The Deceptive Simplicity of Peanuts


Arts & Culture

Charles M. Schulz. Photo: Roger Higgins for the New York World-Telegram and Sun. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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.

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.

Peanuts has no discernible scale, because it exists simultaneously as small increments and a fifty-year totality, an epic poem made up entirely of haikus. Then again, maybe that’s also what life is: short, packed moments of intense, concentrated awareness, minuscule epiphanies that accrete as we age, an accumulation of efforts, some meaningful and some meaningless, moments all too real that unsettlingly feel somehow also not real, jottings taking note of everything, within and without. One life, all life. An isolated four-panel comic strip of Charlie Brown and Linus debating a philosophical point can be appreciated just as it is, humorous, insightful, compact, and perfect; one strip a day documenting one man’s thoughts for half a century has the weight of a full life. Peanuts endures, both from the closest micro-view and the farthest macro–vantage point.

Likewise, time also doesn’t really exist in Peanuts. Maybe that’s not the best way to put it. To be sure, the action always unfolds in a linear fashion, with dialogue often driving the action (dialogue perforce functions as a transcript of time). And there are surprisingly a greater number of topical references than might have stuck in one’s memory of the strip. What I mean by time “not existing” is that Schulz is reliving his past, revising it into his characters’ constant present. They aren’t children who speak as adults, nor adults inhabiting child costumes. The characters and all that transpires in the strip are the sum total of one man’s mind, memory, experience, history, speculations, and dreams, a self-contained universe revealing itself as if it were a slowly exploding singularity.

Take two: We are the same person from childhood to death, but we are always in flux, reacting to unpredictable stimuli, a little different after each experience, perhaps worse for the wear. We don’t look the same from year to year, certainly not decade to decade, and our memory is imperfect (to put it kindly). We know there are ebbs and tides and biological upheavals as we age, but deep down we know we have always been one and the same person, the same one we are now and will continue to be. There is a continuity that seems odd to me. Is there a latent self that exists in perpetuity, a Platonic version of each individual, that briefly flickers on planet Earth? Peanuts, too, captures this odd sensation: Charlie Brown in 1950 looks quite different from Charlie Brown in 2000, but we always know it’s the same Charlie Brown and, weirdly, that there exists a Charlie Brown.

While the strip steadily evolved into a worldwide, near-ubiquitous phenomenon, it was by no means obvious that this strange, highly personal strip would ever achieve such success. Because it was designed to take up little space on a printed page, there wasn’t much room for eye-grabbing visuals. But revolutions can sneak up on you. I often liken the effect Peanuts must have had on the comics page to the one Marlon Brando had on the movie screen. In Brando’s first film (The Men, 1950), he is an incongruous presence: his messy but vivid style of acting is at odds with the overt theatricality of everyone else’s, almost as if we are watching two different films simultaneously. Brando’s performance is more naturalistic, and thus seems more modern, less stilted; in the same film, we can see the beginning of a new style of film acting, and the death of an older one. Similarly, before Peanuts, depression and neurosis were not topics commonly discussed in the funnies. With Peanuts, Schulz brought a gamut of new emotions and sensations to the comics: tenderness, melancholia, isolation, frustration, joy, spleen, fury.

Charles Schulz liberated the funny pages, all the while sustaining this self-examination under the microscope of public scrutiny, even through the debilitating pain that caused the lines to get shaky in the strip’s latter years. What would have readily destroyed another artist was transformed by Schulz into the aesthetic of the strip. I can attest that giving up on drawing is the easiest thing in the world to do; Schulz must have been a rock made of 100 percent willpower. We cartoonists all owe him a debt of gratitude, even if we have absorbed Peanuts second- or thirdhand: every awkward pause, tragic punchline, stretched-out uncomfortable post-punchline moment, philosophical meandering, every strip with an inanimate object expressing its thoughts—all of these have their roots in Peanuts.

As for me, every decision I made in that one-page tribute strip, which at the time I considered an anomaly, a one-off project, unexpectedly but inescapably turned out to be the template for every drawing I have done since. This includes the nuts-and-bolts stuff, such as the ideal proportions of a cartoon body, the distances and angles of eye to nose to mouth, the shapes of noses and ears, and the size relation between a character and the panel perimeter; the touchy-feely stuff, such as rhythm, pacing, mood, flow, and overall tone; and the heady stuff, such as the blurring/merging of interior (monologue) and exterior (dialogue). That short strip was to dictate the next twenty years of my life. But Peanuts was already there, in the fabric of my being, its power and influence waiting to be acknowledged. Like many cartoonists, I found a way to examine myself by rediscovering and reconstituting the mechanics—and hopefully some of the feel—of Peanuts.

There is a Zen koan that asks, “What is your original face?” I can only answer that Charlie Brown is my original face.


Ivan Brunetti is a teacher, illustrator, editor, and cartoonist. He is an associate professor of design at Columbia College Chicago, where he edits the student anthology Linework. He is the author of Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice and Aesthetics: A Memoir, as well as the editor of both volumes of An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories. His most recent books are Wordplay, 3×4, and Comics: Easy as ABC. His drawings occasionally appear in The New Yorker, among other publications.

“Yesterday Will Get Better,” by Ivan Brunetti, from The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life. Published October 22, 2019, by Library of America. Copyright © 2019 by Ivan Brunetti. Used by permission.