Sunday, February 1, 2009

Peanuts Time


The above strip belongs to a curious -- to me at least -- subset of Peanuts strips. The majority of Schulz’s comics take place at a single location: a stonewall, living room, baseball diamond. . . . But some, like this one, have a different background for every panel.

This creates an interpretive quandary. Typically we interpret the approximate duration of a given comic sequence by comparing it to reality: roughly how long, for example, would a cartoon conversation/monologue take if it occurred in the real world? The flow of the dialogue above suggests a fairly quick passage of time. Yet the shifting locations can imply something very different: Charlie Brown takes long pauses between each line of dialogue as he moves to a new 'location.' (Why do comic book characters talk to themselves far more so than most of us do?) Or else Schulz leaves much of Charlie Brown’s in-between-panel dialogue un-narrated. It’s interesting to imagine him walking from place to place -- from panel to panel -- meditating on these ideas about punishment and the inevitability of his own disciplining. (In so many strips the only actions are walking and/or talking -- and the walking here is implied, not shown.)

We could also consider the backgrounds as decorative; they do not necessarily imply any real time gaps between panels. They are a way for Schulz to create visual interest (and to keep himself interested in the drawing) when the gag doesn’t depend on the images in the way that other Peanuts strips do. When I read strips like the above with students and ask them about time duration, they almost always do not consider the backgrounds; if they notice them at all on a first reading, they read them as decoration with no narrative implications. In a sense, they pay attention to the words and not the pictures. And this approach is fine; it can be justified by the nature of this monologue (or in some of the strips below, the conversation); each of Charlie Brown’s observations follows quickly from the one before it.

I think this kind of strip, which is more prevalent in the earlier decades of Peanuts, shows that a form of reading that emphasizes a fairly literal connection between time in comics and time in the real world overlooks some of what makes comics strange. Time in a seemingly simply strip like this one can be meaningfully interpreted in two contradictory ways, both of which make equal sense. Sometimes a conversation in a film will employ a similar series of background shifts, but the ‘weight of reality’ pushes us toward an interpretation that acknowledges some amount of un-narrated time; after all, it takes people time to move from place to place. But cartoon characters can do whatever they, and perhaps their authors, want.

The third panel above does something that's unusual for Schulz -- it's rare that the main characters occupy such a small portion of the panel.

This pulling back of the 'camera' highlights the shift in tone; here Charlie Brown gets philosophical and perhaps even somber, framed by a dense (for Peanuts at least) natural backdrop. Yet in the last panel he looks happy that he has adopted an attitude that might appear pessimistic to us: we can only briefly delay the realization that things are rotten, tricking ourselves into a few moments of joy. (Or is this attitude actually optimistic?) In this panel, the particular background setting selected for this dialogue seems to have a meaning that is neither strictly narrative nor decorative; rather it symbolically amplifies the emotional content of the dialogue. {It's a haunting image, yet it's easy to overlook - we have been trained to read comic strips so quickly.}

Here are three more strips; the first uses shifting backgrounds, the others don't (at first, the third might seem to, but each panel is connected by the same sloping ground in the background).