Oh boy, Charlie Brown: Matt Groening and Jonathan Franzen pay tribute to Peanuts

They seem like simple drawings, but there is a great depth to the Peanuts strips. Lifelong fans Matt Groening and Jonathan Franzen pay tribute

Matt Groening

A masterpiece of joy and heartbreak

No one needs any formal introduction to Peanuts. From our infancies we've had our chins wiped with official Snoopy bibs and been swaddled in unofficial security blankets. Over the decades we've bought, received, worn, played with and stared at an endless series of Peanuts books, greeting cards, sweatshirts, shoestrings, coin banks, figurines, adverts and TV shows. (Lest you think this is a knock, remember I'm the Simpsons guy, and we've allowed Bart asthma inhaler holders and Duff Beer fishing lures.) But clear away the insurance commercials, billboards, dolls, apparel, stickers, soap dishes and the rest, and we're left with the real thing: the Peanuts comic strip itself, Charles Schulz's brilliant, angst-ridden, truly funny, 50-year-long masterpiece of joy and heartbreak.

I dug Peanuts from the time I could read, and as a kid spent way too many nights under the covers with a torch, poring through such nifty anthologies as You're Out Of Your Mind, Charlie Brown!, Who Do You Think You Are, Charlie Brown? and You Can't Win, Charlie Brown.

I was excited by the casual cruelty and offhand humiliations at the heart of the strip. Peanuts seemed emotionally real (and unlike anything else). Occasional sadness comes up (such as Charlie Brown's complaints that no one likes him, and Patty's un-sympathetic explanations of why this is so), but this is offset by a friendly drawing style, great jokes and a sense of childhood exuberance that makes the discouragements of life seem a worthy price to pay.

Back then, it seemed that everywhere you went you were guaranteed to find Peanuts books you'd never seen just lying around, with such compelling titles as I Need All The Friends I Can Get, Happiness Is A Sad Song and You've Had It, Charlie Brown.

My grade-school buddies and I constantly attempted to draw our cartoon favourites, from Popeye to Batman, Sad Sack to Huckleberry Hound. We especially loved copying the Peanuts kids, because they seemed simple enough at first glance. But those giant heads and dots for eyes were trickier than they looked. Our Charlie Browns weren't sweet and impassive. In our wobbly hands, Charlie Brown's big, round head turned into a macrocephalic oval, his eye dots drifted apart, and his body got fatter and more squished. No matter how much we practised, our Charlie Browns looked like freaks.

Gradually my friends grew up and turned to other pursuits, while I never matured and kept cartooning to this day. Eventually my crude little Charlie Brown transformed into my crude little Akbar and Jeff, the erstwhile stars of my weekly comic strip, Life In Hell.

I'm struck by just how rich and consistent the world was that Schulz created. I like that Peanuts doesn't contrast the kids' piddly concerns with those of adults. I like that, from the beginning, grown-ups didn't exist, except as off-stage voices (usually Lucy and Linus's mother). And I like the unpredictability of the jokes: some carry on the traditions of classic American comic strips, with such impossible sight gags as Charlie Brown flying a kite with a ship's anchor chain or Snoopy retrieving an unpopped soap bubble. Other strips offer a more open-ended, emotional outburst. Throughout the second half of 1955, Schulz's funny but unnerving punchline consists of an agitated Linus shouting: "Five hundred years from now, who'll know the difference?"

The kids are all quite young in the early strips. Four-year-old Lucy ("the world's number one fussbudget") still sleeps in a cot, while her tormented yet optimistic brother, Linus, can't yet walk - he crawl-wobbles through the air - but compensates by building gigantic sandcastles and inflating square balloons. Characters who later disappear, including Patty, Shermy, Violet and the loud-talking Charlotte Braun (who looks like Charlie Brown with a scribble for hair), are quite vigorously on the scene. "Pig-Pen" (I love the quote marks around his name) figures in a number of strips. And Snoopy's fantasy life is just beginning.

He tries being a giraffe, kangaroo, alligator, python, bird and lion, and visually mimics the profiles of a pelican, Lucy, Violet, a moose and Beethoven. (I especially love Snoopy's Mickey Mouse pose, and Charlie Brown's reaction: "Frightening, isn't it?")

I got to meet Schulz once, in May 1998. I was holed up on the Fox lot in Century City, working on some Simpsons nonsense, when I received word that the great man was eating lunch nearby. I dropped everything and raced across town, stumbling into the restaurant where the affable Schulz held court before a group of fans and friends. I told him of my all-time favourite Peanuts comic strip, which I hadn't seen in 40 years. The strip shows Lucy methodically making a series of tiny snowmen, then stomping on them, as Charlie Brown looks on. Lucy explains matter-of-factly: "I'm torn between the desire to create and the desire to destroy."

"Thank you for that strip," I said. "In one sentence you summed up my life."

Schulz smiled politely. Do you hear me? He smiled politely! I made Charles Schulz smile politely! I just now realise I'm more like Charlie Brown than I've ever admitted to myself. ·

Jonathan Franzen

A gift from the heart

Was Charles Schulz's comic genius the product of his psychic wounds? Certainly the Schulz depicted in Rheta Grimsley Johnson's authorised biography, Good Grief (1989), was a mass of resentments and phobias that seemed attributable to emotional traumas in his youth: his unpopularity at school, his skinniness and pimples, the rejection of his drawings by his high-school year book, the death of his mother on the eve of his induction into the army, the rejection of his marriage proposal by the real little red-haired girl (Donna Mae Johnson), and so on. The man who became the best-loved artist on the planet was increasingly prone to attacks of depression and bitter loneliness. ('Just the mention of a hotel makes me turn cold,' he told Grimsley.) Although he left his native Minnesota, he replicated its comforts in California, building an ice rink whose snack bar was called The Warm Puppy. By the 70s, he was reluctant even to get on an aeroplane unless someone from his family was with him. Here - the armchair psychologist might think - was a classic instance of the pathology that produces great art: wounded by adolescent traumas, our hero took permanent refuge in the childhood world of Peanuts.

But what if Schulz had become a toy salesman rather than an artist? Would he have lived such a withdrawn and emotionally turbulent life? I suspect not. I suspect that Schulz the toy salesman would have gutsed his way through a normal life the same way he'd gutsed out his military service. He'd have done whatever it took to support his family - begged a Valium prescription from his doctor, had a few drinks at the hotel bar.

Schulz wasn't an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life - to grind out a strip every day for 50 years; to pay the steep psychic price for this - is the opposite of damaged. It's the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason Schulz's early sorrows look like 'sources' of his brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humour in them. Almost every young person experiences sorrows. What's distinctive about Schulz's childhood is not his suffering, but the fact that he loved comics, had a gift for drawing and was the only child of good parents.

This is not to say that the depressive, failure-ridden Charlie Brown, the selfish and sadistic Lucy, the philosophising oddball Linus and the obsessive Schroeder (whose Beethoven-sized ambitions are realised on a one-octave toy piano) aren't all avatars of Schulz. But his true alter ego is clearly Snoopy: the protean trickster whose freedom is founded on his confidence that he's lovable at heart, the quick-change artist who, for the sheer joy of it, can become a helicopter or a hockey player or Head Beagle, and then, in a flash, before his virtuosity has a chance to alienate or diminish you, be the eager little dog who just wants dinner.

One long-running gag in the Peanuts strips is Charlie Brown's yearly failure to get any valentines. In Peanuts, A Golden Celebration, published shortly before his death, Schulz told a valentines story from his own childhood. When he was in first grade, his mother helped him get valentines for everybody in his class, so that nobody would be offended by not getting one; but he felt too shy to put them in the box at the front of the classroom, so he took them all home again to his mother. At first glance, the story recalls a strip in which Charlie Brown peers over a fence at a swimming pool full of happy kids, then he goes home and sits by himself in a bucket of water. But Schulz, unlike Charlie Brown, had a mother on duty - a mother to whom he chose to give his whole basket of valentines.

A child scarred by a failure to get valentines would probably not grow up to draw lovable strips about the pain of never getting valentines. (A child like that - one thinks of R Crumb - might draw a valentine box that morphs into a female body part that devours his valentines and then him, too.) Beneath the conventional narrative of Schulz's childhood failures is the story of a happy young man oversupplied with parental love. His family's closeness gave him strength; its closedness probably helped estrange him from the world. Love feeding art feeding estrangement feeding forgiveness: the gifts Schulz was given became his gift to us.

• These are edited extracts from The Complete Peanuts 1955 To 1956, by Charles M Schulz, introduced by Matt Groening, and The Complete Peanuts 1957 To 1958, by Charles M Schulz, introduced by Jonathan Franzen, published next week by Canongate at £15.

The GuardianTramp

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