In one of his best known stories, “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W,” the science fiction and fantasy author Harlan Ellison tells of a man who has lost his soul and who embarks on a metaphysical journey inside himself to find it again. At the end of his adventure he finds (partial spoiler alert) a bit of long forgotten pop culture ephemera.
I never need to go on the journey taken by Ellison’s protagonist, because while I know my soul is more complex that any single touchstone, I am certain of what looms largest inside the innermost me. That’s because it also happens to sit, at 18 volumes and counting, on the shelves across from where I write. I refer to “The Complete Peanuts,” an ongoing series of hardcover reprints from Fantagraphics of every “Peanuts” cartoon drawn by Charles M. Schulz, which still has several years to go before it is fully complete. Between those covers are perhaps the single greatest influence on me from age five to 15, and in many ways both the formation and reflection of my psyche.
Since I was born in the early 60s, “Peanuts” was already established by the time I began reading the comics page of the local newspaper. Thanks to tag sales and paperback reprints, I was able to work my way back to the strip’s earliest years without any difficulty.
Remarkably for a comic so steeped in Schulz’s own Midwestern childhood decades earlier, the Peanuts were a late 60s-early 70s phenomenon, as TV specials, a long-running musical and theatrical films spread the gospel of Charlie Brown and company (there was even a book called The Gospel According to Peanuts). Both the establishment and the bourgeoning counterculture found something they could share in Peanuts, and while there was surely a massive marketing campaign run by The Man, resulting in Happiness is a Warm Puppy taking up permanent residence at cash registers everywhere, you could also find Peanuts-emblazoned merchandise in progressive record stores too, with Snoopy posters (maybe even some in blacklight-sensitive colors) on the walls behind the bong display cases.
I’ve only read the first volume or two of the collected works, even though I buy them as they’re published; they seem to call for a certain kind of lazy Sunday afternoon, perhaps in a hammock, that one rarely finds in Manhattan life. Even those earliest strips remain familiar; they don’t trigger a forgotten memory like a random madeleine, but merely jog my brain where snapshots of the strips reside barely out of reach, filed, not faded. While the digital transition continues apace, I’m putting these books aside to be read by me in two or three decades, though youthful visitors with clean hands will be welcome to page through them in the meantime.
While a biography has already emerged which links, in some cases unfavorably, Schulz’s own life with that of his characters, I have no particular interest in the artist’s role as a man, a husband, or father. As much as possible, I want to retain that childhood innocence where the work simply exists, that time before we fully realize that an actual person has created these things we read.
Then, as now, Peanuts is a marvel. The main characters are archetypes: the ever aspiring but never succeeding Charlie Brown, the take-no-prisoners Lucy, the contemplative Linus, the artistically single-minded Schroeder, the free-spirited and soulful Snoopy. It’s worth noting that for all of the other characters Schultz created, these five were the core of the strip; Violet, Patty, Shermy, Frieda, Franklin, Pig Pen, Woodstock, Spike and so many others were always supporting players. Schroeder even ran out of steam after a while, ceding his lead position to both Sally and Peppermint Patty.
But for me, Peanuts was all about Charlie Brown and Snoopy – the former being the person I saw myself as, the latter being the personification of who I hoped to be. I never could kick a football, even if it wasn’t snatched away from me; I couldn’t throw or hit a baseball; the little red headed girl (or blonde or brunette) would barely notice me, let alone return my affection. I couldn’t let go of that enough to enjoy the simple pleasures of a good meal (suppertime!) or an imaginative foray into dark territory. No Red Barons for me – too scary. Even as I achieved academically, even as I began to gather a group of friends with whom I am close four decades later, I always felt like the kid who got a rock in his Halloween candy, the kid laying flat on his back, staring at the sky, wondering why he’d fallen for the same ridicule yet again.
Peanuts even provided my entryway into theatre. The first time I can recall performing publicly, I played the title role in a significantly truncated and surely unauthorized presentation of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown at my day camp at age six or seven; in ninth grade, in the first musical ever produced at my junior high, I played Snoopy in the complete show, taking on the persona to which I aspired. I can’t remember auditioning for either engagement, but perhaps there’s something to be gleaned from the fact that while in my single digits, others saw me as I saw myself, while perhaps seven years later I could assume (or had assumed) a more exuberant façade.
I muse on my one-time obsession and future comfort because after decades of ever-less-inspired television specials, I read last week that the Peanuts characters will soon return to the big screen…in 3D rendered images and 3D projection. I will stop short of calling this sacrilege, because, as I say, the original work remains intact. But I worry about Peanuts going the way of Alvin and the Chipmunks, Underdog or Rocky and Bullwinkle, other childhood treats who proved to have less dimension when a third was added. Peanuts, like The Simpsons, have always looked vaguely creepy when fully modeled; they are best suited for the two-dimensions of the page precisely because they function in an isolated world wholly their own and their distinctive features can seem monstrous when extrapolated into something resembling reality. The makers of the stage musical intuited that immediately, which is why there are no oversized heads or dog costumes in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
I am not a die-hard collector of memorabilia; there is no “Peanuts room” filled with collectibles in my apartment. But my bookshelves belie my interests. Those Peanuts volumes share space with the complete works of Berkeley Breathed (“Bloom County” and its successors), I’m working out a justification for buying the multi-volume hardcover compendium of “Calvin and Hobbes,” and I should probably start squirreling away funds for the as yet unannounced but hopefully forthcoming complete “Doonesbury.”
I will spend hundred of dollars on these books because I want to hold them in my hands the way I did when I first read them, not scroll through them on a screen. “Doonesbury” is and will be the chronicle of American life in my era (conveniently beginning in New Haven when I was growing up there). But Peanuts – which ended just before Schultz died in 2000 – will be the constant reminder of my childhood, and in some ways the record of it as well, the philosophy, the psychology and the often rueful humor that gave birth to me as I am today, burrowed deep inside my brain and my heart.