By rights I should probably never have liked Peanuts. As a child in 1970s Suffolk, I had little in common with this group of 1950s, American schoolkids who played baseball, clung to ‘security blankets’ and offered psychiatric help at five cents a go from a wooden booth. Half the time, I had no idea what they were talking about.
What was a ‘pitcher’s mound’, and why would you need to stand on one? I wondered. When Linus is sent to “pound the erasers” at school, this was evidently a miserable job, but I didn’t know what either of those things meant. And when Charlie Brown threatened to “garnishee” his dog Snoopy’s supper dish as a punishment, I don’t know…garnish? Was he going to put lettuce on it?
Detail of Peanuts 29.09.1996 © Peanuts
Part of the reason why Peanuts meant so much to me as a kid is that so much of its world was, literally, foreign to me. This was a place in a different country, populated by a bunch of kids whose lives were different to mine, who spoke differently, played different sports, went to a different kind of school (book reports, what were they?). And that was fine, because I loved them.
If you are not familiar with Peanuts, the original strip, which began in 1950, revolves around Charlie Brown, a nervous worrier of indeterminate age with a chronic lack of self-confidence. Charlie Brown is surrounded by a cast of friends and family, including his sister Sally, friend Linus (he of the blanket fixation), Linus’s at-times overbearing sister Lucy, Beethoven enthusiast Schroeder and ‘tomboy’ Peppermint Patty. No adults are present, except as disembodied, honking voices of disapproval. And then there is Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog and best friend.
Charlie Brown Good Grief © Peanuts
The Somerset House show reminds us just how much influence Peanuts had on popular culture. This display features patches and clothing from Vietnam-era US forces, many of whom adopted Snoopy as their mascot
Documentary film on Charles M Schulz at Good Grief Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and The Enduring Power of Peanuts at Somerset House. Image: Tim Bowditch
If all you know of Peanuts is the TV version, you are missing out on what makes Snoopy so special (please, read the books). In print, Snoopy is a sophisticate (he apparently owns a Van Gogh and a whirlpool bath), a dreamer, aspiring novelist and a wry commentator on the many absurdities of life. But on TV, Snoopy’s internal monologue is absent. He has no voice. Everything that marks him out as a smart, cultured, wry beagle is gone. Instead, he becomes just another dog, albeit one who has the most joyous dance ever seen on TV.
And when everyone else is being mean to Charlie Brown or telling him he is simply no good at anything, he can always rely on Snoopy.
Peanuts was able to touch on all kinds of social issues, including civil rights. Detail of Peanuts 06.07.1968 © Peanuts
The brilliant Peppermint Patty. Detail of Peanuts 29.09.79 © Peanuts
Charlie Brown is truly terrible at baseball. But every summer he is out there on the pitcher’s mound having the ball smashed back at him so hard it literally knocks his socks off. He cannot fly a kite, no matter how hard he tries. Forever derided as ‘wishy-washy’ and a loser, he is an unlikely hero for a kids’ cartoon.
But this is just one of the things that makes Peanuts so special. Charlie Brown is a tortured soul (“my anxieties have anxieties”), subject to stress-related stomach aches so bad that one even causes him to miss a baseball game – a teammate helpfully pops round later to ask after his health because, without his pitching, they actually won. He’s in love with the Little Red-Haired girl, but his crippling shyness prevents him ever being able to tell her.
Touching on childhood loneliness, angst and insecurity, faith, racial equality and existentialism – Peanuts is now widely recognised for its ability to use the cartoon to discuss far weightier matters than the format had previously been known for. In the brilliant Peppermint Patty, for example, it had one of the first feminist heroes in popular culture, who asked questions that we still struggle to answer decades later (one fantastic strip has her yelling at the TV in frustration at the reporter’s failure to mention any female athletes in his sports report).
Peanuts’ influence is marked in a new exhibition at Somerset House, Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts. Along with 80 original panels from the strip, biographical material about Schulz and Peanuts-related ephemera and merchandise, the show features commissioned works from a host of contemporary artists and designers for whom Peanuts holds a special place, including KAWS, Mira Calix, Fiona Banner and Ryan Gander.
Artist Marcus Coates has recreated Lucy’s psychiatry both for the Somerset House show. During certain times, advisors will be on hand to answer visitor’s questions about life. Exhibition 2D design by Fraser Muggeridge Studio
Perhaps the most exciting of these pieces is Marcus Coates’ reconstruction of Lucy’s famous psychiatrist’s booth. Between 12 and 1pm, on Tuesdays and Sundays throughout the show’s run, the booth will be occupied by a real-life advisor, there to answer the public’s questions about life. The advisors will include ex-servicemen, former addicts and others who may have some rich life experiences to draw on.
Can you imagine that in any other exhibition about a cartoon?
From 1950 to 2000, Charles M Schulz drew almost 18,000 strips. Thanks to worldwide syndication, they ended up being read by millions. One of them was a ten year-old kid in Suffolk.
There is much for CR readers to be inspired by in this show – the brilliance of the drawing, the superb writing, Schulz’s commitment to his craft. But perhaps most important of all is Schulz’s faith in his audience: he never talked down to us. He created a world and he trusted that we would find our way in. From one born worrier to another, Charlie Brown spoke to me as he did to so many more. The Somerset House show reminds me that he still does.
Large cut-out Peanuts characters being installed at the show. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid
Visitors lie on bean bags to watch Peanuts TV Specials Photo: Peter Macdiarmid
The cast of Peanuts © Peanuts
GOOD GRIEF, CHARLIE BROWN! Celebrating Snoopy and The Enduring Power of Peanuts, is at Somerset House, London WC2, until March 3, 2019The post I love Peanuts so much my stomach hurts appeared first on Creative Review.