Charles M(onroe) Schulz

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Robert L. Short

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"Art-Parable is that creation of man with no practical use except to communicate meaning indirectly through forms that capture one's attention." This is the kind of definition that could easily help wear someone out, but it is also why all art is parable, and vice versa…. Charles Schulz's famous comic strip, Peanuts, certainly meets this definition of Art-Parable. But since this cannot be said of all comic strips, we need to distinguish between "art" and "entertainment." All art involves "entertainment" of sorts, but not all entertainment is art. Mere entertainment leads us away from reality; indeed it can even be considered an escape from reality…. Art, on the other hand, can also entertain us, but it goes further. It leads us through its dream back to a reality that perhaps we had not seen before or to a reality that we now see in a new light. It helps us to see our lives as they really are and frequently provides suggestions as to how those lives can better be faced and accepted without the constant need for escape…. Art-Parable … always has "something to say."… (pp. 14-15)

This extra dimension of Art-Parable no doubt accounts for much of the phenomenal popularity of Peanuts. For in addition to being consistently well drawn and funny and entertaining, it is easy to see that this important "plus factor" is also there. Not only can we see it, but we know that Schulz intends for it to be there. "In a sense, anyone can learn to draw, but having something to say makes the difference," he says in regard to the strip's success. (pp. 15-16)

It is to Schulz's credit then that he has taken such a popular entertainment medium and raised it to the level of art. For everything we have a right to expect from art is there. Therefore, in considering Peanuts as a significant body of art, we should not be put off by the fact it remains hilariously funny and is enjoyed by almost everyone. This is exactly the same audience that Jesus wanted to attract—"everyone." Hence we have his parables, or "word-pictures," as the New Testament word for "parables" can be translated. The parables, then, in a very valid way, can be thought of as the cartoons of the Bible. And Peanuts, more than any other strip we know of, is "the Bible" among cartoons. There is little doubt that someday in the future, when we are browsing among the literary classics that have had wide appeal for young and old, literary scholars and pure pleasure seekers—titles such as Moby Dick, Gulliver's Travels, Huckleberry Finn—we shall also find The Collected Cartoons of Charles Schulz. (p. 17)

Schulz could hardly avoid preaching even if he should want to, given the basic recipe he has chosen for Peanuts: take a few small children; render them honestly in the way that children really think and act; put into their midst one small, "peculiar" dog; and stir this mixture into the framework of spare simplicity and high comedy. It seems to me that with these ingredients (the strip "is full of ingredients," as Linus says about a box of cocoa-mix) one will necessarily concoct a strip that not only will speak eloquently about man and his problem, but also a strip that at least will be highly suggestive of the answer to that problem. The hallmarks of Peanuts are its simplicity and its honesty about life; and these are precisely the hallmarks of the parables of Jesus. (p. 18)

[Schulz] says, "It's much better to be...

(This entire section contains 2238 words.)

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a good cartoonist than a terrible minister," But … he still considers himself a minister even though a cartoonist…. [He] recognizes that in working "for the secular press through a newspaper syndicate I must exercise care in the way I go about expressing things. I have a message that I want to present, but I would rather bend a little to put over a point than to have the whole strip dropped because it is too obvious." This then is his answer—to "bend a little," aparabolic expression of his faith. For this is literally what a parable is—a bending, a curved or roundabout or less than obvious way of getting to "a point." And this bending can constantly be seen in Peanuts. Both the parables of Jesus and the parables of Peanuts, to use [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer's famous phrase, "speak in a 'secular' way about God." (p. 21)

[Both] the parables of Peanuts and the parables of the New Testament are best not seen as allegories—that form of Art-Parable that attributes special significance to every last detail. Just as New Testament scholars can tell us "that most of the parables have each of them one main point and only one," it has also been observed that in Peanuts "each strip is usually a lesson, complete in itself." Also, allegories use a quite consistent symbolism; and this certainly is not always true of Peanuts. Although there are symbols that can be seen in the strip, Schulz is no slave to any intricately devised symbolic scheme that will solve all of the world's problems in a single cartoon…. Schulz has said that he believes his characters "should be as inconsistent as most of us unfortunately are." His characters are best seen then, I think, as a small repertory company of actors, the same type of company that Shakespeare wrote and acted for, in which "one man in his time plays many parts." Schulz has even compared himself to a "playwright" with a small "cast of characters"—a cast of characters who must frequently change roles, if on this tiny stage it is really possible to see "all the world." (pp. 43-4)

Schulz tells us that at one time early in his career he attempted to illustrate the entire Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes with cartoon figures, but later scrapped the effort as he "didn't know what to do with it." Nevertheless, the major themes of Ecclesiastes still constantly reappear in Peanuts. For instance, Ecclesiastes begins by lamenting the family of man's ancient "charter," from which there seems to be no escape and in which man seems to be beaten before he begins. In this sense no generation is different from any other: the "vanity" or hollowness of man's life is inherited from generation to generation in the same sense that men beget men and not angels. ("That's always been the trouble with our family," says Linus. "We have too much heredity.") … We break off and limit ourselves to the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, as Schulz—very much like Dante—could easily furnish us with tour guides who could help us to see the entire book as a sort of divine comedy.

One of the purposes of Art-Parable is, as Shakespeare could put it, "to hold the mirror up to nature." Schulz is a master in this regard, especially in holding the mirror up to human nature. This job is made easier for him by the fact that he deals exclusively with small children—and deals with them honestly. If one man is a microcosm, "a little world," a child is—in several ways—an even more clearly defined and concentrated microcosm. One of these ways is the clearer view we can obtain from children of the primitive, unadulterated evil in man. Evil is literally "unadulterated" in children as children lack the adult's sophisticated ability to mask and disguise evil. By "evil" we mean "sin."… In Art-Parable,… as well as in "real life," sin is most often dramatized by "sins." This is why, as [Time magazine] could say of Schulz, "There is no doubt that Schulz, a fervent bible reader, is aware of original sin. He owns up to making his Peanuts mean because he believes that kids are born mean. But by making his characters cruel on occasion, he has also made them believable." Cruelty, like crabgrass, runs rampant throughout the Peanuts patch, so much so that there is no need to cite particular examples. Rather, it should be sufficient to say that in the Christian's view of things, including Schulz's, the games people play as children do not essentially change by the time they are adults…. (pp. 57-8, 60)

To say that it is possible to see the devil in the figure of the dreaded "Red Baron" should be "no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" …, and "the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman," as Shakespeare can tell us—a gentleman traditionally symbolized in red. Also, it is quite obvious that for Snoopy at least, the Red Baron does represent the forces of evil in the world. For instance, in one cartoon, after getting shot down for the umpteenth time, Snoopy grimly makes his way back to his outfit, muttering to himself, "Curse the Red Baron and his kind! Curse the wickedness in this world? Curse the evil that causes all this unhappiness!" But not only is Snoopy's real antagonist very much like the Christian's, but Snoopy is engaged in exactly the same kind of struggle "the church militant" is engaged in…. Snoopy's encounters with the Red Baron are comical for the same reason that the Christian is involved in a divine comedy: regardless of how narrowly perilous and difficult the situation becomes for both of them, we know they will always finally escape; the war in which they are fighting has already been fought and won: the final outcome is assured long before the individual skirmishes ever begin. Both Snoopy and the Christian may get shot down time after time; but we know, as they do, that "Someday I'll get you, Red Baron!" We know this because we know that "the Red Baron" has, in actual fact, already been got. "For our fight," just as Snoopy's, this little peanut-sized "hound of heaven" who persistently dogs the Red Baron, "is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens."…. (pp. 155-57)

Schulz has frequently been asked why Peanuts does not "seem to deal with controversial issues … like war, or sex, or something similar," as one student so aptly put it. The answer to this question, of course, as Schulz indicated in his reply, is that Peanuts is more concerned with gospel than with law. The strip refuses to give us little homilies or moral lessons or rules to live by, but goes straight to the heart of the matter where the question and the answer lie. For example, Schulz cites "Charlie Brown's adulation of the little red-haired girl [which] touches upon the fact that there are some people—maybe all of us—who never really get to meet the little red-haired girl." Peanuts, then, like all real art, is a metaphor for the universal; it is more interested in the larger implications than the specifics. As Thoreau could say, "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." And, we believe, such a one is Schulz. For it is rare when we see the moralizing game played in Peanuts, whether in the social or religious or political fields. This is one comic strip that is really playing a deeper, far more crucial game than "right and wrong": it is concerned with the "game" of good and evil. For this reason, it is very easy to apply to Schulz the statement T. S. Eliot made of Baudelaire: "In … an age of bustle, programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism and revolutions which improved nothing, an age of progressive degradation, [he] perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption." (pp. 228-29)

Charlie Brown, whose globe-like head the other kids enjoy ridiculing, is a zero, a sort of walking cipher, "a no one" (as he says). He is also "everyone"—the very world itself. For in this suffering little child of the world, we can also see the rest of the world, made "the victim of frustration" by the Creator. But he is even something more than this; because a circle is also a symbol for eternity. Charlie Brown's perfectly round head is also a built-in halo with the face of all mankind on it. In Charlie Brown, Schulz has done in cartoon form exactly what van Gogh wanted to do in his paintings: "In a picture I want to say something comforting, as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring." (p. 293)

Schulz has probably best summed up his approach to the Bible by saying, "Let the Bible speak to you!" By this, we are sure that he does not mean to minimize the importance of historical criticism and biblical research, but that he does feel "that intelligent and fruitful discussion of the Bible begins when the judgment as to its human, its historical and psychological character has been made and put behind us" (Barth). (p. 295)

The world of Peanuts is a world of sighs, "sighs too deep for words"—which is another way of saying that Peanuts is a world of prayer. (p. 314)

Robert L. Short, in his The Parables of Peanuts (copyright © 1968 by Robert L. Short; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers; Inc.), Harper, 1968.




Johnny Hart