George Herriman’s Krazy Kat came into existence around 1910–1911 and ended in 1944 with the death of the author. The dramatis personae were three: a cat of unspecified sex, probably female; a mouse, Ignatz; a dog acting as policeman, Offissa Pupp. The drawing was remarkable, with certain surrealistic inventions, especially in the improbable lunar landscapes, deliberately intended to divorce the events from any verisimilitude. The plot? The cat madly loves the mouse, and the wicked mouse hates and tyrannizes the cat, preferably by hitting him on the head with a brick. The dog constantly tries to protect the cat, but the cat despises this unrestrained love; the cat adores the mouse and is always ready to excuse him. From this absurd situation without particularly comic ingredients, the author drew an infinite series of variations, based on a structural fact that is of fundamental importance in the understanding of comics in general: the brief daily or weekly story, the traditional strip, even if it narrates an episode that concludes in the space of four panels, will not work if considered separately; rather it acquires flavor only in the continuous and obstinate series, which unfolds, strip after strip, day by day.
In Krazy Kat the poetry originated from a certain lyrical stubbornness in the author, who repeated his tale ad infinitum, varying it always but sticking to its theme. It was thanks only to this that the mouse’s arrogance, the dog’s unrewarded compassion, and the cat’s desperate love could arrive at what many critics felt was a genuine state of poetry, an uninterrupted elegy based on sorrowing innocence. In a comic strip of this sort, the spectator, not seduced by a flood of gags, or by any realistic or caricatural reference, or by any appeal to sex and violence, could discover the possibility of a purely allusive world, a pleasure of a “musical” nature, an interplay of feelings that were not banal. To some extent the myth of Scheherazade was reproduced: the concubine, taken by the Sultan to be used for one night and then discarded, begins telling a story, and because of the story the Sultan forgets the woman; he discovers, that is, another world of values.
The best proof that the comic strip is an industrial product purely for consumption is that, even if a character is invented by an author of genius, after a while the author is replaced by a team; his genius becomes interchangeable, his invention a factory product. The best proof that Krazy Kat, thanks to its raw poetry, managed to overcome the system, is that at the death of Herriman nobody chose to be his heir, and the comic-strip industrialists were unable to force the situation.
Now we come to Charles Schulz and Peanuts, which belongs to the “lyric” vein of Krazy Kat. Here, too, the cast of characters is elementary: a group of children, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Violet, Patty, Frieda, Linus, Schroeder, Pig Pen, and the dog Snoopy, who is involved in their games and their talk. Over this basic scheme, there is a steady flow of variations, following a rhythm found in certain primitive epics. (Primitive, too, is the habit of referring to the protagonist always by his full name—even his mother addresses Charlie Brown in that fashion, like an epic hero.) Thus you could never grasp the poetic power of Schulz’s work by reading only one or two or ten episodes: you must thoroughly understand the characters and the situations, for the grace, tenderness, and laughter are born only from the infinitely shifting repetition of the patterns, and from fidelity to the fundamental inspirations. They demand from the reader a continuous act of empathy, a participation in the inner warmth that pervades the events.
The poetry of these children arises from the fact that we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings of the adults, who remain offstage. 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 industrial civilization.
They affect us because we realize that if they are monsters it is because we, the adults, have made them so. In them we find everything: Freud, mass culture, digest culture, frustrated struggle for success, craving for affection, loneliness, passive acquiescence, and neurotic protest. But all these elements do not blossom directly, as we know them, from the mouths of a group of children: they are conceived and spoken after passing through the filter of innocence. Schulz’s children are not a sly instrument to handle our adult problems: they experience these problems according to a childish psychology, and for this very reason they seem to us touching and hopeless, as if we were suddenly aware that our ills have polluted everything, at the root.
But still more: the reduction of adult myths to childhood myths (a childhood that no longer comes “before” our maturity but “after”) shows us the cracks in an adult mythology and allows Schulz a way out of it. These monster children are capable suddenly of an innocence and a sincerity that call everything into question, sift out the detritus of the grown-up world, and give us back a world that is still and always very sweet and soft, tasting of milk and cleanliness. Thus in a constant seesaw of reactions, within a single story, or between one story and another, we never know whether to despair or to heave a sigh of optimism. But, in any case, we realize that we have emerged from the banal round of consumption and escapism, and have almost reached the threshold of meditation. The most amazing proof of this is that while distinctly “cultivated” comics, like Pogo, appeal only to intellectuals (and are consumed by the mass audience only through distraction), Peanuts charms both sophisticated adults and children with equal intensity, as if each reader found there something for himself, and it is always the same thing, to be enjoyed in two different keys.
Peanuts is thus a little human comedy for the innocent reader and for the sophisticated. In its center is Charlie Brown: ingenuous, stubborn, always awkward, and doomed to failure. Requiring, to a critical degree, communication and popularity, and repaid by the matriarchal, know-it-all girls of his group with scorn, references to his round head, accusations of stupidity, all the little digs that strike home, Charlie Brown, undaunted, seeks tenderness and fulfillment on every side: in baseball, in building kites, in his relationship with his dog, Snoopy, in playing with the girls. He always fails. His solitude becomes an abyss, his inferiority complex is pervasive—tinged by the constant suspicion (which the reader also comes to share) that Charlie Brown is not inferior. Worse: he is absolutely normal. He is like everybody else. This is why he is always on the brink of suicide or at least of nervous breakdown: because he seeks salvation through the routine formulas suggested to him by the society in which he lives (the art of making friends, culture in four easy lessons, the pursuit of happiness, how to make out with girls—he has been ruined, obviously, by Dr. Kinsey, Dale Carnegie, Erich Fromm, and Lin Yutang).
But since he acts in all purity, without any guile, society is prompt to reject him through its representative, Lucy, treacherous, self-confident, an entrepreneur with assured profits, ready to peddle a security that is completely bogus but of unquestioned effect. (Her lessons in natural science to her brother Linus are a jumble of nonsense that turns Charlie Brown’s stomach. “I can’t stand it,” the unfortunate boy groans, but what weapons can arrest impeccable bad faith when one has the misfortune to be pure of heart?)
Charlie Brown has been called the most sensitive child ever to appear in a comic strip, a figure capable of Shakespearean shifts of mood; and Schulz’s pencil succeeds in rendering these variations with an economy of means that has something miraculous about it. The text, always almost courtly (these children rarely lapse into slang or commit anacoluthon), is enhanced by drawings able to portray, in each character, the subtlest psychological nuance. Thus the daily tragedy of Charlie Brown is drawn, in our eyes, with exemplary incisiveness.
To elude this tragedy of nonintegration, each psychological type has its strategies. The girls escape it thanks to an obstinate self-sufficiency and haughtiness: Lucy (a giantess to be admired with awe), Patty, and Violet are all of a piece; perfectly integrated (or should we say “alienated”), they move from hypnotic sessions at the TV to rope-skipping and to everyday talk interwoven with sarcasm, achieving peace through insensitivity.
Linus, the smallest, on the other hand, is already burdened with every neurosis; emotional instability would be his perpetual condition if the society in which he lives had not already offered him the remedies. Linus already has behind him Freud, Adler, and perhaps also Binswanger (via Rollo May); he has identified his baby-blanket as the symbol of a uterine peace or a purely oral happiness—sucking his finger, blanket against his cheek (if possible, with TV turned on, in front of which he can huddle like an Indian; but he can also be without anything, in an oriental sort of isolation, attached to his symbols of protection).
Take away his blanket and he will be plunged once more into all the emotional troubles lying in wait for him day and night. Because, we must add, along with the instability of a neurotic society he has absorbed all its wisdom. Linus represents its most technologically up-to-date product. While Charlie Brown is unable to make a kite that will not get caught in the branches of a tree, Linus reveals suddenly, in bursts, dazzling skills: he performs feats of amazing equilibrium, he can strike a quarter flung in the air with the edge of his blanket, snapping it like a whip (“the fastest blanket in the West!”).
Schroeder, on the other hand, finds peace in aesthetic religion. Seated at his little toy piano from which he draws the tunes and chords of transcendental complexity, slumped in total worship of Beethoven, he saves himself from everyday neuroses by sublimating them in a lofty form of artistic madness. Not even Lucy’s constant, loving admiration can budge him. (Lucy cannot love music, an unprofitable activity, whose reason she doesn’t comprehend: but in Schroeder she admires an unattainable higher being. Perhaps she is stimulated by the adamantine shyness of her pocket Parsifal, and she stubbornly pursues her work of seduction without making a dent in the artist’s defenses.) Schroeder has chosen the peace of the senses in the delirium of the imagination. “Do not speak ill of this love, Lisaweta: it is good and fertile. It contains nostalgia and melancholy, envy and a bit of contempt, and a complete, chaste happiness”—this is not Schroeder speaking, of course: it is Tonio Kroeger. But this is the point; and it is no accident that Schulz’s children create a little universe in which our tragedy and our comedy are performed.
Pig Pen, too, has an inferiority to complain about: he is irreparably, horrifyingly dirty. He leaves home neat and spruce, and a second later his shoelaces come untied, his trousers sag over his hips, his hair is flaked with dandruff, his skin and clothes are covered with a layer of mud. Aware of his vocation for the abyss, Pig Pen turns his plight into a boast; he speaks of the dust of centuries, an irreversible process: the course of history. It might almost be a Beckett character speaking.
A constant antistrophe to the humans’ sufferings, the dog Snoopy carries to the last metaphysical frontier the neurotic failure to adjust. Snoopy knows he is a dog: he was a dog yesterday, he is a dog today, tomorrow he will perhaps be a dog still. For him, in the optimism of the opulent society in which one moves upward from status to status, there is no hope of promotion. Sometimes he essays the extreme resource of humility (we dogs are so humble, he sighs, unctuous and consoled); he becomes tenderly attached to those who promise him respect and consideration. But as a rule he doesn’t accept himself and he tries to be what he is not: a split personality if ever there was one, he would like to be an alligator, a kangaroo, a vulture, a penguin, a snake…. He tries every avenue of mystification, then he surrenders to reality, out of laziness, hunger, sleepiness, timidity, claustrophobia (which assails him when he crawls through big grass), ignorance. He may be soothed, but never happy. He lives in a constant apartheid, and he has the psychology of the segregated; like an Uncle Tom, he has finally, faute de mieux, a devotion, an ancestral respect, for the stronger.
In this encyclopedia of contemporary weakness, there are, as we have said, sudden luminous patches of light, free variations, allegros, and rondos, where all is resolved in a few bars. The monsters turn into children again, Schulz becomes only a poet of childhood. We know it isn’t true, and we pretend to believe him. In the next strip he will continue to show us, in the face of Charlie Brown, with two strokes of his pencil, his version of the human condition.
—translated by William Weaver
Copyright © 1963 Umberto Eco, translation copyright © 1985 William Weaver
That’s Art September 26, 1985