Did Snoopy Kill Peanuts?

A while back, my mom shared a Kotaku article to my Facebook wall with the headline “How Snoopy Killed Peanuts,” seeking my comment on it. The comment kind of took on a life of its own—it ended up as an 814-word, three-paragraph plus bracketed intro and conclusion “commentstrasity” of the sort that could easily stand as a blog post in and of itself. I have done my best to preserve the comment’s original form and thrust here, only really formatting, correcting typos, adding footnotes, and going into greater depth where needed. I’ve also got the original .txt on my hard drive if anyone’s curious.

I can’t for-sure say why Peanuts got lighter over the years—but I think it’s an overstatement to claim Snoopy is singlehandedly responsible for the downfall of the strip. I think Wong is confusing a symptom of a problem with its cause and especially overlooking the role merchandising played. In the last half of its existence—let’s say post-1970, which doesn’t exactly halve but it’s close enough for government work and is a good demarcation, since the observable changes in the strip’s tone do seem to hit in the early ’70s—Peanuts was a major commercial concern. Not that it hadn’t been a commercial thing from 1950-1969—almost as soon as Peanuts got any traction, licensing was a major component of its success, including Ford advertising, collected editions, comic books, etc. In the ’60s, this really took hold—toys, textiles, and of course the TV specials. Yet Schulz was able to keep the strip fairly dark. I don’t know if I fully agree that Late Peanuts was entirely light-n-fluffy all the time—it never devolved into Garfield or, God help us, Love Is. But it’s undeniable that Late Peanuts is lighter than Early Peanuts.

What does Snoopy have to do with any of this? Well, Charlie Brown was undeniably the centre of the strip all through the run—Schulz initially wanted to call it “Good Old Charlie Brown” and for years the Sunday strips were branded “Peanuts featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown.” And he’s definitely a good protagonist. But for all that he’s a sympathetic character, he’s an exceptionally unappealing protagonist from a marketing standpoint: Depression, anxiety, loneliness, and fear of rejection are all things people deal with, but they don’t translate especially well to plushes or T-shirts. Snoopy, on the other hand, has a lot going for him marketing-wise. He’s cute, which is always good. He’s a dog, and everyone loves dogs. He has a rich fantasy life, which translates into more potential products, and (at least in the specials), he’s a gifted physical comedian. Snoopy hangs out with a diverse cast–not just the gang but also the birds, which again means more potential products. It’s kind of brilliant, actually how well Snoopy retrofits into a merchandising cash cow—er, cash beagle.

Mind you, the merchandising angle is only one possible explanation. In his Schulz bio, which I’ve got knocking around somewhere, David Michaelis credits/blames the influence of Schulz’s second wife; according to this reading, the happiness Sparky experienced during the last thirty years of his life undermined the dark outlook that made Peanuts so successful. I don’t fully buy into it myself.

I’ve got another theory that’s more interesting, at least to me. It could be that Schulz got old and became an elder statesman of cartooning; by about 1970, the first generation of cartoonists to grow up on Schulz and Peanuts and the post-war strips was coming of age. And they looked up to Sparky as their hero—idol might be a more accurate word, if more ironic given how famously modest Sparky was. And Schulz was human; he couldn’t have helped but have felt the gaze of the world upon him as he aged, as he became the figurehead of an industry. It’s possible that he became more conservative, and, like a driver overcorrecting on an icy road, he took the strip into a ditch. A nice ditch, to be sure, but a ditch nonetheless.

To pin the blame on Snoopy seems a bit extreme; he’s more of a convenient scape-beagle than the actual culprit. I suspect Wong is trying to get a rise out of the reader as much as he is sincerely arguing Snoopy ruined Peanuts. After all, Snoopy’s far and away the most popular and beloved Peanuts character; people regularly assume the strip’s named after him, the URL of the official Peanuts website was Snoopy-dot-com for years [2], and if you say Snoopy “killed” Peanuts, you’re gonna raise some eyebrows.

[1] It seems to me that Michaelis inserts a misogynistic streak to the narrative of Schulz’s life that doesn’t necessarily exist–the mother, inspiring yet belittling her son, the first wife, who inspired Schulz to greatness yet undermined him at every opportunity, the Little Red-Haired Girl, the second wife, with whom Schulz knew happiness yet produced mediocrity.
[2] The Japanese-language site is Snoopy-dot-co-dot-jp. They love Snoopy, Japan.

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About docmagnus

I write things and draw things. Sometimes I do both at the same time. Sometimes I put what I wrote and drew on the Internet for people to see.

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