Schulz and Re-framing

Meditations on Schulz 1:

The rosetta stone for the visual style of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts may be found in the often mentioned project produced by the then student-artist depicting an almost obsessive set of drawings of the same object in sets of three.  Indeed the overpowering sameness and meticulous repetition of this single document can be extrapolated onto his long-lasting strip, which exhibited the same repetition in terms of subject matter, theme and especially visual treatment of figures and their space.  I think that Schulz’s purposely-limited visual repertoire is apparent to even the most casual readers and, perhaps, has enhanced the characters’ ability to be used and re-used for any number of commercial purposes.

However, as a contrast to the more pronounced sameness pervading the strips’ art, Schulz displays an equally strong, but more subtle commitment to almost imperceptible adjustments, comparable to what film and media studies scholars would call re-framing.  In subsequent panels — uniform boxes that in weekday strips rarely altered their dimensions — where the action remains focused on the same space and characters, Schulz frequently minutely “pushes” into and away from his subjects in manner that is easy to miss.  Lulled by his typical sameness, these slight intervals can go unnoticed.

In a typical example, Schulz once again examines the unrequited love between Lucy and Shroeder, in four panels from approximately the same hypothetical vantage point, in what is the comicstrips’ version of a sequence shot.

L&S-1

However, when examined more closely — focus, for example, on the figure of Lucy and her shoes as they push past and shrink within the boundaries of the panel frame –one can begin to notice these slight changes.
L&S-2

In this case, the alterations of re-framing seem to be tied to the vacillating size demanded by the strip’s text region (denoted by the blue line).  As this area expands and contracts, figure size modulates almost imperceptibly to accommodate for the consistency of figure height and the strip’s overpowering horizontality (orange line) as well as symmetrical composition (green lines).

L&S-3

I suspect, however it would be a mistake to attribute these slight re-framings only to the functional need to accommodate textual space.  In another strip depicting another typical dyad, here Peppermint Patty and Franklin, one can detect a similar slight vacillation in size — note, for example, how much of Franklin’s desk is included in the panel.

PP&F-1

In this case the spatial demands for text are more uniform over the four panels, yet the degrees of re-framing are even more drastic.  But despite this movements of vantage, the relative frame or the figures remains remarkably consistent approximating, once again, the horizontal line as the dominant design element.

PP&F-2

In some ways, it is not surprising that the medium of the comic strip should lend itself to horizontal-oriented images, but I would argue that Schulz’s commitment to this frame of reference puts him into intriguing company, with other like-minded practitioners of midcentury modernism and modern design from Frank Lloyd Wright, to Edward Hopper, to Nicholas Ray whose aesthetics were similarly informed.

Moreover, this precise dedication to maintaining horizontal through-lines as well as vertically-situated symmetry by way of these meticulous re-framings demonstrates the complexity of achieving depthlessness.  Not simply a matter of rendering quasi-crude, “flat” characters, the effect of surface was achieved in Schulz’s art through his insistence on compositional repetitions that could only (ironically?) be achieved through slight adjustments.  This puts Schulz as well in the company of Modernism (capital M) through his artistic curiosity concerning the aesthetic potential of the surface.

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