While I am carrying on a conversation with someone, I find that I am drawing with my eyes. I find myself observing how his shirt collar comes around from behind his neck and perhaps casts a slight shadow on one side. I observe how the wrinkles in his sleeve form and how his arm may be resting on the edge of the chair. I observe how the features on his face move back and forth in perspective as he rotates his head. It actually is a form of sketching and I believe that it is the next best thing to drawing itself. I sometimes feel it is obsessive, but at least it accomplishes something for me.
So-called creative people understand better than most that there is nothing new under the sun. Working with boulders of granite, with empty stages, with blank paper, they are credited with making something out of nothing, but that isn’t exactly what they do. All art is derived from what is in actuality a remarkably finite human experience. Whatever the medium, the creative person’s task is to interpret an essentially unchanging reality, a dog-eared reality pondered by Homer and Mel Brooks and everyone in between. The artist succeeds if he or she can present something familiar from an unfamiliar angle.”
— Rheta Grimsley Johnson
While everyone else is reading David Michaelis’s new biography, Schulz and Peanuts, I’ve decided to wait and ask for it for Christmas. Instead, I’m reading Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s underrated and unfortunately out-of-print 1989 “authorized” biography, Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz. People have called the book “innocuous” and “flattering”, but I think it deals with Schulz’s depression in a very straightforward and explicit manner, and the writing is really great. Worth tracking down.
Chapter 6 of the book is dedicated to Schulz’s “12 devices”—the twelve ideas that Schulz considered essential to the success of Peanuts:
1. The Kite-eating tree.
2. Schroeder’s music
I was looking through this book on music, and it showed a portion of Beethoven’s Ninth in it, so I drew a cartoon of Charlie Brown singing this. I thought it looked kind of neat, showing these complicated notes coming out of the mouth of this comic-strip character, and I thought about it some more, and then I thought, ‘Why not have one of the little kids play a toy piano?’
3. Linus’s blanket
4. Lucy’s psychiatry booth
5. Snoopy’s doghouse
In the beginning, Snoopy actually slept in his doghouse, and a three-quarter view that worked in perspective was the readers’ most familiar angle….The emergence of Snoopy’s doghouse as Grand Device centered not on actual depictions of the humble abode but on allusions to its fantastic contents…the only view the reader is ever given is a left side view. Yet as its graphic depiction became severely restricted, its function became limitless.
6. Snoopy himself
7. The Red Baron
9. The baseball games
10. The football episodes
Besides losing, the running (and falling) gag is a pure example of another element that has worked so well for Schulz: repetition…Nothing else in Peanuts is so mechanically repetitious as the football joke….One newspaper editor canceled Peanuts, complaining that the author did the same things over and over. He was forced to reinstate the comic strip, with an apology, when his readers set up a postal howl.
11. The Great Pumpkin
12. The little red-haired girl
Hank Williams’s plaintive ballad “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” spurred the inclusion of the little red-haired girl in Peanuts. After listening to the song over and over again, Schulz was inspired to include in his cast of characters the unrequiting lover….The littler red-haired girl has never been depicted…and he believes she never will be.
On cartooning and design:
Good cartoon drawing is good design. A lot of people aren’t aware of that.
On the skills of a cartoonist:
Schulz: I have a combination of strange abilities I can draw pretty well, and i can write pretty well, and i can create pretty well, but I could never be an illustrator. It doesn’t interest me.
Rose: That’s because the idea doesn’t come from you?
On humor and sadness:
I suppose there’s a melancholy feeling in a lot of cartoonists, because cartooning, like all other humor, comes from bad things happening. People will say, “Well why don’t you have Charlie Brown kick the football?” And I say, “Well, that would be wonderful, it’s happy, but happiness is not funny.” I wish we could all be happy, but it isn’t funny.
Schulz: All of the things that you see in the strip, if you were to read it every day and study it, you would know me.
Rose: To read your characters is to know you.
Schulz: Isn’t that depressing?
The cartoonist Seth, from an interview with Carousel in 2006:
“I have felt, for some time, a connection between comics and poetry. It’s an obvious connection to anyone who has ever sat down and tried to write a comic strip. I think the idea first occurred to me way back in the late 80’s when I was studying Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips. It seemed so clear that his four-panel setup was just like reading a haiku; it had a specific rhythm to how he set up the panels and the dialogue. Three beats: doot doot doot— followed by an infinitesimal pause, and then the final beat: doot. Anyone can recognize this when reading a Peanuts strip. These strips have that sameness of rhythm that haikus have— the haikus mostly ending with a nature reference separated off in the final line.
As time passed I began to see this connection as more and more evident in how I went about writing my own work. Certainly, it is not a process that is very tightly worked out — but when I am writing a comics page (or sequence of pages) I am very aware of the sound and ‘feel’ of how the dialogue or narration is broken down for the panels. If you have to tell a certain amount of story in a page then you have to make decisions on how many panels you need to tell it. You need to arrange these panels — small, big or a combination of the two — and decide how to sit them on the page. All these decisions affect how the viewer reads the strip; there is an inherent rhythm created by how you set up the panels. Thin panel, thin panel, long panel: this rhythm is felt by the reader, especially when you put the words into the panels. When writing a comic strip I am very aware of how I am structuring the sentences: how many words; one sentence in this panel; two in this one; a silent panel; a single word. These choices are ultra-important in the creation of comics storytelling, and this unheard rhythm is the main concern for me
when I am working out a strip.
I imagine poets feel this same concern. If you read any free verse poetry you can see how the poet has made certain decisions for how to break the thoughts apart and structure them, often in a way that defies a system.
It seems to me that the language of poetry is very dependant on setting up images and juxtaposing them against each other. A poet will create an image in the first two lines of his poem and then he will create another in the next two lines, and so on. I do find this jumping from image to image in poetry to be a very interesting, comic-like element. Many poems are almost like word comics.
Comics are often referred to in reference to film and prose — neither seems that appropriate to me. The poetry connection is more appropriate because of both the condensing of words and the emphasis on rhythm. Film and prose use these methods as well, but not in such a condensed and controlled manner. Comic book artists have for a long time connected themselves to film, but in doing so, have reduced their art to being merely a ‘storyboard’ approach.
The underlying rhythm seems to have gone unheard for literally decades in the world of commercial comic books (a few noticeable exceptions: Kurtzman, Kirby, Stanley).
The ‘words & pictures’ that make up the comics language are often described as prose and illustration combined. A bad metaphor: poetry and graphic design seems more apt. Poetry for the rhythm and condensing; graphic design because cartooning is more about moving shapes around — designing — then it is about drawing. Obviously when creating a strip about a man walking down the street you are drawing pictures of the man and the environment…however, you are also trying to simplify these drawings down into a series of more iconic, graphic renderings. The more detailed the drawing — the more it attempts to capture ‘reality’ — the more it slows down the story telling and deadens the cartoon language. Don’t get me wrong; the cartooning can be very specific, it doesn’t have to be generic. It simply has to properly ‘cartoon’ the images. The drawings become symbols that are arranged on the page (and within the panels) in the most logical way to make the reading of the story work; you place these cartooned images together in a way that does what you want them to do. You aren’t concerned with drawing a proper street scene so much as you are concerned with moving the reader’s eye around the page in the way you wish it to move. Trying to draw realistically just sets up a myriad of frustrations for the proper use of cartoon language. Think of the cartoon language as a series of characters (letters) being purposefully arranged to make words.”
Source: Ngui, Marc, “Poetry, Design and Comics: An Interview with Seth.” Carousel 19 (Spring-Summer 2006) [archived PDF]
Meg and I have this Peanuts strip taped to the fridge:
Relationships are hard enough, but it takes a real champion of a person to be married to an artist. Lots of times you have to be a maid/cook, motivational speaker, a mother, and an editor — all at once.
Lucy would never cut it.
We have a few marriage books scattered on the coffee table, but none of them touch on the trials that await the spouse of an writer.
So, if you’re an writer and you’re thinking about getting married, or if you’re thinking about marrying a writer, I’d recommend checking out Bruce Holland Rogers’ book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer.
There are lots of writing books out there, but Word Work is unique in that it’s all about the practical, day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts of a writer’s life. There are three chapters about relationships: “Writers and Lovers,” “Writers Loving Writers,” and “Writers Loving Non-Writers.”
Lucky for me, my non-writer is a champion, and she could have written the last chapter.
Daniel Mendelsohn ends his pretty excellent review of Jonathan Franzen’s memoir, The Discomfort Zone, by turning a critical eye to Franzen’s essay on Peanuts that ran a few years ago in the New Yorker:
Ah well. What can you do with someone who professes to love “Peanuts” but doesn’t understand a word of it? “The Discomfort Zone” features an odd but suggestive paean to the creator of the comic strip that, more than anything else in American popular culture for many decades, celebrated the comic side of something Franzen professes to know a lot about: discomfort — the sheer, poignant, foolish awkwardness that comes with being human. Recounting the unappealing facts of Schulz’s biography, Franzen emphasizes that the cartoonist was a difficult, embittered, resentful man — the kind of person who still seethed over perceived insults he’d received four decades before. Yet the author is quick to defend Schulz — the, um, artistically brilliant, tormented, somewhat geeky Midwestern offspring of Scandinavian parents — as a hero of Art. “To keep choosing art over the comforts of normal life … is the opposite of damaged.”
Franzen’s insistence on seeing this repugnant person as an ideal is, no doubt, what leads him to his wrongheaded interpretation of the comic strip itself. “Almost every young person experiences sorrows,” he rightly points out at the beginning of his exegesis of “Peanuts” — a sentence that gives you hope that the geeky child still hiding inside the adult Franzen is going to admit that, like everyone else, he loved “Peanuts” because he, too, identified with the perpetual awkward, perpetually failed, and yet just as perpetually optimistic Charlie Brown. But no: for Franzen, who, even as a child, “personally enjoyed winning and couldn’t see why so much fuss was made about the losers” the real hero of “Peanuts” is not the “depressive and failure-ridden” Charlie Brown, but the grandiose beagle, Snoopy: “the protean trickster,” as Franzen calls him, “the quick-change artist who … before his virtuosity has a chance to alienate you or diminish you” can be “the eager little dog who just wants dinner.” But Snoopy’s self-proclaimed virtuosity does, in the end, alienate and diminish: he’s amusing, with his epic grudge against the Red Baron (and the Van Gogh and the spiral staircase he lost when his doghouse burned down), precisely because he represents the part of ourselves — the smugness, the avidity, the pomposity, the rank egotism — most of us know we have but try to keep decently hidden away. Franzen, like most of us, is very likely an awkward combination of Charlie and Snoopy; the difference being that whereas most of us think of ourselves as Charlie with a bit of Snoopy, Franzen clearly doesn’t mind coming off as a whole lotta Snoopy with the barest soupçon of Charlie: a person, as this lazy and perverse book demonstrates, whose very admissions of weakness, of insufficiency, smack of showboating, of grandiose self-congratulation. For my part, I’ll stick with Charlie. Who, after all, wants the company of a character so self-involved he doesn’t even realize he’s not human?
Personally, I like to think of myself as Schroeder.
I’ve been on another obsessive Peanuts-reading tear. If you’re interested in listening in to the conversations of one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century, I highly recommend Charles M. Schulz: Conversations. Particularly wonderful is the 100+ page interview with Gary Groth from 1997 that ran in the Comics Journal.
Two things that strike me right this second about the strip.
First, I’ve been thinking about the difference between reading comics in serialized form — in newspapers or seperately published editions over time — and reading them in book form. Schultz himself said that comics strips weren’t art because they were “too transient” to appeal to several generations. But the act of collecting Peanuts into books, or “treasuries,” basically has cemented their status as great art. Because the characters are so strong, and the world is so static over time, Peanuts is an epic of gag strips — in book form, it really does amount to what George Saunders called a “50-year novel.”
Second, I’ve been thinking about the way in which Schultz’s drawing led his ideas. His formal innovations with his drawing — dressing Snoopy up as a fighter pilot, for instance — led to his character and story development.
Take the character of Schroeder. Schultz said:
“I was looking through this book on music, and it showed a portion of Beethoven’s Ninth in it, so I drew a cartoon of Charlie Brown singing this. I thought it looked kind of neat, showing these complicated notes coming out of the mouth of this comic-strip character, and I thought about it some more, and then I thought, ‘Why not have one of the little kids play a toy piano?'” (*)
Schultz made sure to recreate exactly those Beethoven musical scores by hand, and it was the act of drawing — the simple aesthetic pleasure of musical notes in a comic strip — that led to Schroeder.
What this means to me is that drawing comics is its own particular brand of alchemy. You can’t just sit down and say, “I’m going to draw a character with a funny nose who has no father and always trips over his shoelaces.” The description means nothing. You have to draw that character into existance.
It’s the act, not the idea.
“I did a strip…once where Charlie Brown was wondering out loud. He was sitting on a bench with Linus. [They were discussing] War and Peace or Beethoven’s Ninth, or something like that. Then he gets up and strikes out. I think he sits down and says something like, ‘And I’ll probably never write War and Peace, either.’
“I always think about things like that. What is of importance? I suppose the most important thing is just to do what you can do best. You have no other choice, do you? You have a certain amount of ability. And do the best with your abilities.”
– Charles Schultz, in a massive interview with Gary Groth, 1997
mini-exercise ripping off Chris Ware from yesterday
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I’m really disappointed that Art Spiegelman is withdrawing his work from the Jewish Museum’s Masters of American Comics exhibit, because it was going to be one of the places Meg and I visited on our honeymoon in NYC. The other bummer is that it’s a split show, so anything in the first half of the 20th century (including, gulp, Schultz, McCay and Herriman) is over at the Newark Museum, and we’re surely not taking the train over there on our limited stay. I guess we’ll have to settle (!!) for Crumb, Panter, and Ware.
Speaking of Ware, he was interviewed about the exihibit and asked, “Who was overlooked?” His response:
Lynda Barry. Her semiautobiographical experiments were pretty much responsible for the maturation comics experienced in the ’90s.
I thought that was pretty awesome of him to say, and come to think of it, I’m just amazed that Lynda isn’t better known than she is. What a genius. Meeting her and becoming exposed to her work (and this sounds overly-dramatic), in a lot of ways, changed my life, or at least my art, because I believe she’s the perfect model of the writer/artist — all her characters arise out of this wonderful world that is uniquely hers…
Anyways, speaking of heroes: George Saunders is coming to Oberlin in April.
For Monday, I’m trying to put together a post about musical notation, Schroeder, and sound effects in comics. Have a good weekend!
“Comics get to the essence of something quickly and efficiently….They distill and refine, they don’t necessarily tell stories or have a message.”
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Of course, they can tell stories. The trick is just a million different combinations of words and images and panels.
I’m still a bit obsessed with this idea of a novel constructed out of gag strips. The gorgeous thing about a gag strip is that it doesn’t have to be funny, it just has to have a punchline. And the good news is that a decent novel chapter does the same thing: there’s a rise and fall and then a good punchline at the end to give you some kind of closure, but also get you to turn the page and read the next one. What happens next?
Here’s Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without A Country:
It’s damned hard to make jokes work. In Cat’s Cradle, for instance, there are these very short chapters. Each one of them represents one day’s work, and each one is a joke. If I were writing about a tragic situation, it wouldn’t be necessary to time it to make sure the thing works. You can’t really misfire with a tragic scene. It’s bound to be moving if all the right elements are present. But a joke is like building a mousetrap from scratch. You have to work pretty hard to make the thing snap when it’s supposed to snap.
There’s a reason why Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library is way better than Jimmy Corrigan. Acme is still Ware’s melancholy world, but Rocket Sam and Big Tex have that snap—that punchline of a good gag strip. (Maybe this is because Ware’s art trumps his writing, and a good deal of the gag strip has to do with the visual tricks involved…)
Now: wouldn’t you love to read a graphic novel’s worth of Mark Newgarden’s “Little Nun” gag strips? (You can check out more of them in McSweeney’s 13 or We All Die Alone). All it would require is continuity. Some kind of journey or quest. The Little Nun could just take a trip across America. Maybe she could meet other nuns. Gather a crew. Fall in love or something. It could go on for something like 100 pages. It’d be so easy to draw, you could just churn out the pages. And think of the serializing potential! It’d be spectacular.
Eventually, I think The Complete Peanuts will read something like this. George Saunders wrote in his Shulz obit:
…try to imagine, say, three kids sitting against the side of a suburban house on a summer afternoon….If these characters are allowed to grow up and leave the suburban lawn and get jobs and fall in love, this is called a novel, and you, the creator, are called a novelist. If the imagined children are not allowed to grow up but are confined to the suburban lawn, where they continue for the next 50 years to be rich manifestations of their creator’s psyche, and if this creator’s imagination is supple and energetic enough never to tire of reimagining the children on the suburban lawn and never to make us tired of observing the children on the suburban lawn, this is called “Peanuts.”
But if you read them all together, doesn’t the collected work take some kind of shape, some rise and fall of action that resembles a narrative? Some continuity that resembles something the steps in a journey? Certainly it presents a world.
Or is it the ending that we demand, the closure, the change, the move to point B from point A?