by Robert Shearman
by Robert Shearman
Snoopy is dead. They found his body lying on top of his kennel, wearing those World War I fighter pilot goggles he liked, and there must have been a foot of snow on him. Charlie Brown told the reporters, “At first I just thought it was one of his gags. That up out of the mound of snow would float a thought bubble with a punchline in it.” He went on to admit that he hadn’t cleared the snow off the body for hours, just in case he did something to throw the comic timing. But Snoopy was dead, he was frozen stiff, it’s a cold winter and the beagle was really very old. The doctors say it might have been hypothermia, it might have been suffocation, he might even have drowned if enough snow had got into his mouth and melted. Charlie Brown is distraught. “I can’t help but think I might be partially responsible.” But no one blames Charlie Brown, we all know what Snoopy was like, you couldn’t tell Snoopy anything, Snoopy was his own worst enemy.
Everyone’s being nice to Charlie Brown. No one’s called him a blockhead for days. Lucy Van Pelt has offered him free consultations at her psychiatry booth, and the kite-eating tree has passed on its condolences. And all the kids at school, the ones who never get a line to say or a joke of their own, all of them have been passing on their sympathies. You admit, you immediately saw it as an opportunity. That if you went up to Charlie Brown and said something suitably witty, maybe it’d end up printed in the comic strip. You came up with a funny joke, you practised the delivery. You’d find him in recess, maybe, or that pitcher’s mound of his, and you’d say, “It’s a dog-gone shame, Charlie Brown!” That’s pretty funny. That’s T-shirt funny. That’s funny enough to be put on a lunch box. But when it comes to it, you just can’t do it. When you see Charlie’s perfectly rounded head, and the expression on it so vacant, so lost, it’s not just a sidekick who’s dead but a family pet – no, you won’t do it, you have some scruples. – Besides, you can see that all the kids have had the same idea, he’s being harangued on all sides by the bit part players of the Peanuts franchise, and their gags are better than yours.
Your name is Madalyn Morgan, although none of the readers would know that. Your name has never been printed. You’ve appeared in quite a few of the cartoons, whenever they need a crowd of kids to watch a baseball game or something. Once you got to be in a cartoon in which Charlie Brown and the gang were queuing up to see a movie, and you were standing just three kids in front! You didn’t get to say anything, but you were proud anyway, you cut out the strip from the newspaper, and framed it, and now it hangs on your bedroom wall. You think Madalyn Morgan is a good name. It’s better than Patricia Reichardt, she had to change her name to Peppermint Patty just to get the alliteration, and you have the alliteration already, they should have used you in the first place. And Peppermint Patty’s friend is called Marcie, that’s so close to Maddie, oh, it’s infuriating. Some of the supporting characters have a gimmick, and you’ve been working on some of your own. Schroeder has a toy piano; you’re learning how to play the harp. You think there’s room for a harp in the Peanuts strip. Linus carries a security blanket everywhere with him, and believes in the Great Pumpkin. You’ve experimented with towels and Mormonism.
You’re sorry that Snoopy is dead, of course, but you can’t say that you’ll miss him. He was a self-obsessed narcissist, that’s the truth of it. And all those fantasies he had, that he was fighting the Red Baron on a Sopwith Camel, that he was the world’s greatest tennis coach or hockey player or novelist, that by putting on a pair of sunglasses he could be Joe Cool and hit on the girls – is it just you that thinks these delusions aren’t charming? But actually the symptoms of a sociopathic mental case? He was only kind to one of the characters, that little yellow bird called Woodstock, and you suspect that’s because Woodstock can’t speak English, and with no jokes of his own he’d never rival the dog in popularity. Snoopy is dead, and the world is in mourning, and you’re sorry, but you can’t pretend you care. But you admit that without his comic genius there’s a cold wind now blowing through the funny pages.
There’s a funeral for Snoopy, but it’s only for close friends and stars of the strip. You’re not invited. It’s quite a big send-off, all over town everyone can hear it. There are fireworks. You like fireworks.
The Peanuts franchise has been marketed to the hilt, and it doesn’t take you long to track down a full size Snoopy costume. When you try it on you’re pleased that it’s so woolly, that’ll keep you snug during the cold winter months ahead. Your hair is quite distinctive, and you’re worried that the head piece won’t cover it up properly, but it’s fine, it’s better than fine, it pads out all the crevices nicely and helps give Snoopy’s head that soft squidgy shape that’s so endearing.
You put the supper bowl between your teeth, the way you’ve seen the real Snoopy do countless times in countless strips. You go up to the front door of Charlie Brown’s house. You kick against it three times, loud, insistent.
You know this is a classic opening to many a Peanuts cartoon. Suppertime at the Charlie Brown house, and Snoopy banging on the door, demanding to be fed. And you can already imagine it on the page, this is panel one.
Charlie Brown opens the door. He stares at you. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know what to say. And this is the crucial moment, you know this – if he accepts you, then you’re okay, and the strip can continue, but there’ll be a million and one reasons why he wouldn’t want to accept you: for a start, you’re some strange kid he doesn’t know pretending to be his dead dog. His eyes water. Is he going to cry? You think he might cry. Or will he be angry? Charlie Brown doesn’t do anger well, his character is sold on that essential wishy-washiness of his, but if ever a boy is going to get angry, it’s now, surely – and you’re suddenly aware of just how obvious the costume looks, the zips and fasteners exposed for all the world to see, you’re some ill-fitting parody of a best friend he only buried last week.
And then his face softens. He has made the decision to play along, you can see it. Or has he been fooled? Is he really that much of a blockhead? “Snoopy, where have you been? We thought you were gone for good!” he says. The speech bubble appears to his side, you can read the words clearly, his response is now official. And that is panel two.
In panel three you’re both walking to the kennel. Charlie Brown is now carrying the supper bowl. You’re following behind, on hind legs, of course. You wonder whether you should be doing the happy dance, when Snoopy’s fed his supper he sometimes does the happy dance, but you think that maybe it’s a little ambitious. And it might break the comic focus – if there’s one thing you’ve learned on your long stint on Peanuts it’s that you mustn’t smother the gag with extraneous detail. Always focus on what the story is about. This isn’t a strip about Snoopy doing a happy dance. It’s a strip about Snoopy coming home and Charlie Brown accepting him. Keep it simple. Charlie Brown says,” I threw out all your dog food, all I’ve got left are these old vegetables...”
And he’s gone. And you’re into panel four. The final panel on a weekday Peanuts strip is panel four, and it has a special job – it needs to sum up the world weariness and despair that is the hallmark of the cartoon at its best. To take all the hope that was present in the first three panels and show that it is wanting. To demonstrate that at best life is an awkward compromise we all just have to buckle down and accept. You don’t know how to convey all that. All eyes are on you. You stare down at the awful food in your supper bowl. You roll your eyes. You send up a thought bubble. “Good grief,” you think.
And it’s a wrap.
The strip is printed in the newspapers the very next day. The world is glad to see that Snoopy is back again, even if he’s sporting a zip.
You soon find out, in the absence of a really good punchline, rolling your eyes and thinking “Good grief” tends to work pretty well.
Sometimes the supporting cast come to see you. Linus says, “You are exploiting the grief of someone who is suffering, don’t you feel ashamed?” And then quotes some Bible verses at you, and that’s so very Linus – and you want to say, if you’re so smug and sanctimonious, why do you carry a security blanket? No, you don’t feel ashamed, because Snoopy wouldn’t feel ashamed – that was the point of Snoopy, can’t they see that, he had no conscience at all. You just lie on the roof of the kennel and let their criticisms wash right over you. Lucy is more direct, as usual; she says she wants to slug you; she says she wants to pound you. The best way to deal with Lucy is to call her ‘sweetie’ and kiss her on the nose, that never fails to infuriate her.
Incidentally, it’s hard to sleep on the roof of a kennel, especially one that tapers into such a very sharp point. It took you a week to learn how to do it without falling off. And even now, you haven’t found a way of lying there without the pain, it jabs right into your spine, it’s agony. Thank God your contorted face is masked beneath that Snoopy head. Thank God your Snoopy head is fixed in that expression of cute self-satisfaction.
Woodstock comes by only the once. He jabbers at you, and he’s angry, but you’ve no idea what he’s saying, his speech bubbles are full of nothing more than vertical lines. And you tire of him, and you punch him – you thwack him with your paw, and it says, ‘Ka-pow!’ – and Woodstock is lying still on the grass for ages, and you wonder whether you’ve killed him. (And wonder whether it would matter; if the Peanuts strip can survive the death of the original Snoopy, who cares about the fate of a little bird that wasn’t even given a name for the first twenty years of syndication?) But Woodstock does revive. And he flies away. And you never see him again.
The only one you need to keep happy is Charlie Brown. And Charlie Brown is very happy; he brings you fresh bowls of dog food every day, and you wolf them down, and dance the happy dance for real. He’s the butt of all your jokes, but he has faith in you, and you have faith in him – life will knock the stuffing out of Charlie Brown each and every day, but he rolls with the punches, he keeps coming back for more. It’s harder to be a Charlie Brown than a Snoopy. You have to admire him a bit for it.
You try out Snoopy’s tried and tested specialty acts. You fly your kennel into World War I, and fight the Germans. The first time you strap on your goggles you think maybe something magical will happen, that you’ll really take off into the air, that you’re really have to dodge the bullets of enemy fire. And you feel a bit disappointed at first that it’s all pretend, of course it’s all pretend, and it always was. But there’s a certain thrill to it, that you have a nemesis, the Red Baron, even if it’s just a made-up nemesis. And every time he shoots you down you shake your fist up to heaven and curse him, and it’s fun, even though you know there’s no one up there listening and that no one really cares.
You try to introduce some of your own skills into the act. For a few strips Snoopy begins to play the harp, with hilarious consequences. For a week or two he becomes a Mormon. The last storyline is seen as a noble failure, and is never repeated.
Sometimes you forget you’re Madalyn Morgan at all. Sometimes you think you really were born at Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. And when your head itches, and once in a while you’re forced to pull off your mask, you see that that hair of yours has just kept on growing, there’s so much of it now, and you stare at it in the mirror with horror.
You don’t see why a dog would try so hard to be human. Being human doesn’t look that remarkable to you.
A kid pretending to be a dog, that’s eccentric. But a kid pretending to be a dog pretending to be a kid? To coin a phrase, that’s barking mad.
So, you tire of Snoopy and his anthropomorphistic ways. You want to be a real dog.
You try to tell Charlie Brown. But real dogs don’t have thought balloons. You bark, you wag your tail in urgent manners. Charlie Brown looks very confused, but then, that’s a default setting for Charlie Brown. You find a leash, drop it in front of him on the floor. At last he gets the hint.
He puts your leash on warily. He’s waiting for the punchline. He’s waiting for your ironic sneer, the little bit of humiliation you’ll make him suffer. “Good grief,” says Charlie Brown. His hands are shaking.
He takes you out to the park. That’s where most people take their dogs, but he’s never done it before. Now you’re there, he hasn’t the faintest idea what to do.
In your mouth you pick up a stick, and offer it to him. He takes it suspiciously.
His hands are still shaking.
You realise he’s scared of you. Not scared that you’ll bite him, like an ordinary dog might. But that you’ll bully him. That you’ll point at him and laugh. He was once the star of his own comic strip, and the wacky dog took that away from him, and reduced him to a stooge.
He throws the stick for you.
And, as Snoopy, so many options come into play. You could bring him back the stick, but have already fashioned it into some exciting piece of woodwork, a model boat, maybe, or a pipe rack. You could bring him instead an entire branch, an entire log, and entire tree. You could just roll your eyes, say “Good grief,” and walk away. That would be the most hurtful.
You bring him back the stick. And not in your paws, as if you’re a human. And not with a little gift bow on top, in sarcastic overenthusiasm. You bring it back properly, as a loyal dog would.
He takes the stick from you. He doesn’t trust you. He’s still waiting for the joke.
There is no joke. And each time he throws it, you bark, and race after it, and bring it back to your master. And each time, Charlie Brown’s face breaks into an ever larger smile, and the smile is sincere and free, and it’s not a smile for the newspaper readers at home, it’s a smile for you, just for you, his faithful canine pal.
The supporting cast come back to see you again. Lucy Van Pelt says, “What are you doing, you blockhead?”, and then she starts on about wanting to slug you again. Linus tells of how selfish it is that you are putting the needs of one above the livelihood of many, and finds some bit of scripture to emphasise the point. The truth is, the Peanuts readership is dwindling fast. No one wants to read about Snoopy, if Snoopy’s just an ordinary dog. No one wants to read about a Charlie Brown who’s happy.
It’s easy to ignore Lucy and Linus, because you’re a dog, and dogs aren’t supposed to understand what humans say.
And not everyone minds. All the kids at school, the ones who never got names, the ones who never felt valued – they’re free now, they can do whatever they want. Maybe they’ll become proper kids now, with real lives, and real futures, and dreams that they have the power to fulfil. Maybe they’ll find some other comic strip to knock about in. It’s up to them.
And Charlie Brown one morning is excited to find something growing on his chin. “Look, boy, it’s stubble! I think I’m growing a beard!” He’s spent so many years trapped as an eight year old, and now even the banalities of ageing seem wondrous to him.
You wrap up your storylines. Snoopy the would-be novelist puts aside his typewriter; he finally has to admit that he was never good enough to get published. Snoopy throws away his tennis racquet, his Joe Cool sunglasses, his stash of root beer.
You put on your goggles for the last time, and climb aboard your kennel. It’s time you put an end to the Red Baron once and for all. The engines roar into life, and you can feel the Sopwith Camel speeding up into the clouds. Kill the Red Baron, shoot him in cold blood if you need to, and the war will be over. You circle the sky for hours, but you can’t find anyone to fight. There’s no enemy aircraft up there. Because the First World War was such a long time ago. And the Red Baron, if he even existed, is dead, he’s already dead – maybe he was a dachshund, or a German shepherd, and he was a dog in Berlin who used to climb aboard his own kennel and fantasise about being a hero – and by now the poor animal will be long dead, maybe he died of old age, maybe he died peacefully in the arms of some round-headed little German boy all of his own.
Panel one. And you’re indoors. And your head is on Charlie Brown’s lap. And he’s scratching at your ears, and you like that. It makes you feel dizzy, it makes you feel you could just let go of this world altogether and drift off somewhere magical. And Charlie Brown says to you, “It was never what I wanted. I didn’t want fame. I didn’t know what I was agreeing to. I was just a little kid. What’s a little kid to know? And do you sometimes feel that you just want to change, to be a different person, but you can’t be? Because you’re surrounded by people who know you too well already, and they don’t mean to, but they’re going to hold you down and keep you in check, there’ll be no second chances because you can’t escape their expectations of you – and the whole world has expectations of me, they’re looking at me and know who I am and how I’ll fail at every turn. And then the second chance comes. Impossibly, the second chance is there. I never wanted a dog who was extraordinary. I wanted a dog who was ordinary to the world, but extraordinary to me, who’d love me and be my friend. I didn’t want a dog like Snoopy. I wanted a dog like you. “ And this was all far too much to fit inside one speech bubble, but it didn’t matter, this is what Charlie Brown said to you.
Panel two. And he’s still scratching at your ears. But, no, now he’s tugging. He’s tugging at your ears. He’s tugging at your head. And you want to say, no, Charlie Brown, no, you blockhead! Because he’s going to ruin everything. Because Charlie Brown was never supposed to be happy, because this isn’t the way it’s meant to be – and he should leave your fake dog head alone, the two of you work like this, it’s nice like this, isn’t it? It’s neat. And if he pulls your head off and reveals the girl beneath there’s no going back, it’ll all change forever – and maybe the head won’t come off anyway, maybe it isn’t a costume any more, maybe at last you’ve turned into a real dog – but still he tugs, he just keeps tugging, and there’s give, you can feel the weight lift from your shoulders – oh, you want to shout out, tell him to stop, good grief, Charlie Brown! – but you can’t speak, a dog can’t speak, you can only bark.
Panel three. And the head’s off. The head’s off. The head’s off. And there’s your hair everywhere. It’s spilled out all over the frame, there’s so much of it, how it has grown, how ever did you manage to stuff it all away? And its colour is so vivid, bursting out of a black and white strip like this, it’s wrong, it’s rude. Rude and red, the brightest red, the reddest red, red hair everywhere. You stare up at Charlie Brown. And he stares down at you. The round-headed kid, and the little red-haired girl.
You stare at each other for a long time.
You wonder whether you’ll move on to panel four. What the punchline will be, that’ll bring you both crashing down to earth. But there doesn’t have to be one. There never has to be.