Toon Musings: Peanuts and Me
When a young person gets the urge to draw stuff, quite often they will pick an already established work and copy the shit out of it. My particular muse, as a pre-adolescent, was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. I had book compilations of the strip; I collected them obsessively, and used them to inform my own drawings of the characters. I can distinguish a Snoopy drawn in 1956 from ones drawn in 1962, 1965, and 1968. Did you know that Linus, Lucy and Schroeder have the same head, and that the only difference is the hair and clothing? They all have that high-crowned head with a prominent, relatively pointy brow and concave forehead shading to a bulbous-topped, pointed, but flat-bottomed nose (I labored for hours trying to get that nose right!). Likewise with Charlie Brown and his sister, Sally: round head, flat forehead, straight thimble-shaped nose. Whenever I watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I note that in certain scenes with Sally, she’s sporting the middle period prominent “hair horns” but in other scenes she’s rocking the more feathered, closer-to-the-head hairstyle of the later Sally. In fact, in A Charlie Brown Christmas, they actually have some scenes of the very early Sally, from when the character was first introduced…
Oh, I live such a tortured life. But I digress.
Having firmly established my comics nerd bona fides, let me say that for all the imperfections of the television specials in depicting Schulz’s inimitable style, they certainly got the spirit of the strip right: the spare, shaky lines, the simple design, the flat colors of the characters. They used young kids to voice the characters rather than professional actors, to heighten the contrast between who was speaking and the comparatively more adult concepts they were speaking about. The low-key jazz score by Vince Guaraldi lent a wistful tone.
I must admit to some bias, because I grew up on the TV specials, and they’ve long since become an inseparable part of my psyche. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch The Peanuts Movie, the recent (2015) big-budget CGI rehash of Schulz’s creation. The voices of the characters looked to be supplied by tweens rather than little kids, and as a result they sounded properly kid-like, but a bit too polished. The music had a few call-outs to the terrific jazz score of the TV specials, but the signature tunes were high-energy dance numbers by Meghan Trainor. Meh. The interstitial music mostly consisted of lush orchestral pieces, which I guess is the norm these days—dagnabbit! The story was pretty pro forma for a Peanuts adaptation: a main story about Charlie Brown riffing on an overarching concept of the strip, punctuated with short comedy bits starring another character, in this case Snoopy, with gags lifted directly from specific one-off strips, and longer, elaborate action sequences suited for the 3D constituency, which I reckon is also the norm these days—gerd dermmit! Charlie Brown was appropriately tortured with self-doubt, but he was waaaay too popular with the rest of the gang, who periodically stopped by his house and yelled for him to come out and play. All things considered, though, it wasn’t too objectionable.
It was the art that threw me a bit. The animators for the TV shows got close to Schulz’s style, but the renderings were slightly clumsy approximations, a bit misshapen at times owing to the translation of static drawings to moving images—and to the fact that it’s really hard for an artist to exactly duplicate another artist’s style. I know; I’ve tried.
But given enough cash and the army of supremely talented people it can buy, it can be done, apparently. The characters in the movie were three-dimensional. The kids’ skin had a velvety texture, and Snoopy was quite fuzzy in contrast (Hell, they had a fourteen-person department devoted to “fur and procedural geometry”!). And all the characters were exact copies of Schulz’s style. Exact. I guess the eyes and mouths presented some unique challenges, because those appeared as squiggles and dots drawn on the 3D shapes, but it helped… humanize(?)… the characters somehow. I once saw some recent cartoon shorts that looked pretty good, but they appeared to be made by taking Schulz’s actual art and running it through Flash or some similar program, moving the characters by stretching and squashing the original static drawings. It looked okay, kinda cheaty. The movie was nothing like that. It was seamless.
So I watched these souped-up versions of characters I grew up with going through the familiar routines, and then doing all this kinetic action-hero stuff. The score was lush, the voices slick and professional, and the backgrounds were practically photorealistic. It was fun. It was also a million miles away from the simple hand-drawn Peanuts I grew up with.
This past spring was a bonanza of museum shows for comics. The first one I went to was “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To A Punchline: the Evolution of Chicago Comics into an Art Form,” an examination of the city’s role in the development of comics. When I got there, I discovered it was not open to the public, even though it got a writeup in the newspaper… but due to my winning smile and “professorial demeanor” I was nonetheless able to get in. The second show was an exploration of Swedish comics at the Swedish American Museum called Outside the Lines. Man, they sure like Donald Duck (Kalle Anka in Sweden)! Maybe it’s because he’s the color of the Swedish flag.
The third show I went to was Snoopy and the Red Baron at the Elmhurst History Museum, which explored the fictional dog and his fantasy relationship with the real Manfred von Richthofen. It consisted of a lot of historical material, some very nice reproductions of Schultz’s original Snoopy versus the Red Baron strips, and a couple of cases of musty old toys from back in the day. Some of Child-Me’s most prized and played-with possessions were represented in those cases. I had a snap-together Snoopy’s Sopwith Camel just like that! And that big stuffed Snoopy! And that poseable plastic Flying Ace Snoopy! There’s nothing like seeing your childhood toys in a museum case to drive home the point that the world is moving on without you.
But I console myself that a younger generation of fans is getting to know blahdy blah blah. Old guy upset by change. Big deal.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.