Why Peanuts is the greatest comic of all time

I really liked The Far Side. Bloom County was another favorite along with Calvin and Hobbes. But their merits notwithstanding, I think there is a reason that Peanuts wasn’t merely long-lived, but was superior to even the best comics of subsequent generations.

Lucy.

I always despised Lucy as a child. She was so pointlessly mean, so needlessly cruel. Her selfishness and narcissism were incredible; what other cartoon character would kick her own little brother out of the house when given the opportunity?  She bothered me to the point that I used to refuse to make Lucy cookies at Christmas with our old Peanuts cookie-cutters.  I could not understand what could possibly have possessed the cartoonist to spoil what was otherwise a lightly amusing comic with such an unpleasant character.

Now that I’m older, however, I understand why intellectual sophisticates hailed Charles Schulz as one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. Unlike most creative sorts, he fully recognized the fundamental pettiness and cruelty of human nature and explored it to the full, often in the persona of Lucy.  The seeds of his brilliant and unusual perspective are visible in the very first Peanuts strip, published 59 years ago on October 2nd.

My favorite bits usually concerned Snoopy’s fantasy life.  The vulture, the dinosaur, the Sopwith Camel, and, of course, the literary career.  But what ultimately distinguished Peanuts from the rest was Schulz’s fearless recognition of Man’s fallen nature.  Lucy is not driven by biological or economic imperatives, she simply is.  And we all know a Lucy, we all have aspects of Lucy in us to a larger or hopefully smaller degree.  Charlie Brown’s persistence in the face of his own haplessness is obviously a major aspect of the comic, but even Charlie Brown is most notable for the foil of human decency he provides to Lucy’s all-too-human petty evil.

I do not believe that Eco was entirely correct when he wrote: “”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 the industrial civilization.”  For all his brilliance, Eco is an Italian urbanite, and does not understand American suburbia or the complete irrelevance of European modernity and urban civilization to it.  Charlie Brown’s neuroses are amusing, to be surebut they are far less significant than the interplay between him and the quotidian cruelty of the other children, the innate and trivial cruelty that one can easily observe in the interactions of children and adults today.

Perhaps the most poignant in the series of strips is the baseball game when Charlie Brown’s team finally has the opportunity to win a game.  All he has to do is let the team’s best batter do the work, run home from third, and tie the game.  It is the obvious thing to do.  It is the smart thing to do, and even the girls who seldom pay any attention to the game while they are playing in the outfield know it.   Surely, they say to each other, surely he could not be so stupid as to try to steal a base.  But Charlie Brown suddenly finds himself seduced by his desire to be the hero… and as a result finds himself lying on the field, staring into the night sky, crying “why? over and over again.

And who among us has not found himself in a similar position?  There is little overt religion in Peanuts, the classic Christmas special notwithstanding, but as Tolkein once said of The Lord of the Rings, “it is  of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”  Peanuts is catholic rather than Catholic, but whether you grasp the religious aspects of it or not is totally irrelevant; it is worth reading and re-reading because it is the greatest philosophical work produced in the 20th century.  It is our Iliad and Schulz was our Homer.  And if his poetry was less than lyric, well, that was fitting too.

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