I just finished reading a thick, informative, and at times painful biography of Charles Schulz. As a kid, of course, I grew up with the Peanuts gang; well, they didn’t grow up, but as I was growing up, they were always there. I remember once a teacher asked me why they were so popular. He said, I don’t find them funny at all. I said, they’re not funny, but they’re… good reading, I guess.
My guess is, people who found Peanuts funny were mostly laughing at Snoopy, and his remarkable flights of imagination. Either that, or they had never felt like good ol’ Charlie Brown. Good reading? Good grief!
And where does that archetypical Charlie Brown expression come from, anyway? It’s hard to imagine grief ever being good. But reading Schulz’s biography I almost got the impression he was making it so, as best he could, at least. The story of his life and art was of channeling grief – along with anxiety, depression, shyness, and phobia – into the characters of a little world he could control.
Near the end of the book, Schulz’ friendship with Lynne Johnston, creator of For Better or for Worse, is discussed at length. Johnston, the brilliant Canadian cartoonist, was a huge fan of “Sparky” Schulz, but she went somewhere he never dared go: she allowed her characters to age in real time. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that the fictional Pattersons were as real and as close as family friends from the old home town.
Schulz and Johnston were close, but they had one big disagreement: Schulz, who had daily tortured his characters with all kinds of bullying, confusion, and existential trauma, would never have killed one off. Johnston bravely proceeded down that most difficult of roads, first and perhaps most memorably, with the heroic death of the beloved family dog, Farley. Schulz, it seems, never quite forgave her for it.
Reading about Schulz’s anger over Farley’s death, I remembered the discussion of that poignant sequence in Johnston’s biography on Life and Times. Having drifted away from newspapers over the years, I’d missed the sequence when it ran back in the nineties, though I knew Farley had died. That’s just how it is, when you grow up and lose touch.
Yesterday, I happened to pick up a newspaper, just a day after closing the Schulz biography. Johnston, semi-retired, is now publishing reruns of classic strips. The strip that day? The Patterson kids, trying to convince their mom to let them keep a zippy little puppy with a face as familiar as fifteen years of morning comics.
I’ll be honest – I choked right up in the middle of my continental breakfast at a hotel in Montreal. Farley, as a puppy? Michael and Elizabeth, just little kids, April not yet born… If For Better or For Worse were to re-runs in real-time, I’d be fifty-five when Farley met his end once more.
And you know what I thought? I can’t do it. Not again! I know there’d be a lot of laughs along the way, but I know how this story ends: