave the god-damned thermostat alone!”
“Earl, I didn’t touch it!”
“You did! Again!”
“I didn’t think I even moved it, I just looked at it, I didn’t mean to change it.”
“Again! You monkeyed with it again! I had it set where I wanted it. And you moved it down to 70!”
“Well, if I did somehow change it, I’m sure I didn’t mean to. You’d be hot, too, if you worked all day in the kitchen.”
“All I ask at the end of a long day at work is that the temperature be set in the Comfort Zone.”
“Earl, it is so hot in the kitchen. You don’t know, because you’re never in here, but it is so hot.”
“The low end of the Comfort Zone! Not even the middle! The low end! It is not too much to ask!” I wonder why “cartoonish” remains such a pejorative. It took me half my life to achieve seeing my parents as cartoons. And to become more perfectly a cartoon myself: what a victory that would be.
My father eventually applied technology to the problem of temperature. He bought a space heater to put behind his chair in the dining room, where he was bothered in winter by draughts from the bay window. Like so many of his appliance purchases, the heater was a pathetically cheap little thing, a wattage hog with a stertorous fan and a grinning orange mouth which dimmed the lights and drowned out conversation and produced a burning smell every time it cycled on. When I was in high school, he bought a quieter, more expensive model. One evening, my mother and I started reminiscing about the old model, caricaturing my father’s temperature sensitivities, doing cartoons of the little heater’s faults, the smoke and the buzzing, and my father got mad and left the table. He thought we were ganging up on him. He thought I was being cruel, and I was, but I was also forgiving him.

 

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