We All Live in a Constant State of Failure and Dread, Charlie Brown

There's a new Peanuts movie coming out next year, but it likely won't be able to capture the unique blend of despair and empathy that made Charles Schultz's original strip so influential and important.

by Harry Cheadle
21 November 2014, 6:00am

Photo via Flickr user ​Brandi Korte

​When I tell people that I love Charles Schultz's great, long-lasting, hugely influential comic strip Peanuts, the response is generally a sort of half-chuckle, half-shrug. It's like I'm admitting to being into model trains, repairing my own shoes, or visiting all the state capitals. It's seen as a sort of senior citizen-ish interest that is a bit eccentric but ultimately harmless. And I understand that reaction, because, hey, Peanuts is lame. Comic strips have an air of Middle American schlock about them anyway. And thanks to all those holiday specials and all that fucking merchandise, the characters have become a little more than another set of logos you can choose to adorn yourself with.

So yeah, Peanuts is a commercial property like nearly every other comic strip that has trickled into the popular consciousness. And it's also part of a cartooning tradition that few people give a shit about these days (when was the last time you read a newspaper comics page?). That is to say, OK, I realize that when the trailer for the new Peanuts movie came out this week it looked like pretty much every other clip from every other computer-animated kids film that's heavy on whimsy and spectacle. But Peanuts at it's best wasn't about fun or the power of the imagination. It was about how the world is a grim place where you fail over and over again, and then you die.

Although the trailer is 100 percent Snoopy, who probably became Schultz's most recognised (and monetised) creation, the strip's true protagonists are a batch of miserable human children. Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally, Pig-Pen, Peppermint Patty, Violet, Schroeder – they're all suffering from depression, or sudden rages, or crises of faith, or lovesickness, or just plain old wishy-washyness.

For 50 years, they roamed an adult-free landscape that was almost post-apocalyptic in its sparseness. Linus and Charlie Brown might bemoan their shared problems while leaning up against a brick wall, or Charlie Brown might try and fail to kick a football in an abandoned field, or the characters might simply sit around and snipe at each other's flaws while discussing philosophy and theology like a set of sour undergrads. If you think I'm overstating how grim things could get, this was the first-ever Peanuts strip:

I was introduced to Schultz by a bunch of old collections that compiled strips from the 60s and 70s. I remember a lot of storylines about Charlie Brown being terrible at baseball and Linus getting abused by his sister Lucy and followed around by the hopelessly crushed-out Sally. (Linus would also occasionally quote from and discuss the Bible, which I guess wouldn't have been too controversial back then.)

It was mostly funny in that joke-a-day way most decent comic strips are funny, but what strikes you about Peanuts is the undercurrent of existential dread. These days, most entertainment for children is big on lessons learned and personal growth. The adorable protagonists go through various trials and come out the other end with a piece of knowledge. But Charlie Brown never kicked the football, the kids never grew up, there was no sense they'd ever escape the purgatory of being round-headed kids rolling around a nameless town. At its best, Peanuts rejected schmaltz and nostalgia for childhood in favour of a world-weariness that felt earned and, well, true. We struggle, we screw up, we carry failure with us wherever we go, and we learn to live with it. Read Peanuts in the right mindset and it's an uplifting, strikingly moral text. Schultz got it. He understood. Sometimes you don't learn anything when you fail except how to shoulder that failure, and how not to let it make you any less kind or open-hearted. 

Admittedly, in later years the plots weren't always the comic-strip equivalent of Waiting for Godot – Charlie Brown got a girlfriend at one point, and there was more of a focus on Snoopy's siblings and the amusing antics of Woodstock and the rest of the birds. But Schultz was hitting us with the dark stuff well into the 90s:

There's not even really a joke in the comic above. It's just Spike, Snoopy's brother, explaining how guilt over a horrific accident has driven him into the desert, and now he's insane.

People who care about this shit love Peanuts for its combination of empathy and pain. Cartoonist Ivan Bru​netti called the strip "an epic Haiku" and "an antidote to our selfishly hedonistic, compassionless world". Gawker's Tom Scocca once descri​bed the strip's trick like so: "Charles Schulz was able to put this all across – the bleakness, the anger, the fumbling and tentative hopefulness—while somehow making people think it was innocent and jolly". A few years ago a Tumbl​r popped up that cut out the last panel from various Peanuts strips to highlight the cruelty of the comic universe the kids lived in.

But most people don't care about that shit. A movie that put the version of Peanuts that I love onscreen would be idiosyncratic, a bit surreal, and probably an instant turnoff for any focus group who saw it. It likely wouldn't get made, in other words. Even with Paul Feig (of Freaks and Geeks, which could get pretty real about the traumas of pre-adult life in its own way) directing, I'm assuming the planned Peanuts movie will hit the familiar beats of cute characters, a classic hero's jou​rney, and an ending that will make you feel warm and fuzzy enough to buy some of the new toys that will undoubtedly be rolled out when the film is released next year. And that's OK. If there's one thing I've learned from Peanuts, it's that I'll survive being disappointed by something as minor as a cartoon movie.

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