Charlie Brown is arguably one of the most recognizable fictional characters of all time—he and the rest of the Peanuts gang are larger than life.
But you may be surprised to learn that in the first Peanuts strips, published in 1950, Charlie Brown was little more than a prototype of his future self. He was more like a stock character than the unmistakable loser we all know and love. And beyond Charlie Brown almost every other piece of Peanuts was missing in these first strips. There was no Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, or Pig-Pen. The other starting main characters from the early 1950s strips–Shermy and Patty–would eventually be scrapped to make room for the future stars.
Above is the very first strip of Peanuts ever published, October 2, 1950.
Although most of what we’ve come to know as Peanuts doesn’t appear in Schulz’s work until the 1960s, the original germ of what the character of Charlie Brown would become is present in this very first panel. Of all that’s absent, it’s what’s present that is most striking. There is Charlie Brown the likable loser:
Good ol’ Charlie Brown.
How I hate him!
I like this first strip and the beginning era of Peanuts–the early 1950s–because, all throughout this period, you can see that Schulz is still working. I think that’s why the first panel is two other characters looking at and commenting on Charlie Brown. It’s a way of acting out Schulz’s own task, which was to see and define a character people would be interested in. He was still trying to see Charlie Brown. He didn’t have a fully formed character to begin with. He just began and worked it out as he went along. It took him some time but he eventually got it. Below is a much more recognizable strip which was published January 1957.
That’s more like it.
What a great reminder for the creative person. You don’t need to have everything all worked out. What you need is one good idea to build on.
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IF THE SIGNIFICANCE OF Mr. Fox’s journey is exhumed during his confrontation with the wolf, everything leading up to it takes on a relatable form. The opening scene particularly becomes more than just a piece of information that moves the story along:
This scene is the prototypical nightmare for any modern person fearing the trappings of a traditional family life, so the mythos of hyper-individualism goes: freedom dies the moment you become responsible for someone else’s wellbeing, and thus happiness dies along with it. Mr. Fox feels this as he insincerely smiles—knowing the outward role he is supposed to be playing while being inwardly conflicted. Felicity Fox, on the other hand, upon asking him to find a ‘new line of work,’ is established as the moral center of the story: the embodiment of the expectations Mr. Fox will try to negotiate his way around.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-animation movie with fox puppets, is one of the most sophisticated critiques of this kind of modern day mythologizing I’ve ever seen; it does this by avoiding easy answers. Like Mr. Fox, we are all caught somewhere between the competing realizations of our obligations to others vs. individual freedom. One story tells us that in order to be happy we need to settle down into a family collective and subjugate our needs and wants to the group. The other says that this traditional model has largely failed and that in order to truly be happy we must follow our internal drives for autonomy and self-sufficiency. Each story, in its critique of the other, throws a little of the baby out with the bathwater, eschewing some element of human complexity.
Mr. Fox therefore has an identity crises which leads him to a path not unfamiliar to many of us. He does what he has to do in secret while playing a different role in public. He thinks this won’t have any effect on those he loves:
But of course it does have an effect.
In fact before Mr. Fox even commits any secret acts of‘pure animal craziness,’ his son Ash is already aware of his father’s resentment towards him:
How many children throughout history have been subject to their parents’ misappropriation of attention and significance? This is the deeply ingrained story of what happens when a culture cannot make up its mind about what it thinks it should be. When we (as well-meaning individuals) cherry pick and otherwise ignore incompatibilities between cultural narratives that are irreconcilable, schisms develop within us overtime which effect how we relate to others and especially those closest to us.
THESE ARE ALL VERY WEIGHTY and significant ideas but the masterstroke of Fantastic Mr. Fox is in how it uniquely handles these. Rather than becoming overly somber at its own realizations, Fantastic Mr. Fox insists on being funny. This, in my opinion, is the best way to explore tough and self-implicating problems. We can’t take ourselves too seriously or we sort of lose the point.
One of the ways Wes Anderson pulls this off is by poking fun at ways in which human civilization deals with its own inconsistencies, reinterpreting them for the animal world. My favorite example of this is the Whack Bat scene:
Why are the rules for Whack Bat so complex?
And why is it funny?
This is an expression of how culturally central sports are, and how at the same time, they are completely arbitrary systems of rules that govern human movement for the sake of entertainment and ritualistic reenactment of earlier more brutal times, when human strength and speed were important for sustenance and not sport. Ash wants to be an athlete because his dad was an athlete. This is illustrative of the very conflict within Mr. Fox: sports are a remnant of how the primal life has be tempered and even made beautiful through civilized cooperation. Imagining the minutia of Whack Back reminds us just how ridiculous our obsessions with sports are. It’s been estimated that the entire sports industry, combining all ticket sales, merchandising revenue, and sponsorships will amount to 73.5 billion dollars by the year 2019. This is hilarious. The agonizing attention which is paid to the smallest details of statistics, analysis, and reportage of games, both professional and collegiate, is a reminder of how conflicted we are about the obsolescence of our own bodies. Ash’s particular desire to be an athlete is also a function of trying to gain his father’s approval.
THIS IS JUST ONE example of the innumerable ways Fantastic Mr. Fox gives space for clever humor.
Without spoiling the ending, it’s safe to say that Mr. Fox does accomplish certain resolutions to his problem of the divided self.
In the Boggis, Bunce, & Bean Supermarket, under fluorescent lights, amidst aisles of groceries, Mr. Fox gives a concluding speech in elegy to our modern day situation; caught between our primal instincts and the world made for us by society:
They say our tree may never grow back, but one day something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose, and these giblets come from artificial squab, and even these apples look fake, but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes to our survival.