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O Magazine
2015-2017

Stolen
cartoons

By Jordi
Costa

A
haiku.

The daily four-cartoon strip is one of the most synthetic forms that American culture has developed to reflect the complexity of life. And Charles M. Schulz was the author who not only managed to distil this form in a most radical manner, but also who turned it into the most inexhaustible expressive tool to reveal the most diverse and intangible inflexions on the human condition. From October 2nd, 1950 to January 3rd, 2000, the perseverant craftsman from Minneapolis draw a daily strip and achieved the feat to make his characters –a bunch of neurotic and broken childhoods– co-exist with his readers reflecting the same recurrent frustrations, incurable disconnections with a competitive culture focused on personal triumph that systematically overlooked that low-case writing about human frailty that was Peanuts‘ raw material. Fifty years of simultaneous life in which the readers grew old but the characters didn’t, maybe because Schulz knew that all adults are condemned to preserve within the child they were, and will always be. It takes genius to capture the measureless with simplicity. Expressive languages and styles end up dry, consumed. Only the most privileged of brains are able to coin a durable and imperishable expressive system: let’s think about Schulz as a sort of spiritual brother to Yasujiro Ozu. The former needed no more than four vignettes –let’s leave out, on purpose, the master’s no less brilliant full-page Sundays– to say everything –from daily life to the sacred, how else could we deem the eternal waiting for the Great Pumpkin? –. The latter only needed a very limited vocabulary made up of tatami floors and transition shots to explore a universe without known limits: the human soul.

Without a doubt, there is something very Japanese in Schulz, to the point that, when talking about his strips, comparing them with haikus has become the usual thing. Art Spiegelman was the first to do so: In his best moments, which were very frequent, the strip had both the simplicity and the depth of a haiku… only easier to understand”. And Ivan Brunetti highlighted it too when, on a strip paying homage to Schulz, he insisted that often Snoopy’s creator substituted a joke for a persistent sense of pain and sadness,” and finished by defining Peanuts as an epic haiku.” Haikus are the essential form of Japanese poetic tradition composed of three verses of five, seven and five morae respectively, being the morae the unit to measure the syllabic weight (not necessarily equal to a syllable). The haijin or creator of haikus knows he works with an extremely fragile material, something to be treated with delicacy: the last verse of the haiku, preceded by a precise and considered pause, usually reveals the (minuscule) measure of man astonished before the natural world that precedes and will succeed him. The four cartoons on a press strip, in Schulz’s hands, followed a no less rigorous rhythmic pattern: the last one of them is also preceded by a pause that can be implied (the space between one cartoon and the next) or marked, made dense by a third cartoon with no text that manages to re-create silence or wait. The last cartoon, traditionally, corresponds to the punch line, the joke or (better) the joke’s final conclusion: in Peanuts, as Brunetti managed to detect, the joke often became invisible to invoke a sense of smallness and frailty that could be the equivalent of the haiku’s last verse. Very often, on the last cartoon, Charlie Brown is conscious again of the (insuperable) distance between reality and desire.

Another thoughtful cartoonist, Seth, developed even more that familiarity between Peanuts and the haiku, even coining the name of such sacred synthesis, an equation by which the cartoon would be the sum of poetry + graphic design; a conception questioning, thus, the repeated associations of resemblance between cartoons and films or cartoons and prose. Seth says: I saw very clearly that this four-cartoon structure was like reading a haiku: it had a specific rhythm marked by the placement of images and dialogues. They’re three beats followed by an infinitesimal pause after which comes the final beat. Everybody can recognise that pattern when reading a Peanuts strip”.

Today’s Stolen Cartoon is, in fact, the second from Peanuts‘ first strip. On it, a couple of kids sitting on the kerb watch Charlie Brown, whom they’ve seen approaching from afar, passing by them. It was the first time that the readers of the series saw Charlie Brown closely, a Charlie Brown that still hadn’t acquired his definitive graphic identity… and (an important detail) the readers were seeing him through the eyes of other characters. The three first vignettes play at repetition, with slight variations, of the same information: Well! Here comes Ol’Charlie Brown!” (Cartoon 1) / “Good Ol’ Charlie Brown… Yes, Sir!” (Cartoon 2) / Good Ol’ Charlie Brown!” (Cartoon 3). At first sight, it would seem that this Charlie Brown in an immensely popular boy (Schulz devoted the subsequent fifty years of his life to show us, actively and passively, that he wasn’t, not by an inch). Now take a deep breath and savour the pause, because here comes the very heterodox punch line of this landmark strip. The same boy that has mentioned (we thought admiringly) Charlie Brown’s name, building a euphonic redundancy in three beats, now finishes it with a: How I hate him!” I imagine that this, at the time, was absolutely unexpected and revolutionary. In fact, it was only the first stone of the Great Revolution that consisted in chopping Life (completely!!) in daily four-cartoon doses.