Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Peanuts

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 27, 2016.

Last year, when I finally saw The Revenant—it wasn’t a movie that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town—it struck me as an exquisitely crafted film that was very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat in my eyes—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd its story was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog, who doesn’t lack for pretension, also actively seeks out such moments, even if he maintains his poker face throughout.) About five minutes after the movie began, I realized that I was fundamentally out of sync with it. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with an unexpected arrow through a supporting character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are a lot of fluent speakers out there. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are a little rough, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out at its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that verged on outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what seemed like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself observes in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stick in the brain because we can’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are simultaneously so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

In fact, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like some demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were both so nice that he said them twice. And it’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2017 at 9:00 am

Eclipsing the truth

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Take a good look at this comic strip. I’ve erased the date and the copyright information, but it should still be possible to figure out the precise day on which it first appeared, using nothing but the resources in your average local library. Even if you aren’t a Peanuts buff, it wouldn’t be hard to verify the historical window in which the strip originally ran, or to infer, based on the style, that this installment was published sometime in the sixties. On the assumption that it refers to a real solar eclipse that generated a fair amount of attention in the United States, you could plausibly deduce that it was the eclipse of July 20, 1963, and that this strip was printed the day before. And you’d be right. It wasn’t even a total eclipse when seen from America, but it still created enough of a lingering sensation to be mentioned both on Mad Men and in John Updike’s Couples, in which he writes of “that summer of the solar eclipse”:

Three weeks ago, it had been ninety percent at their latitude. An invisible eater moved through the sun’s disc amid a struggle of witnessing clouds. The dapples of light beneath the elm became crescent-shaped; the birds sang as in the evening. Seen through smoked glass the sun was a shaving, a sideways eyebrow, a kindergarten boat riding a tumult of contorted cumulus. The false dusk reversed; the horns of the crescents beneath the trees pointed in the opposite direction; the birds sang to greet the day. Not a month before, [Piet] had first slept with Foxy.

This is part of Updike’s standard narrative strategy, which is to place his protagonist’s extramarital dalliances against a backdrop of recent historical events. But even if you removed all other topical references from the novel except the eclipse, future literary critics would still be able to determine the date—within a month or so—in which Piet and Foxy began their affair.

Eclipses are useful that way. In a fascinating essay with the dry title “Some Uses of Eclipses in Early Modern Chronology,” the historian Anthony Grafton writes: “To this day eclipses provide historians with the best tools they have for fixing the absolute dates of events in ancient and medieval history…[They] form part of every ancient and medieval historian’s normal toolbox.” The earliest chronologist to draw upon eclipse data in a systematic fashion was Heinrich Bünting, who, in the late sixteenth century, used the Prutenic Tables of Erasmus Reinhold to put together a timeline of the world. “Bünting treated eclipses as facts like any other, except that they were more certain,” Grafton notes, quoting a revealing passage:

I had to examine the eclipses of the sun and moon and observations of other celestial motions. For they reveal chronological intervals with absolute precision. Two forms of computation are the most certain of all: that which is undertaken with sacred scripture, and that which is undertaken through the intervals of eclipses. If authors disagree with one another, you should see which of them agrees more properly with the chronological interval revealed by the eclipses. You will find it safest to follow him.

“Even the most reliable ancient texts, in other words, required the confirmation of the heavens,” Grafton observes, “and eclipses, which could be dated not only to the year and day, but to the hour and moment, provided this in its most precise form.” And the sentence in which Bünting cites both “sacred scripture” and “the intervals of eclipses” in the same breath feels like a moment in which science simultaneously looks, like Janus, into the past and the future.

Bünting used eclipses, Grafton writes, to provide fixed points for “human events that floated loosely in the ancient sources, located only by season or by regnal year,” including the conception of Romulus and Remus and the dates of the Peloponnesian War. Grafton concludes: “Long before eclipses lost their theoretical standing as signs, they had mutated in one kind of learned practice into facts of a particular, undramatic kind.” But when you attack the foundations of the eclipses themselves, a lot of that drama returns. If you’ve spent any time poking into conspiracy theories online, you’ve probably come across the New Chronology, a theory associated with the Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko that claims that nearly all of recorded history occurred within the last nine hundred years or so, and that any events attributed to dates before the eleventh century are either accidental distortions or deliberate forgeries. I had always assumed that this argument could be debunked simply by looking at historical eclipses, but it turns out that eclipses were actually where Fomenko started. In the delightfully titled History: Fiction or Science?, Fomenko writes:

One often hears the question about what could possibly motivate a mathematician into wanting to study a seemingly historical problem. The answer is as follows. My primary interests are those of a professional mathematician; they are thus rather distant from historical and chronological issues. However, in the early seventies, namely in 1972-1973, I had to deal with the dates of ancient eclipses during my studies of one of the key problems in celestial mechanics.

Drawing on the results of the astronomer Robert Newton and the Russian scientist N.A. Morozov, Fomenko concluded that the conventional dates for many ancient eclipses were incorrect, which inexorably led him, he writes, to an even more audacious question: “The satisfaction from having finished a body of scientific work was accompanied by a sudden awareness of a very knotty point arising in this respect, one of great peculiarity and paramount importance. Namely, that of whether the consensual chronology of ancient history was to be trusted at all.”

Fomenko and his colleagues proceeded to wade into an insane morass of theorizing, spread across seven huge volumes, that frankly makes my head hurt. (Just browsing though the first book, which is available in full online, is a disorienting, sometimes amazing experience.) Refuting it here would take more room and time than I can afford, but it’s worth noting that Fomenko’s work has inescapable political overtones. As James H. Billington writes in Russia in Search of Itself, many of its adherents are drawn to its vision of a Eurasian Union with Russia at its center:

Using dating techniques and probability theory, [Fomenko and his colleague Gleb Nosovsky] conclude that the Russian and Mongol empires were, in fact, one and the same entity during the two hundred and fifty years wrongly referred to as the period of the “Mongol yoke.” Accordingly, “Russia and Turkey are parts of a previously single empire.” This astonishing conclusion is part of Nosovsky and Fomenko’s “new chronology” of world history that uses equations and graphs to cast in doubt the accepted views on much of premodern times…They argue that almost nothing in the traditional view of Russian history prior to the fourteenth century can be factually verified…All of this might have been quietly blown away in the wind tunnels of academia had not the popular chess hero Garry Kasparov lustily taken up the cause of the new chronology…[i]nsisting that “whoever controls the past, controls the future.”

Billington quotes the archeologist V.L. Yanin, who tries to explain why Fomenko’s views have become popular in certain circles: “We live in an epoch of total non-professionalism, which spreads through the entire society from the power structures to the lowest levels of the educational system. The ordinary school produces dilettantes who assume that their miserable and faulty knowledge is adequate for judging professionals. A society bought up on scandals craves negativity and shock effects. It craves the sleight-of-hand trickery of a David Copperfield or an Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko.” That has a familiar ring to it. And as we all gather to watch the solar eclipse next week, we should take a minute to remember that with the right motivation, even something as unequivocal as an eclipse can turn into an alternative fact.

The Berenstain Barrier

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If you’ve spent any time online in the last few years, there’s a decent chance that you’ve come across some version of what I like to call the Berenstain Bears enigma. It’s based on the fact that a sizable number of readers who recall this book series from childhood remember the name of its titular family as “Berenstein,” when in reality, as a glance at any of the covers will reveal, it’s “Berenstain.” As far as mass instances of misremembering are concerned, this isn’t particularly surprising, and certainly less bewildering than the Mandela effect, or the similar confusion surrounding a nonexistent movie named Shazam. But enough people have been perplexed by it to inspire speculation that these false memories may be the result of an errant time traveler, à la Asimov’s The End of Eternity, or an event in which some of us crossed over from an alternate universe in which the “Berenstein” spelling was correct. (If the theory had emerged a few decades earlier, Robert Anton Wilson might have devoted a page or two to it in Cosmic Trigger.) Even if we explain it as an understandable, if widespread, mistake, it stands as a reminder of how an assumption absorbed in childhood remains far more powerful than a falsehood learned later on. If we discover that we’ve been mispronouncing, say, “Steve Buscemi” for all this time, we aren’t likely to take it as evidence that we’ve ended up in another dimension, but the further back you go, the more ingrained such impressions become. It’s hard to unlearn something that we’ve believed since we were children—which indicates how difficult it can be to discard the more insidious beliefs that some of us are taught from the cradle.

But if the Berenstain Bears enigma has proven to be unusually persistent, I suspect that it’s because many of us really are remembering different versions of this franchise, even if we believe that we aren’t. (You could almost take it as a version of Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment, which asks if the word “water” means the same thing to us and to the inhabitants of an otherwise identical planet covered with a similar but different liquid.) As I’ve recently discovered while reading the books aloud to my daughter, the characters originally created by Stan and Jan Berenstain have gone through at least six distinct incarnations, and your understanding of what this series “is” largely depends on when you initially encountered it. The earliest books, like The Bike Lesson or The Bears’ Vacation, were funny rhymed stories in the Beginner Book style in which Papa Bear injures himself in various ways while trying to teach Small Bear a lesson. They were followed by moody, impressionistic works like Bears in the Night and The Spooky Old Tree, in which the younger bears venture out alone into the dark and return safely home after a succession of evocative set pieces. Then came big educational books like The Bears’ Almanac and The Bears’ Nature Guide, my own favorites growing up, which dispensed scientific facts in an inviting, oversized format. There was a brief detour through stories like The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Dinosaur Bone, which returned to the Beginner Book format but lacked the casually violent gags of the earlier installments. Next came perhaps the most famous period, with dozens of books like Trouble With Money and Too Much TV, all written, for the first time, in prose, and ending with a tidy, if secular, moral. Finally, and jarringly, there was an abrupt swerve into Christianity, with titles like God Loves You and The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School.

To some extent, you can chalk this up to the noise—and sometimes the degeneration—that afflicts any series that lasts for half a century. Incremental changes can lead to radical shifts in style and tone, and they only become obvious over time. (Peanuts is the classic example, but you can even see it in the likes of Dennis the Menace and The Family Circus, both of which were startlingly funny and beautifully drawn in their early years.) Fashions in publishing can drive an author’s choices, which accounts for the ups and downs of many a long career. And the bears only found Jesus after Mike Berenstain took over the franchise after the deaths of his parents. Yet many critics don’t bother making these distinctions, and the ones who hate the Berenstain Bears books seem to associate them entirely with the Trouble With Money period. In 2005, for instance, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote:

The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children’s books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren’t the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced? Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.

Similarly, after Jan Berenstain died, Hanna Rosin of Slate said: “As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance. Among my set of mothers the series is known mostly as the one that makes us dread the bedtime routine the most.”

Which only tells me that neither Farhi or Rosin ever saw The Spooky Old Tree, which is a minor masterpiece—quirky, atmospheric, gorgeously rendered, and utterly without any lesson. It’s a book that I look forward to reading with my daughter. And while it may seem strange to dwell so much on these bears, it gets at a larger point about the pitfalls in judging any body of work by looking at a random sampling. I think that Peanuts is one of the great artistic achievements of the twentieth century, but it would be hard to convince anyone who was only familiar with its last two decades. You can see the same thing happening with The Simpsons, a series with six perfect seasons that threaten to be overwhelmed by the mediocre decades that are crowding the rest out of syndication. And the transformations of the Berenstain Bears are nothing compared to those of Robert A. Heinlein, whose career somehow encompassed Beyond This Horizon, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and I Will Fear No Evil. Yet there are also risks in drawing conclusions from the entirety of an artist’s output. In his biography of Anthony Burgess, Roger Lewis notes that he has read through all of Burgess’s work, and he asks parenthetically: “And how many have done that—except me?” He’s got a point. Trying to internalize everything, especially over a short period of time, can provide as false a picture as any subset of the whole, and it can result in a pattern that not even the author or the most devoted fan would recognize. Whether or not we’re from different universes, my idea of Bear Country isn’t the same as yours. That’s true of any artist’s work, and it hints at the problem at the root of all criticism: What do we talk about when we talk about the Berenstain Bears?

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Last week, I finally saw The Revenant. I know that I’m pretty late to the party here, but I don’t have a chance to watch a lot of movies for grownups in the theater these days, and it wasn’t a film that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town. At this point, a full review probably isn’t of much interest to anyone, so I’ll confine myself to observing that it’s an exquisitely crafted movie that I found very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat for me—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd it all was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog actively seeks out these moments, even if he maintains a straight face.) And it took me about five minutes to realize that the movie and I were fundamentally out of sync. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with a sudden arrow through a character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a kind of complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are probably more fluent speakers alive than you might think. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are rough and a little uncertain, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out when it was close to its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that was either an homage or outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what feels like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself says in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stuck in the brain because we couldn’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are both so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

As a result, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like a demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were so nice that he said them twice. It’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

Ask the dust

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Pig-Pen, Part 1

Over the last few days, I’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas repeatedly with my daughter. I don’t think I’d seen it in its entirety for at least twenty years, and I was relieved to find that it held up even better than I had hoped. It’s odder and more prickly, in its way, than the Peanuts specials I remember best—I especially like Lucy’s explanation that Christmas is “run by a big eastern syndicate”—and it benefits in particular from being deeply rooted in the original strips. My favorite line, for instance, comes straight from a strip first published on November 27, 1959. In the special, Frieda complains that Pig-Pen’s dust is taking the curl out of her hair, prompting Charlie Brown to respond:

Don’t think of it as dust. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization. Maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination. He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon, or even Nebuchadnezzar.

This is a great line, obviously, but my favorite part comes at the end: “Or even Nebuchadnezzar. The idea that Charlie Brown would be especially impressed by the thought of Nebuchadnezzar is delightful, and it’s the kind of thing that would have occurred only to a singular man working alone at his desk.

Recently, I’ve become preoccupied with the problem of how to preserve this kind of idiosyncratic voice in the face of all the larger pressures that threaten to eliminate it. In part, it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of children’s entertainment, which is when those tensions start to feel especially stark. It isn’t unreasonable to suppose that someone who devotes his or her life to writing stories for kids might be fundamentally odd in a way that feels more comfortable with children than adults: when you think of Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and Maurice Sendak, among others, you’re left with a sense of aliens trying to navigate their way through the grownup world. But if you’re in charge of the company—or the big eastern syndicate—that packages and distributes that content, you’re working under very different incentives. You’re wary of giving offense or warping tiny minds in a way that would arouse the ire of their parents; you know that the risks of any artistic experiment far outweigh the potential benefits; and you’re painfully aware that you’re likely to offend somebody, no matter what you do. Hence the insipid caution of so many books, movies, and television shows aimed at kids six and younger. Occasionally, individual and corporate goals will align, as in the early days of Sesame Street, but more often, the companies that worry most about what kids want to see are the most likely to come up with something that doesn’t interest anyone.

Pig Pen, Part 2

And the solution, oddly enough, seems to be to ignore the kids altogether. Disney and his early cohort of animators didn’t use focus groups to figure out what children wanted to watch: they were trying to amuse themselves. Similarly, Chuck Jones and the rest of the team at Warner Bros. were making the cartoons that they wanted to see. A Charlie Brown Christmas was all but made by hand, and many of its elements—the jazz score, the lack of a laugh track, the gospel message from Linus—were included in in the face of indifference or active opposition. Instead of writing down to kids or aiming at a target audience, these artists devoted themselves to art forms, like the animated cartoon or comic strip, to which children are naturally drawn. They thought as cartoonists or animators or puppeteers until they began to intuitively make good choices based on what the medium itself could accomplish. And once they learned to think in those terms, they didn’t need to worry about what the kids would like: anything that fully realizes the possibilities of an animated short or a four-panel strip will engage younger minds, no matter what stories you tell. The real enemies of art, here as elsewhere, aren’t the network notes themselves, but notes coming from people who have no stake or interest in the kinds of stories being told. An animator allowed to think as an animator can’t help but come up with something that will fascinate a four-year-old. It’s when those tricks of the craft are diluted by views imposed from the outside that you end up with something condescending and dull.

In the end, every medium has its own logic, and in some cases, that logic naturally approximates that of a child. (I’m not saying this to minimize the difficulty or sophistication of the efforts involved—only to say that their power is derived from a fundamental affinity to how we see the world at a younger age.) Usually, these are the media that are the most accessible to creative children in the first place: it isn’t hard to get started with cartooning or puppetry, and kids are often interested in them because the materials are readily available. You could even say that this is why they’ve retained the emotional charge of something remembered from childhood: the artists who make their mark with puppets or cartoon characters are drawing on skills that they began to develop at an early age, while novelists, by contrast, are building on something that they acquired later on. There’s plenty of good juvenile fiction out there, but its logic is more adolescent, in every sense of the word. And the best artists of them all, like Schulz, are the ones who make the spectrum of feeling from childhood to adulthood feel like a seamless whole. Charlie Brown and Linus don’t talk like any real six-year-olds would, but if they’re uncannily convincing as children, even to readers of the same age, it’s because Schulz understands how kids talk among themselves, and how their conversations can seem as urgent or complicated as anything adults can say. That honesty clings to them like dust. And as Pig-Pen says: “Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?”

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2015 at 9:18 am

The four-panel rule

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Good writing is hard work, part 2

Recently, I’ve taken to reading the comics page of the Chicago Tribune with my daughter, who likes to look at the pictures while the paper is spread across our living room floor. It’s the first time I’ve taken a serious look at daily comic strips in about a decade, and I’ve come to an unfortunate conclusion: comics these days are pretty bad. It’s possible, of course, that I’ve simply aged out of the medium, or that comic strips are best appreciated when consumed in big anthologies—as I first encountered everything from Peanuts to The Far Side to Bloom County—than when experienced one day at a time. Yet I don’t think it’s irrelevant that it’s been years since a newspaper comic strip entered the wider cultural consciousness. You could say that the comics are tethered to the dying industry of print journalism, and are doomed to go down with the rest of the ship; or that it’s hard for younger cartoonists to break into syndication, which is dominated by aging warhorses like Hagar the Horrible; or that most of the real talent has migrated online, where a strip like xkcd can pursue its obsessions into odd corners without worrying about editorial interference.

All of these factors no doubt play a role, but I suspect that there’s also a subtler process at work. When I glance over the comics page today, the handful of strips that still hold up, from Dustin to Sherman’s Lagoon to For Better or For Worse, have one thing in common: they all operate within a grid of four fixed panels. Most of the others, by contrast, freely change format within the strip’s skinny rectangle of real estate, going from four panels to three or even one as the gag requires. And while there are exceptions to the rule—Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts remains consistently superb while rearranging its layout as it sees fit—I can’t help but think that the discipline that four panels impose can have a positive impact on a strip’s quality. In the old days, the four-panel format was mandated by editorial standards; now it appears to be purely voluntary. Cartoonists have more freedom now than ever before, but the outcome, to put it mildly, hasn’t been an explosion of creativity. And while it might seem silly to lavish so much attention on the aesthetics of the comics page, there’s a real lesson to be learned here about the importance of constraints and the loss that occurs when they’re taken away.

Good writing is hard work, part 3

There have always been good reasons for newspapers to prefer four panels, as well as what might seem like superficially justifiable reasons for cartoonists to fight back. Four panels allow a strip to be easily rearranged into a square grid, rather than a long rectangle, which gives editors more flexibility in laying out the page. (For much the same reason, most Sunday strips are adhere to a strict layout, with throwaway panels at the top and panel breaks occurring at strategic points that allow the strip to fill half, a third, or a quarter of a page, depending on the arrangement.) Cartoonists, of course, resist such restrictions, which theoretically limit the kinds of stories and gags they can do. In practice, you’ll often see lazier strips stretching what should have been a single-panel joke over four panels or more in order to accommodate the layout. But for a serious cartoonist, being compelled to work within a standard format has the opposite effect: it forces you to think a little more about the gag you’re writing, rejecting the obvious approach in favor of one that gets the same point across in a slightly different way. You can’t go with your first idea; you need to look for a second. And that extra level of work and reflection often shows.

A quick look at the history of some of our greatest strips seems to bear this out. Charles Schulz’s Peanuts remains the medium’s crowning achievement, but there’s no question that it suffered a dip in quality in its later years—a decline that coincides almost exactly with its shift, in February 1988, from four panels to three. (Later, Schulz routinely indulged in gag strips that used only one panel, leading to some of the strip’s weakest moments.) Bill Watterson waged a brave fight to free Calvin and Hobbes from the rigidity of the Sunday comics format, but when you compare the later spreads, in which Watterson was free to fill half a page however he liked, to the more constrained earlier installments, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the writing suffered a bit even as the artwork became increasingly spectacular. Something similar occurred when Berkeley Breathed moved from Bloom County to Outland and Opus, which never quite recaptured the original strip’s urgency. Which isn’t to say that the majority of comic strips of the past, whatever their era or format, weren’t bland and predictable. But if modern comics have settled into a kind of sloppy mediocrity, it may only be because the old constraints, even as they enforced a formula, pushed the very best artists into something more.

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2014 at 9:27 am

Learning from the masters: Charles Schulz

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on March 31, 2011.

The case of Charles M. Schulz is a peculiar one, because there are really two faces to Peanuts. There’s the strip itself, which remains one of the most original, arresting, and entertaining works of art of the twentieth century. And then there’s Peanuts the franchise, the source of Vince Guaraldi albums, television specials, and countless other forms of merchandise, some of which are worthwhile, but which also tend to overshadow the deeper qualities of the strip itself. (Hence the response to the well-meaning but somewhat confused Tumblr blog 3eanuts, which gives readers the impression that the original strips need to be altered to bring out their underlying bleakness.) Which is too bad, because Peanuts, at its best, is the greatest contemporary example of how a uniquely personal work of art can enter the dreamlife of millions.

And its impact has been incalculable. I recently picked up a copy of Todd Hignite’s seductive book In the Studio: Conversations with Contemporary Cartoonists, and if there’s a single underlying theme in its pages, stated or unstated, it’s the massive influence of Peanuts. For cartoonists like Seth and Chris Ware, not to mention Bill Watterson, Schulz is the artist who transformed the mainstream comic strip into a personal, even autobiographical form, at a time when there were nearly no precedents for such an achievement. Even now, it’s hard to think of another artist who managed to write a daily strip that was so funny and so bleak, so personal and so universal. Given the current splintering of the media landscape, we may never see anything like it ever again.

It’s difficult to understand this now, but during the peak years of the strip—which I’d place from roughly 1960 to 1974, although any attempt to define its golden years before 1980 or so is basically arbitrary—it was read avidly on college campuses by the same people who would go on to devour the likes of Jules Feiffer in the Village Voice. With its use of the jargon of psychoanalysis and philosophy, its depictions of depression and failure, and its relentlessly black humor, it felt like a comic strip for grownups, even as kids went nuts for it as well. And as David Michaelis points out in his invaluable Schulz and Peanuts, its adult fans, like Feiffer, reacted with deep suspicion to the commercialization of the strip. How could America’s greatest poet of quiet desperation also be shilling for MetLife?

But the real point is that these two aspects of Schulz’s life shouldn’t be separated. Peanuts was both intensely personal and the biggest marketing phenomenon this side of Disney. It was used to sell cars, insurance, and Easter Egg kits even as the strip itself grew ever sadder and more pessimistic. In some ways, this still feels like the most subversive coup in the history of American popular culture. Not until The Simpsons—which, we’re told, owed much of its early popularity to “all the pretty colors”—was a work of art so ubiquitous and so misunderstood. And both cases speak to the universality of master craftsmanship. For Peanuts and The Simpsons alike, there’s no clear line dividing the popular from the sublime: it’s one seamless work of art.

As with The Simpsons, there’s no denying that Peanuts underwent a decline in its final years, and in particular was never the same after the mid-1980s. But to quibble over the fact that Schulz managed only thirty years of unparalleled excellence is like asking why Beethoven only managed to come up with nine decent symphonies. (Which sounds like something that Lucy might ask Schroeder). Strip by strip, panel by panel, it’s one of the richest bodies of work produced by any American artist, a lens through which the culture of half a century can be glimpsed. As such, it was an essential part of my education, and The Complete Peanuts will be among the first books that my own children will read. I can’t imagine giving them a greater gift.

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