Saturday, July 10, 2004

You were a good man, Sparky Schulz

Do you have around $725 sitting in your pocket that you'd like to spend over a long period of time, say, twelve-and-a-half years? Then you can pick up The Complete Peanuts, comprising the entire fifty-year run of Charles M. Schulz's legendary comic strip in twenty-five volumes. As for myself, I suspect I'll be grabbing them from the library when they show up -- as the first volume did this last week.

As you might expect, it's fascinating to read the strip in its infancy, before Schulz's style had settled and before the tropes of the strip had really become established as a kind of mythology. It's not unlike watching the first season of a favorite television show that ran for years, although in the case of Peanuts, the effect is magnified by virtue that the strip had been around for more than two decades when I was born. The humor that I knew in the strip from growing up in the 70s isn't the same as the humor in the strip from its 1950 beginnings, with its odd combination of postwar optimism and bleak fatalism. (Yes, Peanuts could get pretty bleak sometimes. I look forward to learning more about that aspect of the strip as future volumes come out.) What's striking to me at the outset is that Charlie Brown isn't the "lovable loser" that we all know; in fact, he's at the center of his world almost in spite of himself, and in a few strips his behavior and outlook seem to anticipate another comic-strip boy who would come along thirty-some years later, Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes.

And here's something interesting: Schroeder, who was always my favorite of the Peanuts supporting players (assuming that Charlie Brown and Snoopy are the two "leads"), starts out as a toddler, and it's Charlie Brown himself who gives him that first fateful nudge toward the piano:

And, a while later, we learn where another of Schroeder's obsessions comes from. Again, Charlie Brown does the honors:

And here's one that I just loved, the second I saw it:

First of all, Charles Schulz wasn't lazy. Often times when some comic strip or something similar wants to convey music, the artist will simply use some randomized musical notation that any person with a couple of years' worth of music lessons can tell you bears absolutely no resemblance to real music. It's just gibberish that only looks real because so many people don't know the first thing about musical notation. Schulz, though, doesn't do that. What Schroeder is whistling there is an actual snippet of a classical work, and a fairly well-known one: "Traumerei", by Robert Schumann (incidentally, a very common encore at Vladimir Horowitz's concerts and recitals).

But more than that is the very idea that Schulz is expressing here. It's that once upon a time, people found erudition and artistic awareness attractive. Give a girl the wolf-whistle, and she just tosses her head and stomps along; but give her a bit of Romantic piano, and she'll give you the time of day. And this wasn't an uncommon idea of the time; look, for example, at a bit of lyric from the musical Kiss Me, Kate:

Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now.
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow.
Just declaim a few lines from "Othella"
And they think you're a heckuva fella.
If your blonde won't respond when you flatter 'er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
And if still, to be shocked, she pretends well,
Just remind her that "All's Well That Ends Well."
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they'll all kowtow.

Yes, this is a comic song (sung by a couple of mobsters after an absurd subplot has played out), but really, does anyone think this anymore? Is this idea ever expressed in our stories these days? Is the ability to sing a bit of Schumann or recite some Shakespeare actually celebrated as a good thing, instead of being used in some kind of tip-of-the-hat to irony? I don't know -- maybe I'm totally off-base here, but I'm hard-pressed to think up examples.

Or maybe I'm wrong entirely; maybe Schulz was actually bemoaning the same devaluation of erudition in this strip, and I just don't know it because I wasn't around in 1950. But I'd still like to believe that hearts can be won by occasionally employing some Tennyson or some Puccini. I mean, if they can't be won thus, then what are hearts for, anyway?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

PS, also the piece in the first strip where Schroeder is introduced to the piano is another favourite Horowitz. It's Rachmaninoff's Prelude No. 5 in G minor. :) Go Schultz though!