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i am not a stuffed tiger.

clipping (1)

I'm just getting to last week's New Yorker (the cartoon issue). This, from "The Comfort Zone: Growing up with Charlie Brown" by Jonathan Franzen stood out:
I felt guilty about neglecting the stiff-limbed, scratchy-pelted Mr. Bear, who had no voice and didn't mix well with my other stuffed animals. . . . We laugh at dachshunds for humping our legs, but our own species is even more self-centered in its imaginings. There's no object so Other that it can't be anthropomorphized and shanghaied into conversation with us. Some objects are more amenable than others, however. The trouble with Mr. Bear was that he was more realistically bearlike than the other animals. He had a distinct, stern, feral persona; unlike our faceless washcloths, he was assertively Other. It was no wonder I couldn't speak through him. An old shoe is easier to invest with comic personality than is, say, a photograph of Cary Grant. The blanker the slate, the more easily we can fill it with our own image.

Our visual cortexes are wired to quickly recognize faces and then quickly subtract massive amounts of detail from them, zeroing in on their essential message: Is this person happy? Angry? Fearful? Individual faces may vary greatly, but a smirk on one is a lot like a smirk on another. Smirks are conceptual, not pictorial. Our brains are like cartoonists-and cartoonists are like our brains, simplifying and exaggerating, subordinating facial detail to abstract comic concepts.
The rest of the essay mixes Franzen's personal family history with Shultz's and developments and motivations for Peanuts. It's a really good read if you can find it at your local library or at a untimely newsstand, and helped me to understand why people are so fond of the comic strip. I got on board way too late to be a primary fan, but Franzen's essay is convincing (at least, regarding the early decades of the series).

Comments

I never understood my parent's affinity for the strip, or why they wanted me to dress up as Charlie Brown for Halloween when I was much younger (we even made a paper maché head). This essay filled in many of the blank spots for me. I too didn't start reading comics until Peanuts was already on the downward slope. That there once was a time when that little bird Dagwood wasn't around was complete news to me.
A paper maché Charlie Brown head! Your parents were dedicated.

I feel like I should read the old strips that have been reprinted by Fantagraphics, but I get the sense (at least from this essay), that true appreciation may have required being there at the time.