I get a lot of Charlie Brown search terms bringing people to the blog. This is due to the series I wrote in 2008 The Theology of Peanuts.
Recently, this search term brought someone to the Theology of Peanuts series:
good ol charlie brown how i hate him
If you've read my Peanuts series you'll recall that this is the punch line of the very first Peanuts comic strip:
Charlie Brown is walking by and a boy and a girl are sitting watching him pass. And the boy, seeing Charlie Brown walk by, offers a running commentary:
"Well! Here comes Ol' Charlie Brown! Good Ol' Charlie Brown...Yes, Sir! Good Ol' Charlie Brown...(pause)...How I hate him!"The punch line is a meanness and hostility that erupts from beneath the surface of polite social conversation. The strip exposes a darkness lurking beneath smiling civility. And that such darkness, cynicism and meanness comes from the mouths of cute little children makes it all the more incongruous, startling and, thus, funny.
Or is it just mean? That's the question I posed at the very start of the Theology of Peanuts series. Is Peanuts funny?
Well, of course Peanuts is funny. But the question helps remind us that the humor of Peanuts, particularly in its early years, was rooted in meanness and melancholia. The meanness is seen right away in the very first strip. And think of Lucy. Meanness is the way she operates.
And the melancholia? The sadness of Peanuts is rooted in the depressive protagonist Charlie Brown.
Where does this meanness come from? Umberto Eco, in his introductory essay to the first Peanuts book published in Italian, offered this analysis:
The children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: They are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of the modern industrial civilization...In [these children] we find everything: Freud, mass-cult, digest culture, frustrated struggle for success, craving for affection, loneliness, passive acquiescence, and neurotic protest. [Peanuts is an] encyclopedia of contemporary weakness.Charles Schulz himself declared that "maybe I have the cruelest strip going." Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, agreed. No other comic strip, he felt, "presented a world so relentlessly cruel and heartless."
Love does not come easy in Peanuts. As David Michaelis, Schulz's biographer, has noted,
In [Schulz's] work, indifference would be the dominant response to love. When his characters attempt to love, they are met not just by rejection but by ongoing cold, even brutal, indifference, manifested either as insensitivity or as deeply fatalistic acceptance.And beyond the meanness there is the melancholia. Peanuts is a prolonged meditation on the multifarious sources of human pain and suffering. As Chip Kidd notes in The Art of Peanuts:
[In Peanuts] all the loves are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.Charlie Brown's signature gag-line in Peanuts is often just a sigh. Which is puzzling. How can a comic strip be funny if the gag-line is a sigh?
Mort Walker, the creator of the comic Beetle Baily, expressed this sentiment about that iconic gag line:
[Schulz] was doing something different, and it was hard to understand. I'd read Peanuts some days and at the end it was just 'Sigh.' I'd think, 'That's not a gag line. What's he doing?"All that to say, a lot of young people, when they think of Peanuts, think of Snoopy doing silly things. But in the early years of Peanuts, when it was at its cultural peak, it was very dark and existential. As Eco noted, Peanuts was a "version of the human condition."
Peanuts is a great theological text because, in a very real sense, Peanuts often isn't funny. We often laugh with Peanuts because we identify with it. We encounter the shock of pain in Peanuts and recognize it. And that intimate familiarity with our deepest pains, longings and insecurities makes us smile. And even laugh. We have been understood. And this comforts us.
And yet, Peanuts isn't all gloom and tragedy. In Peanuts there is companionship, joy, endurance, and heroism.
The protagonist of Peanuts is Charlie Brown. Eco describes Charlie Brown as the "Jeremiah of the strip-Bible." Charlie Brown earns this recognition because we watch him endure pain, loneliness, rejection, meanness, humiliation, and failure of every kind.
And yet, in his Sisyphisian persistence Charlie Brown becomes noble and heroic. Somehow, despite his chronic existential angst, Charlie Brown never loses faith. As Michaelis writes,
Charlie Brown handles without self-pity insults that would push real children to the breaking point...Schulz's characters reminded people of the never-ceasing struggle to confront one's vulnerabilities with dignity. Humanity was created to be strong; yet, to be strong and still to fail is one of the universally identifying human experiences. Charlie Brown never quits...And beyond Charlie Brown's humanity-in-vulnerability we also encounter in Peanuts the spirituality and kindness of Linus and the joy, enchantment and eros of Snoopy.
Eros? Snoopy, we should note, is the only one who kisses in Peanuts.
And he loves to kiss, of all people, Lucy.
Such are the theological themes and tensions explored in the world Peanuts.