Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sunday, April 26, 1953: Lucy's skill at golf, and Peanuts' 60th Anniversary

Peanuts

These frames contain some of the more action-oriented Peanuts poses. Particularly frame 5. Later on the female characters' dresses sort of stiffen and flatten out, becoming like dinner plates around their waists, but Lucy's skirt in that panel is one of the most skirt-like skirts Schulz ever drew for Peanuts.

This strip is a foreshadowing of one of the weirdest sequences in the entire strip, the "Lucy in the golf tournament" sequence that played out over successive Sunday strips. That's not coming around for another year, though....



From the comments to yesterday's post:
Michael Jones said...
Happy 60th Anniversary! I hope you have something special planned for Oct. 2nd.

Er, why, yes! Yes I have, I, uh, I've been planning it for months, yeah, just let me for a sec--

SCRAMBLE TYPE PASTE THINK WORK WORK WORK

...well it is a special occasion. For today, the 60th anniversary of publication of the first Peanuts strip, let's break the sequential ordering and take a look at that strange sequence alluded to in the post above. What we present here is nothing less than... and this is deserving I think of the full-out giant text treatment:

THE TIME PEANUTS SHOWED ADULT FIGURES!


Oh yeah, for all you trivia quizzers this should be like gold. I'll present all four Sunday strips then discuss them afterward:

Sunday, May 9, 1954
Peanuts

Sunday, May 16, 1954
Peanuts

Sunday, May 24, 1954
Peanuts

Sunday, May 30, 1954
Peanuts

Oh, where to begin?

First, Peanuts hasn't had many sequences up to this point. To this point we haven't seen any week-long "stories" of themed strips. Yet in these strips we not only have a sequential story, we have square-bordered "CONTINUED" notes, a big promotional box at the end of the first strip, and we have very little actual humor, replaced here with straight narrative.

It's almost like... (gasp)... a continuity strip. It's a bold experiment on the part of Mr. Schulz, although not really a successful one. As far as I know Schulz never returned to the style. It's enough to make one wonder why here, three-and-a-half years in, he considered changing it up.

Was he trying to attract a new audience? Possibly. I don't think Peanuts was unpopular at the time but it had yet to hit upon its greatest popularity, possibly because, although an excellent gag strip, its characters hadn't yet achieved the depths which marked them as works of genius, which would imprint them indelibly upon our age. Here Linus is still a baby and hasn't quoted the Old Testament, Snoopy has yet to have had an imaginative leap, and while Charlie Brown's losing streak at checkers is up to an improbable 10,000 games (thanks to Lucy), at baseball it's still only a game or two.

It's also possible that he was tiring of the limits of the form. I've said before that drawing a daily comic strip is basically a creative meat-grinder; having to come up with something funny to say every day for the rest of your life. Many strips eventually resort to hiring a writing staff (as is the case with Garfield). Schulz, however, famously wrote and drew every strip himself.

Some cartoonists make it work, of course. Ernie Bushmiller, of Nancy, brought a kind of genius to it, but it was genius of a lesser gauge than Schulz's, the genius of endless invention within limited parameters. Schulz, who had wanted to become a cartoonist since childhood, now placed in the role he had long sought and performed it over a thousand times by now, must have thought at some point before now, "Is this it? A joke a day, forever?"

You haven't seen most of them yet, but in the weeks before this sequence there are several strips which have Charlie Brown drawing a comic strip (somewhat humorously on full-sized comic panel boards almost as big as he is), then showing them to his friends who fail utterly to get his joke. In cartooning, I posit, you don't have the luxury of keeping secrets from your readers; when you're forced to mine your brain for new ideas so often, the things that are on your mind will unavoidably come out onto the page. If we accept that, we have to see Schulz in these strips as poking fun as his own pretensions.

It is my theory, and it is not one that I really have any support for except for thinking how he might have chafed at that fate, that it was dissatisfaction with running a simple gag strip, no matter how witty and clever, that caused him, before long, to attempt greater things with his characters.

Second, yes, let's talk about the adult figures. If you go back to the earliest strips and examine how the characters were drawn, it's difficult to imagine what an adult figure of that style would look like. (If you'd like to see, this page has some of his Saturday Evening Post work including one strip with adults.)

The characters have evolved considerably over the first three years, have become more realistically-proportioned, and it's not as much of a stretch to imagine an adult version of one of them.

These strips don't often make it into compilations, maybe for good reason. Peanuts' world can exist only in the absence of adults. How can we justify this rather strange inclusion of full-sized human figures in this realm of children? I do it by observing that the adults are used mostly as scenery. In the second and third strips they extend off-frame before you can see their heads, and in the fourth their heads quite conspicuously don't have faces, which makes them strangely not like real people. When confronted about these strips, Schulz has been recorded as saying the use of the adult figures was a failed experiment.

Charles Schulz draw another strip for a short time called "It's Only A Game," which more frequently featured representations of adults. Fivecentsplease has an informative page on this forgotten piece of Peanuts history, as well as the story of its partly-uncredited ghost artist Jim Sasseville.

Here are some of the more usual nitpicky things:
How on earth could Lucy, who is I think four or five years old at this point, do well in an adult golf tournament? The issue isn't her gender Charlie Brown, it's her size! I think it works, however, by playing off the wonder of her accomplishment.
Speaking of which, the characters actually seem to be smaller than usual in the second and third strips (I'm judging height from those strips where the kids have to reach for doorknobs), but seem to be more realistically-sized in the last.

Other firsts in this sequence:
This is the first time Lucy is referred to by her full first name, Lucille, long before "Peppermint" Patty arrives on the scene. This is also, if I'm remembering right, the first use of her last name, "Van Pelt." Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography reveals that Van Pelt was the name of a friend of Charles Schulz's who sometimes played bridge with him and his first wife Joyce.
It's the first mention of real-world sports stars, and it may actually be the first mention of people living contemporary with the drawing and publication of the strip. (Other "real world" figures mentioned to date have been the composers of Schroeder's musical pieces.)
This is not the first time Schulz has spoken directly to the reader in titles or captions. That was a few Sunday strips earlier, in an oddly-titled strip named "The Croquet Game." It's the first (and I believe only) use of captions, and promoting of future strips.
The sign announcing the tournament lists the current year, which is the first definite in-strip indication of the time the strip takes place.
I think this is the first time we see she characters silhouetted in the distance.
This is the first aerial shot of any characters.
The adults are not the first "extras" used in Peanuts, but they're close. We've already seen the first extras a few strips ago, additional kids added to fill out a baseball game.
The idea of the whole sequence (a character unexpectedly excels, pursues a competition to the cusp of victory, but comes to a halt at the moment before complete success) foreshadows the Peanuts movie "A Boy Named Charlie Brown," where CB goes to a national spelling bee, but at the last word fails in front of a national audience.

One last thing: chagrimace!

7 comments:

  1. Ah, yes...THESE strips. Good choice, and interesting analysis! I think you covered everything, I can't think of anything to add. :D

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  2. Great landmark post. Didn't somebody just reprint a bunch of Schulz teen stuff? - I think it was both about and for teens. That's another example of non-child cartooning of his.

    Thanks for all the good work.

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  3. A post truly worthy of the 60th Anniversary. It's obvious that you put a lot of thought into it. I first learned about Sam Snead (who was frequently repeated) here, any idea when Joe Ponobscot (Sp?) first appeared?

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  4. Salon.com notes the 60th anniversary with an article bemoaning the downfall of comics in the Internet age, and suggesting that "Peanuts" is the last truly great comic strip...

    http://www.salon.com/entertainment/comics/charlie_brown/index.html?story=/mwt/feature/2010/10/02/good_grief

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    Replies
    1. It wasn't quite, there was still Calvin and Hobbes, overrated, but still a great comic strip.

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  5. My favorite part of this would be the shocked looks on their faces at the end of the second strip when the presence of the adults "registers" with them.

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  6. Her passion for the game and impressive skills on the course, along with her keen sense of style, golf skirts

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