Friday, 26 October 2012

Books: You Really Don't Look 50 Charlie Brown


You Really Don't Look 50 Charlie Brown
By Charles M Schulz

Available now from Islington Libraries
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Apple Pie, Bald Eagles, Mount Rushmore, Sweet Home Alabama and Charles Schulz's Peanuts. Erm - I'll take: "The most wholesome American images out there for $400 please Alex" [1].

That title comes from the fact upon the publication of this book way back in 2000 Peanuts was celebrating it's Golden (is that right?) Anniversary ("Today is my grandfather's birthday." "How old is he?" "Sixty-three." "It's hard to believe that he was once a human being."). And well - frankly I was confused - because in my mind I guess I just kinda assumed that Peanuts had been around and ever and ever. Like - I'm sure that there's photographs of people sitting around reading about the adventures of Charlie Brown back when they were fighting the Civil War - no? (Ok - then: just me).

But obviously - that's a stupid thing to say seeing how linked together Peanuts are with the 1950s. For goodness sakes Charles M Schulz nickname was "Sparky" - that's how wholesome and picket-fence he was (and how the world used to be) - I mean: honestly - I don't think anyone would be able to pull off a nickname as rosy-cheeked as "Sparky" these days - unless it was a reference to the fact that they were a pyromaniac or something. And the whole Peanuts crew couldn't be more square and establishment unless they were painted by Norman Rockwell (if you don't know that is - it's the guy who paints like Alex Ross - yeah?). In fact - no - I take it back: Norman Rockwell as too many colours (and if watched Pleasantville [2] taught be anything: it's that people back when things were more straight-laced and clamped down: well - they didn't like colours [3]).

So - wait? Where was I? Oh yeah: going into Peanuts  I was prepared for maybe a few laughs (I mean - that's always the hope - right?) but I was really expecting anything with too much bite - I mean: the lesson we've all been made to learn nowdays is that if you want to be wildly popular, appeal to millions and get translated into a bagillion languages is that you can't rock the boat too much - right? You have to play nice and dumb it down and make yourself as presentable as possible. Sure: without Peanuts we wouldn't have any Calvin and Hobbes (note to self: order some Calvin and Hobbes for Islington), any xkcd, any Perry Bible Fellowship. But compared to all the cool kids: Peanuts is the kindly grandfather sitting in the rocking chair: a nice smile and all - but (at the end of the day) pretty toothless.

(Yes. I realise that more and more I'm relying on the formula of: "I thought that this book would be like this - but - turns out it was more like this" - but (what the hey): most of the time it's true - and at least it gives me a simple structure to stick to: and turns things into more of a story and less of just a list of: "this is stuff that I thought about this book." -so (basically) - shut up)

I realise that this won't be much news to those of you that have read Peanuts (and I mean - like a whole book rather than just a single strip here and there): but for me it was a revelation discovering just how damn caustic Peanuts could be (and yes - caustic is the right word especially in light of lines like: "These 'nyahs' get down into your stomach and then they just lay there and burn."). Because - yeah - I was braced for lame chuckles of the Fred Basset variety [4]: someone saying one thing and then somekind of (oh so) sarcastic reply on the other end [5]. But no - the reason that Peanuts is such a classic and so very world-renowned is because it's dealing with such child-friendly themes as (here we go): pain and agony of unrequited love, depression, lack of self confidence and self-esteem, loneliness and (obviously) death and doing it in such a way (and this is the strange magic) doing it in such a way that you'll leave with a smile across your face and a chuckle in your heart. (And in case you think that this is just me making up crazy things then take it from Charles M Schulz himself: "All the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test grades are D-Minus; the Great Pumpkin never comes and the football is always pulled away." (So - basically: it's like Waiting for Godot only with kids!).

Yeah - I was as shocked as you are now (that is - if you're one of those that has never sat down and read a whole Peanuts book - well: at least - this particular Peanuts book). I'd say a big part of that I'd say is due to the fact a few years ago I thought it would be a good idea to watch a Charlie Brown Christmas (or whatever it was called: some Peanuts thing anyway) during the festive season in order to - you know - give me some seasonal cheer or whatever. And seeing how it's a classic and everything I thought that me (and my literary flatmate - who I had somehow managed to rope in to watch it with me) were guaranteed nostalgic satisfaction [6] and instead all I got was: "This is rubbish. Let's stop watching it." (ok - so I was the one who said it - but that didn't make it hurt any less).

But yeah: I guess that made me think that this book was gonna be more of a thing to read that was more of an obligation rather than something to actively enjoy and I was confused at first by these bits of text interspersing with all the cartoons - turns out that the text is Charles M Schulz sharing some of his reminiscences that mostly (sometimes in some pretty oblique ways) relate to the strips on the pages opposite.  I mean - yeah - ok - good for me. And obviously - if anyone is entitled to kicking back and sharing a few stories it's the guy who gave the world Peanuts. But man - (I'm sorry Sparky) - the stuff he writes sure is boring. I mean: I tried to read all of them - but pretty soon (and if you read this book trust me - you'll be doing the same) I was pretty much skipping over all of them. In fact one of the very few exceptions was the bit where he revealed the answer to that age old mystery - why exactly is Peanuts called Peanuts? (For those of you that don't want to trawl through all his batherings about that time he queued up at the cinema or whatever [7]: here you go (straight from the horse's mouth):  "All I could think of was "Charlie Brown"or "Good Ol' Charlie Brown." The syndicate people didn't care for those, and then informed that they had the perfect title, "Peanuts." I was horrified, and called Larry immediately and told him it was a terrible title. It was undignified, inappropriate and confusing.").

In fact: (and I hope I don't end up on pseud's corner or something for saying this) but (and I know that this is gonna sound a little strange) but the thing that reading this Peanut's collection really reminded me of (and I know that when you have fifty years to pick and choose something you can probably make it resemble whatever the hell you want - so maybe take this with a pinch of salt) but - Joseph Heller's Catch 22 (and I'm pretty sure I've said this elsewhere on here somewhere: but - yeah - (and I know that this is a kinda teenage mentality) but it's my kinda favourite (non-comic) book). And - yeah - I dunno: maybe you'll understand what I mean when you see Charlie Brown lying on a hospital bed going:  Maybe I'm already dead... I wonder if they'd tell me." or enjoying the following exchange: "Why do we always teach little kids to wave "bye-bye?"" "Because for the rest of his life people will be leaving him." or watching cute little Linus van Pelt yell out: "I love mankind... It's people I can't stand." (Admit it - before you thought I was exaggerating - but now you're not so sure...) [8].

I mean - yeah - maybe these are only the rare exceptions but then when I saw the very first Peanut's strip ever published [11] - well: I was more convinced than ever that there was something a little bit - well - let's say: delightfully evil - in the ink Schulz was using. And even tho I know I'm gonna sound like that dad from Goodness Gracious Me [12] (and this kinda contradicts my Catch 22 Joseph Heller bit - but oh well: I guess it can't be helped): but it really seemed like there was something English about the sense of humour being deployed: you know - that kinda glum, misery-guts "we used to have an empire you know" attitude that takes delight in the suffering of others and in the suffering of ourselves. I mean: that's probably the strength of Peanut's right? And probably right now there's someone in Japan writing a blog that's going: "There's always been something delightfully Japanese about Charles M Schulz's Peanuts..."  - but I can't help these thoughts in my head. I don't want to spoil all the best jokes but a book on theology titled: "Has It Ever Occurred To You That You Might Be Wrong?" or Snoopy making a crack about suing a baby? This is normally the type of stuff that you only usually get from a stuffy guy with bad teeth wearing a bowler hat [13].

And the art (we should talk about the art right?) I mean - of course if you're reading Peanuts you're kinda just there for the funny - but the almost zen-like simplicity of the artwork shouldn't be overlooked (in fact - talking of zen and that: I reckon a good way to sum up Peanuts would be to call them American koan's [14] where the lesson being taught is that the world is going to mess you up). I mean - obviously - Charlie Brown, Snoppy, Lucy and all the rest are pretty much icons that will last until the end of time: but just think - they didn't all spring fully formed (and it's kinda cool how - every once in a while in this collection - it'll include a strip from way way back and you can just about tell how his artwork has developed which is a nice reminder that the person drawing them was human and not just a supreme comic strip god) but - the boring reality -at one point they were all drawn for the and created for the first time.

In one of the anecdotes that I did read Robert LePalme of the International Pavilion of Humor of Montreal, Canada [15] calls Charles M Schulz "the most simple man I have ever met." I hope that it's not too soppy to say that just wish that more people exhibited the simplicity that made him so loved. Or (in other words?) "Faults? You call these faults?! These aren't faults. These are character traits!"

[1] That's my lame attempt at a Jeopardy! reference there. I don't think I've ever actually seen a proper episode of Jeopardy! - but you know: cultural osmosis and everything... (Plus - you know: it's supposed to be my ever so-subtle attempt to make things feel even more American - in fact I'm surprised that Alex Trebek (and that's a name that you can just repeat over and over again and not get bored) never bothered to become President - I'm sure he could have got the votes).

[2] It's a 1998 fantasy comedy-drama film starring (amongst other) Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J. T. Walsh, and Reese Witherspoon - what do you mean you've never heard of it?

[3] Yes - I realise that there's an unfortunate double-meaning there. And I was thinking of maybe saying something that sounded a little less inflammatory ("'s that people back when things were more straight-laced and clamped down: well - they didn't like rainbows."): but then - what the hey - I'll take the risk. I mean - you knew that you were in for a wild ride when you started reading this: so just make sure you keep your arms and legs in the vehicle at all times - and I'll do my best to make sure I don't blow your mind too much.

[4]. Don't judge me too much for knowing who Fred Basset is. I can only recollect the name (or: only really know that I know the name) because of the evil brillance that is: Daily Mail Island.

[5] Or - good example: the first thing that pops up when you google "Fred Basset" (which very (strangely) is a Hooded Utilitarian article (that's a website that mainly devotes itself to comics of a higher pedigree than stuff published in the Daily Mail: although it makes more sense when you read that it's "part seven of our look at comics, cartoons and language– today focussing on Britain") but yeah - erm - anyway: the cartoon  - it's Fred Basset (he's a dog) looking at the reader and delivering the "joke": "We're doing the school run." Cut to them all running and the oh-so-inevitable punchline - "Literally!" (ho ho ho - doesn't that just make you want to take pencils and stab them in your own eyes? No? Just me? Ok then.... Whatever).

[6] I'm fairly sure that I used to watch Peanuts back when I was much younger - but all I can remember remember about it was the sound that the adult's voices used to make (which - to be fair - is still a great sound for adult voices to make).

[7] "Ah, there's an interesting story behind this nickel. In 1957, I remember it was, I got up in the morning and made myself a piece of toast. I set the toaster to three - medium brown..."

[8] Doing a quick comparison of their life-times both of them both lived and died within a year of each other (Joseph Heller May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999. Charles M Schulz November 26, 1922 – February 12, 2000 [9]) so I guess it makes sense that they would share similar sensibilities: but more than that I got a sense that there was something that went deeper (maybe because they both served in World War 2 or something like that?) that the world was a bitter, cruel and nasty place and the only thing we can do is to laugh and try and be as decent [10] as we can to each other (do that sound sappy? Whatever - I don't care).

[9] Although saying that here does kinda spoil my planned ending to this piece which was gonna be about me getting to the back of the book (after all the cartoons have finished) and finding the "A Peanuts Chronology" which lists all the evolution and all the varied successes of the strip throughout the years. And then discovering - right at the end (like a rock being chucked at my heart) that next to the year 2000 it says that Charles M. Schulz died in his sleep (and then just after that (in October of the same year): You Really Don't Look 50 Charlie Brown published).Which - you know - seemed like an appropriate place to leave things. Oh well.

[10] Speaking of being decent - I was very pleasantly surprised (especially considering the stereotype of men in the past being all awful sexist pigs) to find that dotted around the place here and there Peanuts is actual pretty right-on and feminist ("How comes we've only been studying about men in history?" and "That's sports? What do you mean that's sports? All you told us about were men! What about women in sports?!!!"). So that was cool too. (Oh! and - according to this article on Acephalous ("Black People Can't Swim") he was cool in other ways too "There’s much to admire in the matter-of-factness of Schulz’s racial politics. Not only is there no meta- to it, there’s no mention of it—Franklin arrives, befriends Peppermint Patty, and plays football." - so woo! for that).

[11] Which you can enjoy for yourself here

[12] "Superman? Indian!"

[13] That's a joke based on the English stereotypes! (Oh man - I don't know what it is: but I frigging love jokes based on English stereotypes - "Oh, Reginald!" etc: always cracks me up like: too much).

[14] Koan is a good word. Definition! A kōan (公案?) /ˈkoʊ.ɑːn/; Chinese: 公案; pinyin: gōng'àn; Korean: 공안 (kong'an); Vietnamese: công án) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen-practice to provoke the "great doubt", and test a student's progress in Zen practice.

[15] It would be very easy at this point to make a crack about Canadian Humor (or you know "humour" as it  should be spelt) but I'm going to resist that urge and instead say - did you know that (according to one story at least) the origin of the name "Canada" came about when Spanish explorers first went north from America and - finding nothing but empty snowy wastes - wrote down on their maps "cá nada" (translation: "nothing here")


Further reading: xkcd, The Perry Bible Fellowship, The Dilbert PrincipleGoliathThe Arrival.

All comments welcome.

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