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Friday, August 21, 2015 

Kotaku writer accuses Snoopy of bringing down Peanuts

A writer for Kotaku says he blames the Beagle from Charles M. Schultz's famous comic strip for the decline in its later years. At the start, he says:
By the end of its run in 2000, Peanuts was an institution. It had become an omnipresent part of American culture, and that’s not a compliment.

The general response to reading the average Peanuts strip in the 80s and 90s was a ‘meh’ half-smile — a snicker, maybe, but never a full-blown laugh. The strip had run for over 50 years, but it was a flicker of its former flame, mostly coasting on its reputation and its endurance. Humor-wise, it was aggressively safe and took no risks, which of course, made it ripe for global, unprecedented popularity. [...]
And that's a problem? Hardly. Sure, most of the energy may have worn thin by the late 80s, but it was still well worth reading, still had some amusing moments, and keeping the laughs on the safe side, or suitable for kids/family, was far from wrong. He comes off sounding like he's not happy Peanuts made such a huge impact.

When he gets around to telling how, in his view, Peanuts had lost it by the 80s, he says:
And unfortunately, much of the blame for this can be traced back to Snoopy, the most beloved of Schulz’s creations. As the strip progressed, the beagle hogged more and more of the spotlight in increasingly negative ways. And the intelligence and darkness of the strip, which once made it so distinctive on the comics landscape, was replaced by more mainstream, cutesy humor.
And that's a problem why? I disagree with his assertion the early humor was dark. Sure, there were sad moments for Charlie Brown and company, but I never got the feeling Schultz had made that the sole status quo. It had its moments when it was brighter too. Like when Sally was born in 1959, and Charlie was overjoyed to be an older brother to a baby sister.

As for Snoopy, he mangles it all up, predictably. Snoopy didn't "hog" anything. Schultz just used and featured Snoopy more and more in the spotlight, right down to the added anthropomorphic traits like walking on his two feet, years before Jim Davis decided to do the same with Garfield.

When he points to the strip where Lucy van Pelt says, "happiness is a warm puppy", he says:
But that’s all most people know of Peanuts, and that’s a gross oversimplification of the strip. [...]
Oh, what nonsense. He makes it sound like nobody cares about the early material, and just knows everything from the later half of the run. Like nobody reads any of the archives published by Fantagraphics, where they'd get an idea of what the early strips are like. I don't agree with the following putdown either:
...near the end of the 60s and well into the 70s, the cracks started to show. Snoopy began walking on his hind legs and using his hands, and that was the beginning of the end for the strip. Perhaps he was technically still a dog, but in a very substantial way, Snoopy had overcome the principal struggle of his existence. His opposable thumbs and upward positioning meant that for all intents and purposes, he was now a human in a dog costume. One of his new roleplays was to be different Joes — Joe Cool, Joe Skateboard, etc.

None of this had any greater, narrative payoff, or ended with Snoopy realizing he was a dog. It was always a pure visual gag, and it lacked the subtlety, pain, and vision that had previously been the strip’s trademark. In short, there was no balance. [...]
Nuh-uh. I don't agree at all. Did the tone and approach change over time? Sure. But it never looked to me like Snoopy didn't know he was a dog. It was more like he realized he was a canine, but was still able to engage in the kind of activities normal humans could. Plus, he couldn't and never talked. It was the same with Garfield in later years. I remember a panel from 1980 where initially, Davis had the now famous feline try walking on his hind legs. He tap-danced, reached the table top, and drop-kicked Odie. Until Jon Arbuckle came by and told him cats can't walk on their hind feet, and he fell flat on his face. But this approach was soon abandoned in 1984 to make Garfield more anthropomorphic, and even before that, he was using his front paws to pick up and hold certain items. That Davis already wrote in this kind of surreal behavior clearly was what made him decide go all the way, and that's not the reason why Garfield ever lost any of its charm in later decades.

And if Schultz depicted Snoopy early on trying to be something he supposedly wasn't before the shift in tone, then that's just how he must've been encouraged to take the next big step towards additional cartooniness. Which didn't make Snoopy any less of a dog, of course. If it had, he would've become a talking dog, and not just thinking with balloons.
Snoopy even passed for a human in many circumstances — Peppermint Patty referred to him as the “funny-looking kid with a big nose,” and took him to her school dance. And thus, the ‘humanizing’ of Snoopy also meant that the real kids were used less and less. Snoopy filled their roles, and eventually, many human characters were discarded altogether. By the 80s, Shermy and Patty, who started the strip with Charlie Brown and Snoopy in 1952, were gone, or reduced to brief cameos. Violet and her high bred snobbery were gone. Frieda, who used to challenge Snoopy more than any of the other characters, was also gone. Instead, we got more strips of Snoopy in cute costumes.
Umm, no, he's missing the joke as much as the point. It was supposed to be funny how Peppermint and others like her wasn't immediately aware in all instances that Snoopy was a dog. Not to mention the humor to be found in an anthropomorph mingling with real humans, acting like it was one too. He also doesn't seem to recall that Snoopy sometimes thought of Charlie as the "round-headed kid", even though some of the other cast members had pretty round looking heads too.

And he's wrong about Snoopy pushing out some of the early cast members like Patty, Shermy and Violet. They just got overtaken in popularity by their successors. Violet was surpassed early by Lucy, who was given a more boisterous personality, and all 3 of them were finally surpassed for real by the addition of Peppermint Patty, Franklin and Marcie. They're the ones who gained wider recognition, and that's because Schultz was putting so much emphasis on building up a group of characters who came from a different neighborhood a short distance away from Charlie's. Now to be fair, maybe Schultz made a mistake of not trying to flesh out Patty and Shermy a bit more than he ever did. But that's why the writer of this piece should've taken the time to lament that Schultz never took up what could've been a better challenge. Still, Patty, Shermy and Violet didn't fade away entirely. They still made appearances in several animated specials in later decades, so it's not like Schultz and Bill Melendez didn't have a use for them.
[...] And as for Woodstock, he did the strip no favors either. Here, we had a character who didn’t use words at all, and primarily existed just to be cute. It broke the chemistry of the main cast, because now, Snoopy wasn’t forced to interact with the kids; he could just adventure with the birds and disappear into his own little world. There was a defined split between the Snoopy strips and the human strips, and both suffered as a result.
Yawn. Snoopy and Woodstock never parted ways with the human cast entirely. Plus, there was one strip where Woodstock complained (in wordless pantomime, of course) to Snoopy that he was feeling cold at night in his nest, so Snoopy joked that he could "put booties on your feeties or line your nest with a warm pizza!" But Woodstock was offended by his joke and made it clear by kicking him off the top of his doghouse (with the sound effect word of "BOOT!") So what's that about Woodstock just existing to look "cute" again? The little bird's friendship didn't come that cheap. Also, there were still some jokes to come about Pig-Pen, the boy who had a dust cloud following him around. He was one early cast addition who lasted a long time too.

And towards the end, when the writer points to the new cartoon movie set to debut in November, he says:
You can see Violet, Patty, and Frieda, right in the front rows. You can even see the Little Red-Haired Girl, and of course, she’s covering her face. But we’re a long way from the 1960s, and most people don’t even remember what the strip used to be like before Snoopy hijacked it.
And he doesn't remember there's been archives of the whole run put out by Fantagraphics for a while now. Nor does he understand Snoopy's an imaginary canine, and that he can't "hijack". If he's really got an issue with how much Snoopy was put to use, any blame has to be laid at the feet of Schultz, who, in more logical terms, decided to concentrate more on gags spotlighting the Beagle than some of the other cast. The quality of jokes and other subjects in Peanuts may have declined over time. But it's not too much Snoopy that caused it, IMO.

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