April 03, 2014
(++++) AS THE COMICS TURN
Pearls Falls Fast: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Charlie Brown and Friends: A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Snoopy: Cowabunga! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
There is more bite to the justly famous Peanuts comic strip of Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000) than many lovers of Charlie Brown and his compatriots realize. One proof of this lies in the extent to which the strip has influenced decidedly darker, far more overtly sarcastic strips, such as Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine. In the latest first-rate, oversize “Treasury” volume of Pastis’ strip, which reprints and provides commentary on the cartoons previously collected in Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Rat’s Wars, Pastis pays overt tribute to Schulz several times. In a strip in which Zebra is building a wall for better protection from the feckless but ever-threatening crocodiles, one croc asks, “Who want talk staring over stoopid wall?” And the next panel shows Charlie Brown and Linus doing just that – as they did so many times in Peanuts. This mystifies the croc, who asks, “Who Meester Big Head?” But Pastis has made his point. He makes it even more strongly in a Sunday strip in which he explains – in one of the below-the-strip comments that he sprinkles throughout this volume – that the first four of his six panels “are an almost word-for-word tribute to my favorite Peanuts strip of all time,” in which characters are looking for pictures in the clouds. The sixth and last panel of Pastis’ strip shows a huge Charlie Brown caricature covering all three Pearls characters, as Rat, his feet sticking out, says, “Stupid runaway Macy’s floats.” That is Pearls humor, but the influence of Peanuts is clearly apparent. True, Pastis goes far, far beyond anything Schulz ever did, with his dark stories, frequent character deaths, preoccupation with beer and with potty humor, crudely drawn characters, and genuinely awful puns – which cartoon Pastis (a recurring Pearls character) cites in his own defense after being put on trial for Rat’s urging readers to overthrow the government (the “pun” defense fails when it turns out that the entire jury, the judge and Rat – who is acting as Pastis’ lawyer – all despise the pun strips). The plotting in Pearls is elaborate to the point of being convoluted – again, far beyond anything that Schulz ever did – and the characters are genuinely bizarre, from cigarette-smoking, weapons-wielding Guard Duck to hyper-arrogant bicycle rider Jeff the Cyclist to the two lazy road-runner birds that get around on a Segway. A typical Pearls “family” strip involves Zebra meeting his son, Plaid – whose mother is sure Zebra is the father because the mom is vertically striped and Zebra is horizontally striped, while the son is, indeed, plaid (turns out that Zebra is not the father: there are other horizontally striped male zebras out there). From an extended celebration of Garbanzo Day to ongoing attacks on The Family Circus (which are in good fun, even if they do not always seem to be: this “Treasury” contains Pastis’ tribute to Family Circus creator Bil Keane, who died on November 8, 2011), Pearls Before Swine has a unique and distinct approach to comics and humor – but it is worth remembering that Pastis’ work is built at least in part on that of Schulz, one of the field’s true greats.
Schulz’s own Peanuts strips are still around in many newspapers and in book collections, such as Charlie Brown and Friends, so readers unfamiliar with Schulz or just wanting a refresher course in his brand of humor can easily find his work. Some may be surprised to discover that Peanuts is darker than many people remember. The darkness is mitigated by the pleasant drawing style and gentleness of much of the humor, but it is still there. Charlie Brown is generally at the center of it, whether engaging in his eternally unsuccessful attempt to kick the football held by Lucy or having his clothes knocked off by one of the innumerable fast line drives hit in his direction when he pitches for his perpetually losing baseball team. Charlie Brown’s life is a study in futility, but because he is so tremendously resilient, readers identify with him and appreciate his unending optimism – which inevitably reemerges right after he has one of his darkest moments and finds himself on the edge of despair. What Schulz did so brilliantly was to take elements of childhood that readers could readily understand and have them discussed by his characters in almost-but-not-quite-adult ways. In one extended sequence in Charlie Brown and Friends, for example, Charlie Brown is so obsessed with baseball that he thinks the sun, the moon, even the scoop of ice cream on his cone are baseballs, and he then develops a rash on his head that looks just like the stitching on a ball. Humiliated, he starts wearing a bag over his head after the pediatrician recommends he go to camp to get away from the stress he is feeling; and at camp, he becomes known as Mr. Sack, gets elected camp president, and solves all sorts of problems for the other campers – until his rash gets better, he takes the bag off his head, and suddenly he is just plain old Charlie Brown again. So he does triumph, but his victory is short-lived – a situation to which readers can readily relate. In another sequence, Charlie Brown rebels against the decision of all his friends to join “snowman teams” and build snowmen strictly on a competitive basis, with “adult-organized snow leagues” in which the kids “have teams and standings and awards and special fields.” As Linus puts it, “It’s winning that counts! What’s the sense of doing something if you can’t win?” Charlie Brown decides to take a stand against this regimentation of childhood: “Why can’t kids just do things on their own?” So he builds a snowman entirely by himself, in his own back yard – well, with a little help from Snoopy – and proudly shows his work to the other kids, only to have his little sister, Sally, say, “Who cares? We’re into bowling now! We have sponsors and trophies and dinners and everything!” An Everyman for the 20th century – and now for the 21st – Charlie Brown still has much to say and much to teach, not only to today’s cartoonists but also to everyone who continues to read and enjoy comic strips.
Nor is Charlie Brown himself the only one with things to tell today’s comics readers: Snoopy, one of the most beloved of all Schulz’s characters, has a few remarks to make, too – even if they are in the form of thought balloons that, somehow, some other Peanuts characters can “hear.” It makes sense for the inward-focused, borderline-depressed Charlie Brown to be in a sack at camp – he is, indeed, something of a “sad sack” – but Snoopy is all ebullience and extroversion, most of the time blissfully unaware of any of the world’s ills. True, he is quite capable of being negative when that is called for – for instance, when the ever-bossy Lucy sits behind him to provide “instant criticism” of Snoopy’s writing, the next thing Snoopy writes is, “Bug off!” But more often, he is preoccupied primarily with himself. For example, when Sally carries him to the playground because there are some pushy kids there and she is “taking the advice of Theodore Roosevelt” to “speak softly, and carry a beagle,” all goes well until Snoopy unexpectedly spots his “first sweetheart” and leaves the scene, so Sally gets “slaughtered” and Snoopy invents a new motto for her, “Speak softly, and shut up!” Elsewhere in Cowabunga! Snoopy advises the little bird, Woodstock, to cover his mouth when dragonflies are near, because “dragonflies sew up your lips so you can’t eat, and you starve to death” – and refuses to believe this is not true when Lucy tells him so, deciding that the complete lack of evidence means there has been a massive medical cover-up. Mostly, Snoopy represents a kind of forthright joy in life that the other Peanuts characters find difficult to come by, as when he gives Woodstock a Christmas hug and says, “Christmas is a good day for our kind. Christmas is for the innocent – we’re as innocent as they come.” Not completely innocent, perhaps – but close enough, as when he distributes eggs as the Easter Beagle or lies atop his doghouse during a snowstorm, ending up completely covered, but commenting, “I’m fine, but someone could slip me a toasted English muffin if he wanted to.” Like Charlie Brown’s reality, Snoopy’s is skewed – but in the opposite direction. It makes perfect sense in the Peanuts world for Snoopy to be Charlie Brown’s dog: their actions and interactions encapsulate the light and dark side of the Peanuts world, and the two characters together show just how inventive Schulz was and just how attractive readers continue to find Peanuts to be.