anxiety_snoopy.gifThe most consistently readable, if also frustrating, new writer at the Comics Journal the last couple of years, Noah Berlatsky, has just put his first and best piece for the magazine, on the reception of Peanuts by today’s alt-cartoonists, online at the blog he contributes to. I often find myself disagreeing with Berlatsky, as will become apparent in the following, but the point is that he is worth spending some effort disagreeing with.

The central virtue of the article is its insistence that Peanuts is more than the bleak chart of Schulz’ alienation that many of today’s preeminent confessional cartoonists seem to take it as. I like this part:

“…while older underground icons like Harvey Pekar may have sneered at Schulz’s simplicity, the new generation worships him. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, for example, is a macrocephalic, self-loathing, perennial loser trapped in a boxy wasteland. Dan Clowes’ mix of suburban surrealism and static non-event would be hard to imagine without Schulz’s example. So would Ivan Brunetti’s long sequences of nearly identical panels filled with neurotic blather. And so it goes. Like one of Al Jafee’s Mad Magazine fold-in covers, the barren landscapes of today’s alternative comics need only to be tweaked or rumpled, and suddenly you’re staring at the same darn enormous head.”

Written with bite and verve. Good stuff. However, now comes the frustrating part, where Berlatsky as usual has to overplay his cards. Instead of going into the genuinely interesting analysis that he could have written, of how Peanuts may have affected the cartoonists he mentions adversely – and how their at times morose tenor might limit their art – he posits the tired old dichotomy of high and low culture as the rationale behind this perceived parochialism amongst some of the highest regarded cartoonists of the moment. Which he follows by setting up the hapless Jeffrey Brown as a straw man, on the sole basis that Chris Ware has evoked Schulz in an appreciation of his work.

Brown is way too easy a target (apparently so easy that Berlatsky had to go a tear him a new one in a subsequent review) – how about, well, Chris Ware instead? A tall order, I know, for Ware’s work obviously resists being boxed as is done in the above qoute, but I at least would love to read such a critique – as long as it does not overreach itself in the way Berlatsky’s basically on point, but slightly too eager to grease review of Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers did. (OK, I admit that Berlatsky does offer *some* critique of Dan Clowes, but restricting such to a cover made for the Comics Journal cannot but weaken the argument somewhat).

But to return to Berlatsky’s argument and his unnecessary use of populist discourse to bolster it. He seems to regard the interest amongst the circumscribed select few in the more introspective and melancholy aspects of Schulz’ work as somehow less worthy than the interest by the many in the funny bits, because, well, it is supposedly held by millions of Peanuts readers across the world, and is what enabled Schulz to “sell lunch boxes, T-shirts, space flight and life-insurance, and… to create a multi-media marketing empire.”

Pardon me, but this is simply snobbism in reverse, of the kind one too often sees in intellectuals who look for an easy way to stand out amongst their ilk. I for one will boldly claim that Peanuts has never been a laugh-out-loud funny strip to me. Rather a thoughtful, poignant, witty and elegant daily poem that more often than not is carried by its underlying sense of alienation and insecurity. That it is far from one-note is a point well taken, and the strip would surely not have become the success it is if it were, but was it not about time somebody reclaimed it from the insurance salesmen by emphasizing that it is not just funny business? And is it not conceivable that its throngs of fans amongst the “rabble” really like it for its good grief?

More discussion here, my review of a couple of Jeffrey Brown books here (in Danish) and the strip Berlatsky mentions, along with several contemporary cartoonists’ reception of Schulz here (likewise). Oh, there is also T. Thorhauge’s reviews of In the Shadow of No Towers, and the first volumes of the Complete Peanuts (ditto)