The very best comic strips, for my taste, are the magic ones. They all come from the same place: “left field.” Also known as “the blue.” Or the intuition. The other place they come from is, of course, the real world. It’s a combination of the two. The cartoonist experiences real life in some penetrating way. Then he (or she) takes a leap into the unconscious, the dreamlike, the mysterious within, hoping to emerge with something fresh, something original. In the best and rarest cases, what emerges is something brilliant and enduring like Peanuts.
When it first came on the scene, it was unlike any other cartoon. It had (and has) a powerful originality both visually and verbally. Schulz would set you up with a couple of tiny tots speaking in childlike innocence for three panels, then come out of the wild blue yonder with one of them sounding suddenly like a middle-aged college professor in the grip of a nervous breakdown. The dimensions of comic-strip possibility expanded.
Simplicity is its initial appeal. And openness. Innocence. It catches our eye and draws in our psyches. Economy of line with so much between the lines. A fraught simplicity, a growing complexity, an emotional involvement in Schulz’s deeply felt world.
It works because it’s genuine and because Schulz has just the right touch of magic. Not a bunch of schlocky gags. No overwrought corn. A genuine search is going on. The comic strip has a soul. Schulz believes in his world and cares about it, and so do we.
Jean Shepherd, the recently deceased radio genius who created magic with the spoken word, used to berate Snoopy back in the late ‘60s. Shepherd thought the whole idea of a dog with an imaginary life as a World War I pilot and a novelist, etc., destroyed the credibility of the strip. Shepherd was a hero of mine. His criticism caused me to question my own belief in Peanuts. I took it under consideration. I concluded that Shepherd was wrong.
How much leeway a comic strip can sustain, how far afield it can stretch and stray is always a delicate balance guided by the intuition of the cartoonist. Schulz has great instincts. I say all of it works.
I especially love the nutty, out of the blue lines, like Lucy telling Linus, “When oak trees get real old, they’re cut down and used to make knotty-pine recreation rooms.”
That’s not contrivance. Not a hack gag. That’s pure left field.