History’s a Bitch: A Dog Walk Through Time
2011 COLUMN CONTEST WINNER
Robb Fritz lives in Los Angeles. He grew up in northern Minnesota with a series of collies—one of whom reportedly saved him at the age of three from drowning in an icy lake. He now lives with three politically indifferent cats. In this column he follows various dogs’ wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, oblivious role in world events, bloody, earth changing or in some way memorable for the ages.
Moves Like Snoopy.
BY ROBB FRITZ
“Snoopy’s not a real dog of course—he’s an image of what people would like a dog to be.”—Charles Schulz, 1967
Lucy: “But you, you’re not even HUMAN!”
Snoopy (kissing Lucy with a SMACK on the cheek): “That’s a point in my favor, sweetie.”
Walking home from the library a few weeks ago, my six-year-old, apropos of nothing, suddenly said, “Daddy, you should write your next article about Snoopy!” Snoopy had pretty much emphatic zero to do with the article I was planning on writing, but, touched that she not only understood what I was writing about every few weeks and also wanted to take an active part in it, I echoed her enthusiasm with a momentarily sincere, “All right, I will!” And then immediately realized I had not a jot of an idea what I would write.
But then it occurred to me that spending a year writing about historic dogs and not writing about Snoopy, for an American male with his childhood planted in the ‘70s, was a little like planning a trip to Paris but declining to even glance at the Eiffel Tower. And I was no casual reader of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. I had spent years of my youth devouring the daily comic strip and our Peanuts collections, especially my favorite, the thick, clothbound Peanuts Treasury (now sadly out of print), with the understanding—part kinship, part pride—that Schulz himself, the greatest cartoonist in the world, had grown up in Minnesota just like me.
And then there were the countless, tortured hours spent trying to draw the characters myself. I have a particular memory of sitting at our kitchen table with pencil and paper trying to recreate Snoopy as he nearly levitated in the blissful blur of his legendary happy dance. But my awkward attempts would invariably coalesce into blocky, demoralizing blobs that weren’t Snoopy at all, but a series of sad, stiff lines that lay lifeless, inert and—for the part of me that understood intuitively the magic in Schulz’s line that gave Snoopy such tangibly dynamic life—incredibly depressing. While scholastically I was Linus—a model student—in terms of what really mattered to me—the ability to draw—I was straight up Charlie Brown.
So this was Peanuts and Snoopy for my young self in a nutshell, an enormous source of inspiration on the one hand and a possibly even greater source of personal disappointment in my own lack of talent on the other.
And yes, besides the comics themselves, there was the constant presence of Peanuts bed sheets and wall hangings and toys. More importantly, there were the holiday specials, starting with A Charlie Brown Christmas. If there was ever a piece of music tailor-made to be the soundtrack for childhood, Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown theme is it (for the trivia buff, the tune is actually called “Linus and Lucy”). Now I get the sentimental pleasure of watching my daughter fall in love with them possibly even more than I did when I was a kid, since she can—and does—watch them throughout the year. After each viewing she walks around the house finding reasons to say “Good grief!” and “AAUGH!!” (And yes, this is a genuine reason to reconsider letting your child watch the Peanuts specials, especially when she starts calling you “blockhead.”)
But though I related more to Linus than either Charlie Brown or Snoopy (even as I resented somewhat that, even as a cartoon, Linus was maddeningly smarter than I was), it was Snoopy’s crazy fantasy life that really drew me in. I can recall with surprising clarity the moment it became clear to me that the Red Baron was just a figment of Snoopy’s overactive imagination. In one frame the World War I Flying Ace was plummeting to the ground, his bullet-ridden Sopwith Camel streaming black-ink curls of smoke. Then, in the very next frame, like waking abruptly from a bad dream, he was once again just Snoopy, still wearing flight goggles and with pride wounded (by his own fantasy no less), but safely on the ground on a doghouse happily made hole-less once again.
Snoopy had started out as a far more normal dog. All of the characters evolved through the ‘50s, from their stiffer, simpler primordial selves until by the early ’60s they’d more or less achieved their more nuanced, somehow timeless final forms. This evolution, caught in the Peanuts Treasury, was one reason among many that I loved re-reading it cover to cover. Schulz also dropped characters who went nowhere for him, including both Shermy and Patty from the very first cartoon, while growing new, more permanent characters—Schroeder, Lucy and Linus—from babyhood into a childhood firmly fixed in elementary school. But no member of the gang came anywhere close to evolving, in both character and form, as much as Snoopy.
Snoopy was inspired by Schulz’s childhood dog Spike, who first made his syndicated appearance in a drawing that Ripley’s Believe it or Not accepted for publication when Schulz was only 14. Snoopy’s name came—years before he existed—from Schulz’s mother’s request, as she lay dying from cervical cancer when Schulz was 21, that if they ever got another dog they should call him Snuppi, a Norwegian term of endearment.
Snoopy first appeared in Peanuts’ third strip, on October 4th, 1950, as a small, more or less normal puppy on all fours carrying a flower in his mouth which unintentionally gets watered by a girl leaning out of a window, thereby drenching Snoopy. Schulz always intended him to be a dog with essentially human intelligence, but his verbal expression was originally limited to thought bubbles filled with either exclamation points (as in this first appearance), question marks or ink-black scratch clouds of annoyance or despair.
On May 27, 1952, Snoopy had his first spoken thought. Charlie Brown tugs at Snoopy’s ears, saying “Kind of warm out today for ear muffs, isn’t it?”—at that period Schulz drew Snoopy’s ears like a steroidal German frau’s tight hair buns—and Snoopy, miffed, trots away in a huff, thinking “Why do I have to suffer such indignities?” Then five years later, on June 28, 1957, he walked on his hind legs for the first time. After that, once he was up on two legs, the sky—and, actually, outer space—was the limit.
Asked about Snoopy’s evolution, Schulz told Leonard Maltin in 1985, “Snoopy started off as simply a cute little dog, a cute little puppy, and then he grew to a very grossly caricatured dog with a long neck and I can’t believe I drew him that way… If the syndicate had any sense, they would have called me up and said, ’You’re fired, we hate the way you’re drawing.’” Which of course was a ridiculous sentiment, as Schulz would have been well aware, since even then Peanuts was United Feature Syndicate’s biggest gold mine. And fans and critics intuitively understood that making America’s beagle capable of boundless, even transcendental fantasy was an artistic stroke so brilliant that one can almost make the mistake of finding it obvious.
Schulz’s fellow cartoonists understood this more than anyone. The moment Snoopy donned his pilot’s helmet and took to the skies in pursuit of the Red Baron was the moment Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, said, “I realized I didn’t know anything about the comic business.”
Suddenly, Snoopy could do anything (albeit not necessarily well, but give a dog some credit). He could and did imitate an endless stream of animals including vultures, cats, snakes, and birds. He tapped out pulp fiction from a typewriter balanced atop his doghouse that always began “It was a dark and stormy night” (clearly Seth McFarlane’s inspiration for Family Guy‘s middle-aged, alcoholic dog Brian, a hack writer whose one novel is entitled “Faster Than the Speed of Love”.) Snoopy served as Lucy’s squinting, bespectacled assistant at the 5c psychiatrist stand, where his squinting would mask the fact that he was actually falling asleep from Charlie Brown’s tedious tales of woe. He made a goal of reading War and Peace—one word per day, including “a,” “an” and “the.” He fell in love with mysterious girl beagles, and even proposed to one, whose father prevented the marriage. (In the world of Peanuts, curiously, all the girl characters fall in love with the boy characters, while the boys fall in love with girls—or teachers—that the readers are never allowed to see.)
In a 1997 interview with Comics Journal editor Gary Groth (reprinted in “Charles Schulz: Conversations”), Schulz’s explanation of Snoopy’s active inner life seems to include a veiled description of his own introverted childhood spent escaping into his drawing. “He has to retreat into his fanciful world in order to survive. Otherwise he leads kind of a dull, miserable life. I don’t envy dogs the way they have to live.” Which was pretty much exactly the opposite way I felt about my own dogs who, freed as they were of the complications of human thought, seemed to have it made.
It was Snoopy’s dance that fascinated me the most. Snoopy’s foot-fluttering jig was a masterpiece of bliss, Schulz’s personal ode to joy. Like a devotee meditating on the likeness of a guru to achieve a sort of pre-verbal transcendence, so did I study Snoopy’s dance. Which only magnified my despair at being unable to recreate that dance for myself with pen and paper.
In March of 1969, four months before Apollo XI’s historic moon landing, Schulz drew a six-strip series depicting Snoopy flying into space—the imaginary space inside his fertile imagination—and landing on the moon, with his doghouse as the lunar landing module. Two months later, the crew of Apollo X, in their preparation flight for Apollo XI, chose “Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy” as the call names for their command and lunar modules. “Snoopy,” while not quite making it to the lunar surface, made it within 50,000 feet as the module’s crew scoped out a landing site for the Apollo XI crew.
One year later, however, reality infected the comic strip in a wholly different way. Easily the sharpest pin to the balloon of my blissfully naïve appreciation of Peanuts—and the biggest wrench in the quaint little narrative I imagined I’d be putting together when my daughter asked me to “write about Snoopy”—was the discovery, thanks to David Michaelis’ nicely exhaustive biography of Schulz, that Schulz’s use of his characters as mouthpieces was occasionally far from innocent.
In 1970, with his marriage to his first wife Joyce in slow collapse, Schulz, then 47, fell in love with a 25-year-old named Tracey Claudius. He hid his newfound love and his affair in plain sight, putting his words of giddy love in Snoopy’s mouth, depicting America’s favorite dog in an ongoing series of strips rhapsodizing on his doghouse about a girl beagle he had met at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. After his wife Joyce learned about the affair through her discovery of the long distance calls Schulz had been making to Claudius, he wrote a cartoon in which Charlie Brown chastises Snoopy for being obnoxious just because he can’t run off to see “that girl beagle,” and then, as Snoopy picks up the phone, yells “AND STOP MAKING THOSE LONG-DISTANCE PHONE CALLS!”
So, wow. Or, more fittingly, “AAUGH!!” Of course, one could argue that he was doing what any great writer does, turning his own personal experience into art. But in a twisted way, Schulz was subverting the comic’s very subversion. Part of Snoopy’s magic was that his fantasy world was hidden largely from the children around him but was visible to the entire planet of the reading public. But in this particular instance, Snoopy’s fantasy world was itself a disguise, an encoded ticker tape of a real world event the audience had no idea was transpiring.
Beyond the eye-opening revelation of it all, this series of strips, written as almost brazen yet still enciphered open confessionals, made it clear that Snoopy—the beagle of unlimited fantasies and endless personas who had even beat man to the moon—was now Schulz’s main alter ego. This in turn may shine a light on his answer, in a 1972 interview in the Stanford Daily, to the now standard question “Is Charlie Brown really your alter ego?” While he had previously left the answer ambiguous, he now stated more definitively, “Not really, although it makes a good story.”
In the fall of 1999, as his cancer got worse, he finished off the last of his strips and retired. After an emotional final few months marked by a flood of adoring fan mail, he died on Saturday, February 12th 2000.
Schulz—who had been practically born under the star of comics, having been given his lifelong nickname Sparky at birth (by his mother’s brother who for whatever reason was reminded of the horse Spark Plug from the comic Barney Google) and having claimed to have settled on cartoonist as his life’s vocation by the age of six—would have his death announced to the world on Sunday, February 13th 2000 by the same newspapers carrying his very last comic strip. This final strip is a thank you and farewell letter to his fans that begins “Dear Friends,” depicted as being typed out by Snoopy on his rooftop typewriter and accompanied by some of Schulz’s favorite Peanuts moments, including Snoopy flying his Sopwith Camel. It is with a certain degree of retroactive guilt that I now realize that, consumed as I was at the time by the sensory barrage of New York City and the first bloom of romance with the woman who would soon become my wife, I barely made note of the event, like skipping the funeral of a once-beloved uncle.
America’s favorite cartoonist had enjoyed unimaginable worldly success, had loved his family and family life, and—while occasionally dismissing his life’s work as just cartoons—found justifiable pride in the 17,897 brilliant comic strips he’d created entirely by his own hand. Regardless, Schulz made no secret of the grudges he still nursed toward various elusive childhood enemies. Just two months before his death, Schulz told his friend and fellow cartoonist Lynn Johnston, who was visiting him in the hospital, about his still very real and bitterly felt desire—sixty years on—to finally get even with certain bullies from high school. Johnston said it was clear that “Nothing in all his 77 years had been resolved.”
Without getting too deeply into psychiatric analysis worth 5 cents, it’s no stretch to see Schulz’s depiction of Snoopy’s wild fantasy life as a mirror of the creative freedom and control Schulz himself felt only when drawing Peanuts, in the full liberation of his imagination. And what better way to represent this than in a blatantly unreal character, an intellectual dog who walks on two legs, dances a blissful, unfettered dance, and who can achieve anything, at least to the satisfaction of his own imagination? And what other satisfaction really matters?
It was a satisfaction he could provide for Snoopy that he could apparently never quite achieve sufficiently to put his own palpable childhood ghosts to rest. For someone like myself who emulated, and envied, his life’s work throughout my own childhood, it’s no small lesson to bear in mind.
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