Thursday, 21 July 2011

Good Grief, Charlie Brown: Existential Despair and 3eanuts

As stated in the brief bio on his website, Daniel Leonard is a 23-year-old teacher, writer, and musician who lives in Wheaton, Illinois. He’s also the man responsible for 3eanuts, a daily webcomic whose raison d’etre is devastatingly simple: vintage Peanuts cartoon strips are presented without their fourth panel, and all the latent anguish is piled up without ever finding the release of a punchline. Each story just hangs there in the air, a mournful setup that leaves only a desperate ennui. Charles Schulz’s characters would go on to get submerged beneath a wave of commercialism and merchandising, so it’s easy to forget just how poignant many of those early strips really were. The 3eanuts re-edit has already attracted a profile on the Time website and has built up a following of thousands since launching in March this year. I emailed Leonard a few questions about his venture:

Which of the 3eanuts strips are you most proud of?

In terms of the 3eanuts strips I like best overall, it's hard not to tear up when Peppermint Patty realizes she is unlovable. The answer we have to give is that she's wrong - of course she's lovable to someone! - but we empathize with how real this idea seems to her at the time and how unbearable it can be for us to face a new day knowing we may suffer further sadness and rejection. We also know the strength we discover within ourselves to do so anyway, day after day.

Another great 3eanuts strip is Snoopy's grim typewritten list of "Things I've Learned After It was Too late" [sic]. He stops writing after entry 1: "A whole stack of memories will never equal one little hope." One cannot manufacture hope through persistence; if hope arrives, it does so on its own. This is either freeing or horrifying.

What's your attitude to the existing Peanuts strips?

Peanuts was groundbreaking in many ways. If you look closely, the kernels of successors like Calvin and Hobbes are there: Linus's extravagant snowmen and philosophical rants, Sally's defiance of scholastic authority, Snoopy's alter egos. To see the bleak core of Peanuts, look no further than the wavy-lined minimalism of the visual style.

The chief criticism leveraged against Peanuts is that it repeated itself for the last three or four decades of its tenure. Or, worse, that it went soft. I'm of a mind that Schulz simply found what he was looking for, and the ideal of constant artistic reinvention is simply unattainable. He developed some fertile archetypal situations and tropes - the baseball game, Lucy and Schroeder at the piano, Charlie waiting for Valentines, etc., etc. - and varied them endlessly. It's harder than it looks to write 100 jokes with the same premise, and his care and concern for the characters remained infectious to the end.

Is your work a tribute created out of love?

3eanuts is very much a loving tribute to Schulz's work. I aim to clue people in to what Peanuts already does on its own, if read aright: it confronts us with life's worst and helps us to cope. To be honest, I'm torn as to whether the original punchlines merely divert our attention from the preceding misery or whether they accomplish victories over it. I guess I'd say some strips are more successful than others. 3eanuts presents the same anguish as the originals, but without any attempt at resolution; the angst itself becomes darkly humorous. This offers us a different and maybe more contemporary way of coping, involving catharsis (the characters face life on our behalf) but also irony (we know we aren't fit to face life, but we know this communally). This method suggests itself because of the "setup, setup, setup, gag" (1, 2, 3, punch) joke structure that Schulz pioneered in the visual medium. We want to feel a modicum of control over life's vicissitudes, and we feel that these are "captured" by Schulz's first three panels in important ways.

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