Part of the genius of “Peanuts” — the reason it became a pop cultural gem — is because it’s also a Rosetta stone.
As a child, you can stare at the characters and enjoy the warm-puppy fuzziness. Grow older, though, and you can come to appreciate its more poignant, sometimes heartwrenching truths. As a four-panel mirror, it often can reflect what you want to see.
As with many of us over the years, that’s what happened recently to Daniel Leonard, a 23-year-old private school teacher in Illinois. Leonard’s personal epiphany, however, led him Friday to launch “3eanuts,” a Tumblr site that — somewhat in the spirit of “Garfield Minus Garfield” and “Calvin Minus Hobbes” — seeks to skew the reading experience by deleting a key component.
In Leonard’s case, he rubs out the fourth panel. As he writes: “Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics often conceal the existential despair of their world with a closing joke at the characters’ expense. With the last panel omitted, despair pervades all.”
Unlike those other addition-through-subtraction comic sites, though, the question that pervades “3eanuts” is: Can you really take a comic that’s already rife with existential angst and ratchet up the Beckett? When you never kiss the Little Red-Haired Girl and never kick the football and never win a game and never get a love letter, does sweet bleakness launch into unleavened gloom — or has that beagle already landed?
In other words: How do you out-despair a character like Charlie Brown when he says: “I’ve developed a new philosophy. ... I only dread one day at a time.”
Enter Leonard — a recent Wheaton College grad and student of philosophy, English and music (an academic trifecta Schulz surely could have appreciated) — who believes his comic math unleashes fully the strip’s art of darkness.
“The structure of a modern comic strip — which ‘Peanuts’ helped to create — is to set up a joke in the first panels and to offer a punchline in the final panel,” Leonard tells Comic Riffs on Monday. “Punch lines distance the reader emotionally from the foregoing action; the action, we find, is not meant to be experienced in its own right, but merely serves the punch line.
“Sometimes Schulz’s characters seem to sense this distance themselves,” Leonard continues, “looking straight ahead toward the reader in the last panel to offer some flip comment. The fourth panel often continues to heighten the despair, yet we don’t feel it that way.”
Did we mention Leonard also grades philosophy papers on the side?
For an example of what he means, Leonard points us to the “Peanuts” strip from Nov. 3, 1971. Says the “3eanuts” creator: “The final panel documents Charlie Brown’s contribution to an increasingly severe discussion of claustrophobia: ‘I get claustrophobia in the world.’ This is still felt as a joke because the final panel elegantly brings the claustrophobia to its logical end point — there can be no greater claustrophobia — and logical extremes and human suffering — when we’re distanced from it by logic — are both funny.
“Furthermore, simply by being the final panel, we expect to see a joke and read whatever’s there as if it were.”
Did we mention Leonard says he teaches technology classes when not tutoring in English?
Leonoard didn’t always see the bleakness in “Peanuts.” In elementary school, at a time when he wanted to be a cartoonist, he enjoyed comics from a sunnier perspective.
Growing up, he says, “I read ‘Calvin & Hobbes,’ ‘Garfield’ and ‘Peanuts’ avidly, and I drew constantly. Coming back to some of these early fixations as an adult reader, I was amazed by the despair and misery I had somehow missed in ‘Peanuts’ as a child.
“In my elementary school,” he continues, “inspirational posters touted Charlie Brown running toward the football as an example of tenacity in the face of adversity, but in the world of the strips, the more pressing reality was that Charlie Brown never, ever, ever kicked it; his cardinal virtue of perseverance was also a useless one.”
Leonard says he thinks “the commercialization of Peanuts” and “the strip’s own occasional sentimentality and dull puns” cause many readers to miss the darker undercurrents.
It was only a week ago, in fact, that Leonard fully felt the strip’s deeper, darker undertow.
“I was on a road trip with a friend from Philadelphia to Panama City, Fla., and back. ... We ducked into a Borders for a few hours. He read some superhero comics and I grabbed a volume of The Complete Peanuts. After showing him a few of the more depressing strips, the idea to look at only the most depressing part of each strip somehow arose, and it become apparent that this was almost unequivocally the first three panels — hence, ‘3eanuts.’ ”
Leonard admits that he has been an avid follower of “Garfield Minus Garfield,” so he was aware of the possibilities of comics subtraction.
The “3eanuts” site went live around Friday, he says, and began picking up traffic Monday — he estimated he’d received more than 60,000 hits overall.
Some people might be mystified by their site’s sudden appeal, but the analytic Leonard seems to sense the natural allure of a “heightened despair” version of “Peanuts.”
Or, in the words of a third-panel Snoopy: “I know exactly what happened.”