The deceptive simplicity of Peanuts | Daily News


The deceptive simplicity of Peanuts

Charles M. Schulz. Photo: Roger Higgins for the New York World-Telegram and Sun.
Charles M. Schulz. Photo: Roger Higgins for the New York World-Telegram and Sun.

Charles Schulz exposed me as a fraud. Nearly two decades ago, upon hearing of Mr. Schulz’s impending retirement, I drew a clumsy comic strip tribute to Peanuts, fancying myself a halfway-decent mimic. I attempted to copy the strong, fluid lines of his mid-’50s work, which I long admired (idolized), but I quickly realized that I was going to fall far short. I could only scratch the surface of his inimitable drawings—as natural as handwriting, but even harder to forge—much less the emotional content he could pack into every molecule of ink. And anyway, the veneer is never the thing itself.

You know how sometimes you might hear what sounds like a simple melodic line in, say, Mozart, and then you see the actual sheet music, which reveals an unfathomably complex, rich structure, an eternity condensed into tiny, elusive black marks flowing through, over, under, and beyond the staves, swimming like furtive cells viewed under a microscope, seemingly unfixed and unfathomable yet cohering into a unified and inextricable whole, all of this therefore outing you as an arrogant, deluded, oblivious fool? That was me.

Simply observation

While I hadn’t been drawing comics for very long at that point, I should have known better. A teacher in high school once explained that drawing was simply observation; thirty-five years later, that still seems like a pretty thorough definition. For starters, I wasn’t observing keenly or deeply enough.

Even though in my pastiche/homage I was “drawing a drawing,” I hadn’t fully understood what I was looking at, because cartooning exists in a kind of liminal space somewhere between writing and drawing. Sure, one could imitate the telltale twirl of a brush winding its way through a stroke, or calculate the pressure applied to a nib traveling along a particular vector, but there was also something ineffable about comics, something more than the sum of its parts.

At the time, I had recently become good friends with Chris Ware, who articulated quite eloquently the difference between drawing and drawing comics. I had an inkling of what he meant, but it wasn’t until I tried copying Schulz that I experienced comics as a special kind of calligraphy, formed and informed not only by an iconic mental map of the world but also by the intensity of life lived, the depth of feelings felt. Charlie Brown is simultaneously a beautifully proportioned, abstracted assemblage of marks; a conceptually pure and original character; a true expression of Schulz; and, through the act of reading Peanuts, a way also to understand myself.

To communicate so much to so many, with so little, as Schulz was able to do with Peanuts, takes a lifetime of practice, persistence, determination, focus, stamina, and dare I say: obsession. Dilettantes and imposters easily betray themselves.

The genius of Peanuts is that it seems simple, replicable. But simplicity and complexity are arbitrary categories; where is the a priori boundary that separates one from the other? The true undergirding of lasting works of art is the embrace of contradictions, and Peanuts is no exception: it is at once universal and idiosyncratic, miniature and vast, constrained and infinite, composed and improvised, claustrophobic and inviting, caustic and sentimental, funny and sad.

Captivating characters

Moreover, what a wonderfully strange strip it is, this internal world playacted by ciphers. A playwright famously noted that every character is the author, and Peanuts exemplifies this truth. Via the interactions of these captivating characters (themselves full of contradictions, with their own internal conflicts), we are inside Schulz’s splintered psyche—unbeknownst to us, because it never feels that way as we read the strip; the content isn’t self-conscious or pretentious or “meta.”

Despite the small, tight, even dense panels, Schulz wisely keeps at us at eye level with the characters, and thus we can easily enter a rectangle of Peanuts and imagine ourselves roaming along with the characters inside what paradoxically seems a boundless world; maybe this is what it feels like inside Snoopy’s doghouse. We inhabit the drama (by which I mean comedy) as it unfolds, following these characters as if they were real people, despite their outsize heads, squiggly arms, and occasional graphic flourishes.

- Paris Review

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