Thursday, October 30, 2008

Peanuts Punctuation: Prose and Poetry

One thing that interests me about comics is the way that cartoonists use punctuation, especially within word balloons. Charles Schulz is particularly interesting in that his habits seem to change throughout the 50-year run of Peanuts. I can't say that I have read all of the strips, but in skimming through over a dozen collections from different decades to prepare this post I have noticed a few recurring practices and shifts relating to the use of the ellipsis. One thing I rarely see is a sentence that ends in a single period. His common practice is to use the edge of the word balloon as a kind of replacement for it:

Here's an exception from the early 70s:

Punctuation that would be normal for so many cartoonists, is strange for Schulz.
In the early years of the strip, he used some very unusual ellipses; sentences can end with as many as seven periods:
Here's one with five:
This practice, which often appears to be a design feature -- to make a balloon more visually balanced in some way (as above) -- doesn't seem to last too long. I could not locate many ellipses that go beyond four once we leave the early to mid-50s. {The seven period one above is also especially appropriate semantically, coming after the word "wait."}

A favorite form for Schulz is the two-period ellipsis. At first I thought this might be used only when space would not allow for a standard one -- but I quickly realized this isn't the case. From 1963:
There are many such occasions when he could have fit in three. I wonder if the two-period ellipsis reads differently to him than one with three . . as a pause with a different meaning . . .
A few late-90s collections show a heavy use of the two period version, much more so than earlier strips do. Somehow this relates to the shaky line and minimalism of the later strips and may add, in a small way, to their strangeness:
It's often a slight mystery to me why he made the choice that he did; and I can't think of another mainstream comic strip artist who takes an approach to the period/ellipsis quite like Schulz's.
His work is only one example of the ways that text in comics -- and especially in word balloons -- is liberated from the kinds of 'rules' that govern prose. It's a way that comics can be aligned with poetry, which shows far more openness and freedom with punctuation. Schulz, for example, almost never ends sentences with a period, a standard stop in essays, short stories, and novels (of course, he makes extensive use of ? and !). I tend to think of balloons as more like a blank page of poetry than a blank page of prose -- a place that's fairly wide open