The DNA of four-panel funnies, well-respected graphic novels, and highfalutin literary novels might not be so different as they seem. Obviously, a strip like Family Circus isn’t even remotely in the same realm as, say, Toni Morrison, to be clear, but each tradition shares some surprising hallmarks when it comes to form and philosophy.
One of my favorite graphic novels of the past year, Tom Gauld’sMooncop, tells of a man patrolling a dried up lunar colony. The art is simple, almost childish, and there’s plenty of light humor adding levity to what would otherwise be undiluted dreariness. An otherwise barebones plot culminates with reflections on the dreams and disappointments of life.
It first made me think of Raymond Carver’s sparsely-written short stories, which often follow people who are well-beyond their last chance, trying to deal with increasingly hard lives. Carver is also merciful enough to offer glimmers of hope and moments of respite in an otherwise desolate world. Such treatment of the human condition has earned him the designation of being a serious, literary artist.
Gauld, too, has earned praise for Mooncop. On the whole, graphic novels have enjoyed a growing recognition for their intellectual and emotional value, but what Mooncop made me think of next was actually their predecessor, the humble comic strip.
The minimal line work and distilled moments of emotion reveal a clear throughline of Charles Schulz’s revered strip, Peanuts. And like that, the third side of the Mooncop triangle formed, bridging Charlie Brown and Snoopy with Carver’s destitute alcoholics and troubled blue collar laborers.
It might seem shocking at first, but Peanuts— the early work, especially— quite frequently delves into pain, social isolation, and all the complications of modern life. Everyone knows the embarrassment of Lucy’s classic football pull away gag, but that’s pretty mild for Schulz. Check out the the inaugural strip, published in October of 1950:
This isn’t to say that he was a nihilist; the rest of the Peanuts story shows the whole spectrum of what life has to offer. In Only What’s Necessary, a 2015 collection of Peanuts sketches and lore, Schulz’s notes explain his insistence on simple, minimal art and dialogue; he took this approach in part, I think, to allow the complexity of feeling to take center stage, which is precisely the essence of oft-toted “serious” literature.
Though Peanuts lacks an overarching plot, the same can be said for many great novels. Instead of having a linear narrative that traces a single revelatory, life-defining story, it can be seen as a novel consisting of 50 years of vignettes, flickering, mundane moments of a life. It’s kind of like Karl Ove Knausgard’s incandescent saga My Struggle— without all the drinking, of course.
-Eli Hoelscher is a Readers’ Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.