Profile Charlie Brown: Good grief, the ball game's over

American society may have undergone seismic change over the past 50 years, but some things remained constant - like baseball, root beer and the anxious little icon who announced his retirement last week.

Share
Related Topics
So long, Charlie Brown. For a kid perennially convinced the world was out to get you, you sure managed to stick around a long time. Since you first made your appearance more than half a century ago, the planet has grown older and more jaded, but you've remained the same angst-ridden little kid, a poster-boy for sweet suburban innocence tinged with deep existential despair.

We'd come to think you'd last for ever, popping up in the morning funnies over the breakfast table as surely as the sun would rise. But while age may not have changed you, it couldn't help catching up with your creator, the inimitably dogged Charles "Sparky" Schulz, who always prided himself on making sure you'd never miss a deadline. A blocked artery, a couple of minor strokes and colon cancer - the sorts of things you have always worried about but never had to contemplate - mean that he's had to stop his ritual of plunging you and your friends into your daily round of disarmingly wry emotional turmoil.

Your last daily appearance will be on 4 January, and the final Sunday version of your strip - the longer, more contemplative sort - will come out in February. After that, there will be nothing more than television specials and the crass merchandising of mugs and T-shirts. Good grief, maybe the world is out to get you after all.

Charlie Brown is, of course, more than just another cartoon character. He's become an icon of American popular culture, with all the confusing, contradictory imperatives of art, commerce, cultishness and social commentary that that epithet implies.

For Americans, he has been a lightning-rod for their phobias, their secret desires and the contemplative need to acknowledge just a little pain behind the relentlessly upbeat facade of the American Dream. For those of us on this side of the Atlantic, he has been our introduction to the very foundation stones of Americana - the world of baseball mitts, root beer, lemonade stalls and psychotherapy; of classroom rivalry, casual cruelty, petty snobbery, delusions of grandeur and sibling betrayal; of snowball fights in the deep Midwestern winter and unrequited puppy love.

Some of the strip's admirers say its longevity is due to its ability to keep up with the times. The roster of characters has been constantly refreshed and updated over the years - notably with the addition of Franklin, the strip's only black character, at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s, and the infuriatingly elusive birdie Woodstock within a few weeks of the legendary rock concert in 1969. Hey, there was even a reference to Harry Potter in a recent strip (Sally writing to her favourite book character before being reminded he's fictional and giving up).

But such contemporary touches are really no more than marginalia. In fact, the heart and soul of the Peanuts strip seems forever locked into a 1950s time warp, an era before the present preoccupation with drugs, gun violence, child molesters and the like, a time when language was clean and nihilism was never allowed to go so far that it was not redeemed by an underlying humanity.

Terms such as "blockhead" and Charlie Brown's signature exclamation "good grief" have not been updated from the earliest days of the strip and are unmistakably associated with that time. A large part of Charlie's charm is, in fact, his refusal to grow up and move on. That implausibly circular head, with its anxious quiff of hair and crushed linear smile, the zigzag pattern on his shirt and the fragile, knobbly thinness of his knee joints - these have not changed one iota since the style of the strip was fully evolved in the mid-1950s.

New characters - such as Charlie's sister Sally or Lucy's two brothers, Linus and Rerun - may have made their first appearances as babes-in-arms, but they soon hit a developmental ceiling, settling into some indefinable age of articulate immaturity between the end of their toddler years and the onset of puberty. What started out as a cartoon that poked gentle fun at the mores of the time has thus, inescapably, become something of a nostalgia trip.

That does not mean that they have lost their edge. As Umberto Eco wrote of the strip in 1990 - and Peanuts is the sort of cultural artefact that was virtually born to be written about in an Eco essay - "The poetry of these children is born from the fact that we find in them all the sufferings of adults. These children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: they are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of the industrial civilisation...."

Their monstrosity, however, has none of the loud obviousness of a modern offshoot of Peanuts such as the Rugrats. It is all contained in the quietly devastating asides and thoughtless actions of children who believe relentlessly in their own sweet goodness. Lucy may be crabby and mean-spirited, but she takes her own negative characteristics as a kind of worldliness that she then tries to sell on at her five-cent psychiatric stand. Peppermint Patty may be an early incarnation of that familiar American figure, the sports jock, but she also has few illusions about being as thick as two short planks. Snoopy may be forever eluding the control of his master, Charlie Brown, but he considers his exuberant flights of fancy - in meeting the Red Baron in airborne combat, for example - as a sort of generosity of spirit.

At the centre of this universe is Charlie Brown himself, a boy continually tripping himself up with the simple belief that he is, at heart, a loser. As Schulz himself says of him: "It always rains on his parade, his baseball game and his life. He's an inveterate worrier who frets over trifles (but who's to say they're trifles?) ... Other than his knack for putting himself down, there are few sharp edges of wit in his repertoire; usually he's the butt of the joke, not the joker. His friends call him `wishy-washy', but his spirit will never give up in his quest to triumph over adversity."

Like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, he is always racing towards the football in the vain hope that this time, for once, his nemesis Lucy won't swipe it away at the last minute. With the kind of tenacity that might inspire a Kevin Costner sports movie, he persists in flying his kite even though he knows it is going to get caught, as always, in that pesky, kite-eating tree. Like the best romantic dreamers, he never gives up hope that the red-haired girl at school will notice him and return his affections (she never appears in the strip as anything more than a silhouette).

It is impossible, of course, to understand Charlie Brown without first understanding his creator. From the outset, Sparky Schulz - his nickname came from a childhood cartoon favourite, a horse called Sparkplug - maintained a quiet determination to succeed in his dream of authoring a comic strip, even as the signs pointed in other directions. In his first stab at art school, he earned a C+ grade in a class entitled "Drawing of Children". The red-haired girl in his class - yes, she really did exist - refused to look in his direction.

But persistence paid off. Charlie Brown was named for an art school chum, and the first incarnation of his column, known as "L'il Folks", debuted in 1947. The strip was renamed Peanuts at the insistence of the United Features Syndicate in 1960, much to the chagrin of Schulz himself who had settled on "Good Ol' Charlie Brown". (Fate, once again, being against our hero.)

As for Charlie's sensibility, it was all the author's own. "I suppose I've always felt that way: apprehensive, anxious, that sort of thing," Schulz said in a 1989 interview. "I have compared it sometimes to the feeling that you have when you get up on the morning of a funeral."

Some of Schulz's neuroses were meted out to the other characters. Sally's reluctance to go anywhere or stray from her routine, for example, reflects Schulz's own. (He moved from Minnesota to Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco, in 1958 and has scarcely budged since.)

At times, of course, Charlie has seemed in danger of being upstaged altogether, particularly by his beagle scout, Snoopy - based on a Schulz family puppy - who earned cult status with the 1966 Royal Guardsmen hit "Snoopy vs the Red Baron". Charlie may be irrevocably linked with the phrase "good grief", but it is his friend Linus who entered the dictionaries with his "security blanket".

But it is his foibles, and his charming pessimism, that will endure.

"As a youngster, I didn't realise how many Charlie Browns there were in the world," Schulz once said. "I thought I was the only one. Now I realise that Charlie Brown's goofs are familiar to everybody, adults and children alike."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Early Years Teacher - Jan 2015 - China

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Position: Early Years TeacherRequired: J...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Primary Teachers required - Cardiff and the Vale

£95 - £105 per day + plus free travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: KS1 ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Apple CEO Timothy Cook  

Tim Cook coming out as gay publicly for the first time matters to young men like me

Leigh Dowd
 

Daily catch-up: war on drugs, shocking polls and Balls family news

John Rentoul
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes