Schulz and Figural Orientation

Meditations on Schulz 2:

From the beginning of his strip, Schulz dominated the panels of Peanuts with the characters’ signature round heads, which are depicted with a limited, or tightly controlled, repertoire of poses or orientations.  In short, these orientations include the profile, the right-tending frontal view, the left-tending front view and, with much rarer occurrences, the back-to-the panel view and the head thrown back scream.  Depending on the context or the gag, Schulz either cycles through a sequence of these orientations in a single strip, or conversely holds a pose throughout in his figures.

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– Are we “moving” around Lucy or is she spinning in a circle?

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Arguably, the strips can fruitfully cataloged by their respective sequencing of orientations, I suspect, revealing a sort of chordal harmony of compositions.  Tracing these similarities and differences show Schulz to be an quasi-serialist and, as mentioned before, a modernist, tweaking minimal changes for alterations of effect.  But Schulz also uses serial orientations as a traditionalist, focused on finding the most telling visual sequence for his oft-reused gags and narratives.  For example, Schulz frequently ends his dyad strips with one character looking obliquely away while the counterpart is framed in profile.  Which character is shown in either orientation depends on the context of a strip’s content.  In one case, the profiled character stands in for the “straight man,” and butt of the joke, as in the above and below strips.

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But in the inverted case, the same pairing achieves a mugging-like effect by inverting the position of joke and the butt and their respective orientations.  Indeed, this put upon Charlie Brown looking vaguely away partnered with a profiled counterpart may be one of the most typical ending compositions in all Peanuts strips, as seen below.

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I argue that much could be gathered by a more comprehensive examination of the manner in which Schulz both minimized his artistic variables and maximized their variation with respect to figural representation and orientation.

Schulz re-used orientational compositions (in single panels) and orientational sequences (across panels) many times over in the course of Peanuts’ existence.  His use of what I will call a consistent orientation — the re-use of a single orientation over the course of several panels — evidences the strange diversity of use in limited choices indicative of his Schulz’s figural representation.  Logic and visual sense would tend to assume that such a sequence would denote stillness, and indeed it does at times, for example when depicting Charlie Brown readying a pitch at the mound, or in this case, his bat at home plate.

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– Here figural consistency is meant to denote either intense concentration or introspection.

However, just as often the sequence is used to denote continuous movement as in the many strips of the children walking or, for example, of Schroeder playing the piano.

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– Notice the repeated image of Schroeder from panels one to two.

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– Here figural consistency becomes movement with the help of motion lines.

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– Note how Schulz uses identical figural shapes and orientations to denote Charlie Brown and Violet “walking.”  In fact, the artist uses the same identical orientations and postures again and again in his strips to indicate movement in a visual shorthand.

To compound the irony is the fact that Schulz’s figures are just as likely to shift orientation while the characters are meant to be understood as being relatively still.  For example, in the dialogue strips modeled above we see more alternation in figural orientation than in the strip directly above were we understand Charlie Brown and Violet as moving.  In other words, there is no correlation in figural orientation, consistency or change and actually implied movement.

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For example in the above strip, Schulz shuffles through a series of orientations on Linus never showing the same view twice; however, the narrative context of the strip insists that we understand Linus as standing relatively still, stopped in his tracks and defeated.

The paradox of the consistent orientation as movement is perfectly encapsulated in the ambiguous image of Snoopy’s navigation of his fighting bi-plane — sitting in a consistent, determined profile and flying / not flying, or moving / not moving at the same time.

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– Here Snoopy exhibits the strange paradox of movement in Schulz’s use of consistent orientation.

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