Why I Love Comic Strips

This comic strip, a Sunday installment of Peanuts by Charles Schulz, ranks as my favorite above all others.  I can’t explain why.  Maybe it’s the incredibly loaded conversations that don’t seem to go anywhere or resolve themselves.  Maybe it’s the idea of children speaking like Talmudic scholars.  Or maybe it’s the uncomfortable truth that, when you play competitive sports, especially as a child, indeed you feel you were born to suffer.

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Milan Kundera wrote that the modern novel exists because no other form of art can do what what the novel does.  I keep that in mind as I think particularly about this Peanuts strip.  I can’t explain why I find it so funny and appealing just as I can’t imagine any other type of art form or expression being able to do what Schulz did here.

Like the comic book, the comic strip is a peculiarly American art form.  It is related to the single panel editorial cartoon that has been used to lampoon public life for centuries and it has a cousin in the full-panel illustrated narratives common in Europe such as Tintin and Asterix.  A hybrid of the comic strip and the narrative cartoon gave rise to the graphic novel and graphic memoir.  With the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to Art Speigelman’s Maus the latter appears to have achieved mainstream respectability. Comic strips by contrast are still considered not quite serious business.

Berkeley Breathed, creator of Bloom County, explains in a footnote to one of his Sunday strips in the recently produced anthology of his work that the real advantage to the comic strip is timing.  Unlike a panel cartoon, which has the punchline right there, or a narrative cartoon, which theoretically has no ending, the panel comic allows the artist to tee up the joke and punch it hard while the pictures reinforce or contrast to the gag.  It’s hard to think of anything else like that, with the possible exception of certain stand-up comedy.

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Brethead always denied a certain level of political engagement but it’s not hard to see below his frenetic satire a certain point of view.  Nonetheless, he’s more an anarchist than Garry Trudeau, for his early pot-smoking days, ever was.  I remember being amazed at Breathed’s focus on political process as a source of comedy: the inevitable futility of caucuses, political parties, platforms, and selecting candidates.  Nobody had ever done that before that I could remember.

And even though this is a single panel, the narrative flow of the strip is left to right, just as if it had four panels, paying off with the punchline on the right.  Losing in politics feels EXACTLY like this.

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Peanuts had a peculiar effect on me as a child.  They suggested both a much broader intellectual world than anything I had experienced while at the same time placed children at the center of that world.  I mimicked Peanuts that way, not knowing any better that most children don’t talk or think this way while I expected both children and adults to be as cerebral as Linus often was.  It was a strange way to grow up.

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The question of whether comic strips are themselves “art” seems to have come down to a public debate held by Schulz, then late in his career, and the upstart Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes, during the early 1990s.  Watterson claimed that a comic strip could be art (and in his hands it clearly was) but that could be polluted by commercialization.  Schulz, who practically invented licensed merchandising, demurred.  It’s hard to imagine a world without Peanuts products just as much as it is to imagine it filled with Hobbes stuffed tigers.

While much of Peanuts merchandise is crass and upbeat, contrary to the initial intent of the strip, this more expansive view of the cartoon universe also gave us the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” television special as well as the gorgeous visuals of Snoopy’s hallucinatory flight across No Man’s Land in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”.  I wonder if Watterson had stayed in the game longer and kept the control over his creations he ultimately won, if he wouldn’t have contributed something equivalent or greater.  But he left the field too soon to tell.

I still love Calvin and Hobbes and have since I was a young.  I can’t explain its enduring appeal over all that time any better than I can explain the appeal of the Peanuts theological strip.  Calvin and Hobbes remains very, very funny and even some of Watterson’s more politically weighted strips still hold up.  But I think I recognized Calvin in myself as I had an extremely vivid imagination and creative inner life when I was young and the dour Peanuts gang (with the exception of Snoopy, of course) simply didn’t mirror that.

I remember the day when that explosive youthful inner life – the kind that sees toys and playthings as part of their own complete world – died to make way for adult concerns.  I’ve realized since that Calvin and Hobbes is a kind of written record of that pre-adolescent land of make-believe.  Alternative reality is reality of a child’s imagination.  Watterson started this with Hobbes always appearing as a stuffed tiger when he and Calvin weren’t alone.  But he developed this idea as the strip evolved: the higher the verisimilitude of Calvin’s inner life – that is, the higher the contrast between his “cartoon” existence and the “reality” of his imagination – the funnier it became.   As I watched my son stuff a small plastic velociraptor into the back of his Lego helicopter, I knew Watterson somehow found the mainline back to that unrestricted creative universe of the child’s mind.

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If Calvin and Hobbes captures the child’s experience, its opposite may be Garry Trudeau’s estimable Doonesbury.  Produced almost as long as Peanuts (and aside from a few magazine covers and a spin-off musical, sharing Watterson’s aversion to merchandizing), it has chronicled three generations of friends who lived together in a college commune in the 1970s.  Trudeau has always been overtly political.  Infamously, when editorial cartoonists protested his award of the Pulitzer Prize for (panel) editorial cartooning, once assured it could not be revoked he joined the protest.

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Most recently Trudeau has won deserved plaudits for documenting the struggles of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  He sent his first character, B.D., to Fallujah where he lost his leg in an ambush.  A member of B.D.’s company, a young soldier named Leo, suffered traumatic brain injury in a roadside bomb.  Later, Trudeau introduced a young female soldier who was the victim of command rape.  As I have written elsewhere, I can think of nothing else that examines these extremes of human experience with more grace and wit and humor.

But Trudeau didn’t start there.  B.D. was a Vietnam veteran and in this famously liberal strip the only conservative.  But when Saigon fell in 1975, Trudeau captured with extraordinary poignancy the grief not just of the veteran but also the entire nation.

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Trudeau has done something else with the recent wars that I’ve not seen anywhere else: lampoon the self-regarding professional international calamity personalities, the latter-day incarnation of the White Man’s Burden.  Sean Penn comes to mind, but so does the disgraced Greg Mortensen, author of “Three Cups of Tea”.  Trudeau’s splenetic adventures of the Red Rascal, a fictional alter ego of a low-achieving former CIA intern, sends up the noble braggadocio of an entire class of celebrity philanthropists.  I only really understood this when I saw the inside cover of Red Rascal’s War, a collection of stories about the preening hero, which features him rappelling from a Blackhawk helicopter carrying…three cups of tea. If there’s anything that needs comedic sending up, it’s the self-important and inflated rhetoric that infests these international endeavors.

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I’m ignoring some of the classics of the genre, including Pogo (which I came to appreciate as an adult) and its predecessors such as Lil’ Abner and Little Nemo in Slumberland.  Or, for that matter, strips like For Better or For Worse, Boondocks, and Cathy.  My point does not exclude them, because I’ve selected here the strips that speak to my particular experience.  It’s a testament to the endurance of the art that so many other strips thrive and, undoubtedly, speak to others, serving the purpose that no others do.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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