Good Grief

Charles Schulz

* * *

Having spent the last few weeks emptying the contents of my parents’ home, I had no time to write about art, let alone make the stuff. Still, I had a moment or two to consider art or, rather, the deleterious role sometimes played by its caretakers. Take my hometown paper, The Salt Lake Tribune, and the indignity it regularly visits upon poor, dead Charles Schulz (1922-2000).

Anyone who grew up reading Peanuts is familiar with its format: those four reliable square panels. A space-saving measure instituted to make ad-men happy, it also helped solidify the strip’s deliberate, dead-pan tempo. (It wasn’t until thirty-eight years into Peanuts that Schulz varied the format in response to the shrinking size of newspaper comics.) Working within defined physical parameters is the artist’s challenge. Schulz distilled his drawing style to fit within those allotted to him by United Features Syndicate. Is it any wonder Schulz insisted that design was paramount in effective image-making?

A recent scan of the comics page in the Tribune elicited a twinge of pain. Peanuts will be re-printed into perpetuity, but not with its integrity intact. There it was: the distinctive four-panel format stretched vertically, with slight but marked emphasis, to fit within the page. It was disconcerting to see Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder and company elongated as if they were Silly Putty. The speech bubbles were pulled like taffy; Schulz’s hand-lettering, too. Squares had been transformed into rectangles. An entire cosmos had been denuded of some, if not all, of its purity.

The distorting of Peanuts isn’t an aesthetic transgression on the scale of the trimming of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. Schulz’s originals remain intact. But we don’t care about the originals. It’s in reproduction that Schulz’s forlorn world comes to life. That his pictures–carefully constructed, lovingly delineated and, at their best, made true by Schulz’s insights into human frailty–are treated cavalierly says a lot about the fate of “hard copy” in our digital age. It says something, as well, about what the larger culture thinks of the hard-won efforts of its artists.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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