How Charles Schulz revolutionized cartooning
Two notable figures in pop culture died this past Saturday: Charles Schulz, creator of the comic-strip ”Peanuts,” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, creator of ”I Put a Spell on You.”
Of the two, Schulz, who was 77 and fighting colon cancer, is obviously the bigger cultural deal. ”Peanuts” was one of the most influential comic strips in the history of the medium, and so much a part of our lives that it’s difficult to realize how odd and revolutionary it was when it debuted a half-century ago. Until ”Peanuts,” the comics page in your newspaper was filled with either vividly detailed, ongoing-story line adventure strips such as ”Prince Valiant” and ”Little Orphan Annie,” or ”gag” strips with iconic, little-changing characters, such as ”Blondie” or ”Dennis the Menace.”
Schulz came along and introduced a strip drawn in a stark, minimalist style – Charlie Brown’s head was little more than a round circle with a few dots and squiggles – but featured content that would not have been out of place in an existentialist tract. Charlie Brown, ”crabby” Lucy Van Pelt, morose artiste Schroeder – all were characters who took life hard, who battled against derision and misunderstanding from the kids all around them. Brown and his fellow Peanuts were essentially despairing people who made jokes about themselves, or endured jokes made about them.
Schulz, with his refusal to punctuate most of his punchlines with exclamation points and often lowered the volume on the comics page to a whimpering murmur, brought moodiness to his medium. The exception to this rule was Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy, in my view the character that led to Schulz’s weakest, most annoying work. Chipper, self-centered, and the inspiration for dull spin-off characters such as his moustached brother, Spike, Snoopy was at once Schulz’s cash cow (the dog drove the strip’s merchandising empire) and his most impersonal creation.
Contrast Schulz’s multimedia empire of success with the proscribed career of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who died of an aneurysm at age 70. Hawkins had exactly one big hit – ”I Put a Spell on You.” Cut in 1956 after a drunken recording session, the song is a wild, unprecedented shock, and it never even cracked the pop Top 40. But listen to it in 2000, and it still exerts a pull. At once ludicrous, scarifying, and inexplicable, it is music to, among other things, petrify the sort of children who inhabited ”Peanuts” – ”I Put a Spell on You” would have driven the Beethoven-playing Schroeder screaming to his never-seen mom and dad.
I’m not saying Hawkins was a better artist than Schulz – I respect the cultural outreach that the cartoonist achieved and value at least the first two decades of his output, before Snoopy and his whimsy overran the strip. But I’d put ”I Put a Spell on You” up against any song rock & roll has yielded and say that it holds it own. The Notorious B.I.G. sampled ”Spell” on his 1997 song ”Kick In the Door,” which appeared on B.I.G.’s ”Life After Death” CD. If any song can RAISE the dead, it’s Hawkins’ great voodoo wail from the grave.