Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Boy Named Charlie Brown

A Boy Named Charlie Brown
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When I was in high school, I took a cartooning class, and about halfway into the semester, I did a report on Charles Schulz. I remember finding what must have been a young adult-style biography of the cartoonist which was quite helpful. in that I not only learned some basic facts about the man, but I got to see the roots of the comic strip that would become the worldwide phenomenon known as Peanuts.

Perhaps you're aware that it began as not a traditional, four-panel strip but a single-panel one, like Family Circus, called Li'l Folks, with a much smaller cast of characters. Charlie Brown and Snoopy look a little different, but they're easily recognizable. The name "Peanuts" was imposed on Schulz by United Feature Syndicate, and he never liked it - which is why all those TV specials and movies are titled "Charlie Brown" this and "Charlie Brown" that.

I imagine the story of my childhood with Peanuts isn't too different from yours. I remember owning the collected editions (still have some of them) and other Peanuts-related books, and I even had a few vinyl records of some of the TV specials. Naturally, I watched those specials every year, like most kids. I'm pretty sure I went to see Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown when it came out theatrically. I remember thinking how lucky the kids were to be able to go to a foreign country on their own.

I also imagine that Peanuts means as much to you as it does to me. From an artistic standpoint, it was and is a notable influence. When I first created City Mouse, Schulz' unique humor was something I strove for often (though not always). I like to think CM has a little bit of Snoopy's style and savoir faire. I have made at least one blatant Peanuts ripoff homage in CM, for what it's worth.

Beyond CM, though, I remember experimenting with a Peanuts-inspired four-panel gag strip back in college, about a pair of young tennis prodigies. If memory serves, I believe this even pre-dated my foray into self-publishing comic books. I did this one strictly for me, however, in the pages of my sketchbook, and if you were to see it, you'd recognize pretty clearly my attempt to be like Schulz. Four-panel gags are a challenge in terms of learning how to pace a joke properly - not as easy as it seems - and I've tried it on quite a few occasions over the years. The nice thing about CM is that I can do it in a variety of formats.

Getting back to Peanuts, though: much has been written about these remarkable characters and what they mean to people. They never seemed completely like kids to me, yet their innocence and vulnerability belonged very much to the realm of childhood. It used to puzzle me that they seemed to have so much freedom, yet were still subject to the bounds of the adult world, however marginalized adults were in the strip.

From Schulz' perspective, it must have been tempting to introduce adults directly, but whether it was a teacher Linus crushed on or a baseball player Charlie Brown idolized or even a simple parent or grandparent, Schulz always kept them off-panel, out of sight, and in so doing, fully immersed us into the kids' world in a way no other comic strip, before or since, has done. That's just one more reason among many why, as a literary work of art, Peanuts stands alone.

And now, Peanuts is back in the spotlight. This Friday, a new animated movie featuring CB and company will debut, a computer-generated one, no less, and it has gotten people talking about these characters again, which is always welcome. I thought I'd take a moment to look back at the first time the Peanuts crew were on the big screen, and since I haven't done any animated movies so far this year, now is the perfect time.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown was released in 1969, four years after Peanuts' animated debut in the television all-timer A Charlie Brown Christmas. Much of it is stitched together from various Peanuts strips, which is kind of disappointing, given that Christmas was an original teleplay written by Schulz, but if you've never seen the strips, I guess you won't know the difference. Bill Melendez directs once again, as he did for Christmas.

Tired of living with loser stink on him all the time, CB is encouraged by Linus to enter a school spelling bee, and the round-headed kid discovers he actually has an affinity for spelling - but how far can he take his newfound success? Boy doesn't hold up quite as well as I had hoped it would - it's not that funny, and with the exception of the marvelous title track, the original songs aren't that great - though the final fifteen minutes or so redeem the whole thing for sure.

And there are some nice surprises. Try to imagine, if you will, a modern animated movie that stops the action for a meditative, artistic musical sequence set to Beethoven, or a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" animated in stars and stripes. Boy looks less like an animated adaptation of a popular comic strip and more like pop art, which was all the rage during the sixties, and it's certainly a reflection of the mind of Schulz.

Boy was Oscar-nominated in the Original Song Score category, which was different from both Original Score and Original Song. I'm not quite sure what the difference was exactly, but they don't use this category anymore, so who cares? They lost to the Beatles for Let It Be, so no shame there. Vince Guaraldi worked on the score, and once again, his jazz-infused inflections give the animated incarnation of Peanuts a distinctive flavor. You'll note the lack of pop songs in the soundtrack.

I know The Peanuts Movie won't be like this. I've learned to accept that the characters are in hands other than Schulz' now, and as long as there's money to be made from them, they will continue without him. Is hoping that they'll be treated with respect too much to ask for? Maybe Calvin & Hobbes' Bill Waterson had the right idea all along: avoid all commercialization and merchandising whatsoever and know when to leave the stage. How many of us, however, have the strength to walk down that narrow path? I'm certainly not blaming Schulz for merchandising Peanuts, nor am I blaming his family for continuing to make money off of it; I'm just saying that as a fan, it's difficult to say this stuff doesn't matter. I'll see this new movie and judge for myself.


  1. Charlie Brown and gang were a huge part of my childhood, too. There was something so different about them--their antics paired with that great jazz soundtrack, and, indeed, their travels abroad on their own. :) I hope the new movie is good. I'm glad that it's being continued for a new generation, and hope it doesn't get watered down too much.

  2. Yeah, that about sums it up for me too. Early reviews I've read sound good, but it sounds like CB (and Snoopy, to a lesser degree) are gonna be the show, and that it's a little bit less of an ensemble than in the past. If that's the worst that can be said about it, though, that doesn't sound too bad.


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