You can’t accuse Gahan Wilson of being a coward. Over the last half century any cartoonist who does a comic strip about kids, especially one that spotlights the neuroses and traumas of childhood, runs the risk of being invidiously and insidiously compared to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Rather than flee from accusations that his work pales next to Schulz’s masterpiece, Wilson actively courted such a contrast by titling his strip Nuts and featuring as an incidental character an unpopular loser brazenly named “Charley Browne.” For good measure, Nuts, which ran in the National Lampoon from 1972 to 1986, also serves up a cigar store run by Mr. Schultz where no doubt you can buy not just tobacco and girlie magazines, but also bags of peanuts.
Interviewed by Richard Gehr for this website, Wilson acknowledged that Nuts was created partially as a response to Peanuts. Wilson stated: “I always respected what Charles Schulz did, which was religious teaching. His strips were little moral fables. It’s fine and dandy, but it has nothing to with children and that’s all there is to that. But he did exactly what he set out to do, and it’s quite extraordinary stuff. It did piss me off that he was pretending it was about children and it wasn’t…. The thing that made me angry at Schulz is that he sentimentalizes the idea of childhood, which has really done a lot of harm.”
It is not necessary to agree with Wilson’s surprisingly ungenerous gloss on Peanuts to recognize that one of the singular achievements of Nuts is that it covers the same thematic grounds as Schulz’s strip but in a wholly fresh, oddball way. Rather than acting out Harold Bloom’s hoary pattern of “the anxiety of influence”, the relationship between Peanuts and Nuts is proof of the fertility of competition. Wilson used Peanuts as a foil or a negative model, a point of contrast to define what he wasn’t interested in so that he could better mark out his own territory.
The central character of Nuts is an unnamed boy of indeterminate age, although he seems to be hovering near puberty, who lives with his middle-class parents in a big American city in an undefined mid-century period which could be anywhere from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. In interviews, Wilson refers to this boy as the Kid. Visually, the Kid is defined by his massive dear-stalker hat, which covers a large part of his face and makes him look like a comical version of Sherlock Holmes. Wilson knew what he was about when he chose the hat to be the Kid’s chevron or emblem: just as Holmes solves mysteries in Victorian London, the Kid has to decipher the endless puzzles of the adult world.
If you wanted to, you could draw parallels between the Kid and Charlie Brown. Both are overwhelmed by the world that they inexplicably find themselves born into, both filled with fears about annual rituals summer camp and the start of the school year, both consistently disappointed by the ways in which society promises pleasures and joys that almost invariably fail to materialize.
Yet set against the familiar relief of Peanuts, the unique stamp of Nuts show forth with great distinctiveness. Peanuts is a social strip, with a large cast of characters whose dance of friendship, teasing, insults and unrequited love form a community. While the Kid has family and friends, Nuts is much more narrowly focused on the internal of life of the main character. As a social comedy, Peanuts takes place in the present tense: everything is happening now as we follow the action from panel to panel. Nuts, by contrast, is retrospective and introverted. Typically it begins with the word “Remember” which serves as a cue to turn back the mental clock. A characteristic strip begins, “Remember how great your imagination was and what fun you could have with it but how, sometimes, if you don’t watch it, could run off in any direction it wanted to, and easily drag all the rest of you along with it?” (page 81) Here we catch a glimpse of Wilson’s distinctive concern for the quirky workings of the mind and imagination.
Schulz’s art was famously crisp, clean and decisive, with Charlie Brown’s near circular head defining the Euclidian geometric perfection that the cartoonist was aspired to. Wilson, once again the anti-Schulz, draws lumpy figures with countless pine-needle lines creating a rugged, disheveled texture. The head of a Wilson character looks less like an ideal circle than a soccer ball which has had about a quarter of its air let out. In a review of an earlier volume, I suggested that James Thurber might have been an influence but a comics-erudite reader suggestively pointed to precursors like A.C. Fera (creator of the unjustly forgotten Just Boy) and Cliff Sterrett (of Polly and Her Pals fame). Charles “Doc” Winner’s Elmer (a continuation under another name of Fera’s Just Boy) is also a probable inspiration. Like Fera and Sterrett, Wilson draws stumpy tottering characters with just a few wiggles to mark out their facial features. Yet these wiggles can be infinitely expressive, as when the Kid’s lips are stoically sewn together as he endures a vaccination needle (page 17, panel 5) or the demented suppressed rage as he scrunches his eyes to hid his anger at his cousin receiving a much better version of the same Christmas gift he just got. (page 25, panel 1)
The word balloons in Peanuts live up to their name and hover smartly and discretely in the air. Wilson, on the other hand, doesn’t give his dialogue in word balloons so much as word clouds or word smog which float menacingly close overhead and sometimes jam against each other to hide what is being said. Combined with Wilson’s art, the big letters in these word clouds create a very cluttered and claustrophobic strip, one that is as jam-packed with items as young boy’s dresser.
Nuts is all about psychology and memory, about the tricks the mind plays with itself as we grow up and the way we suppress any recollection of our own odd mental peregrinations. Our memories are often the most private parts ourselves, locked treasure boxes which define who we are which we have no way of easily recovering let alone sharing. Wilson is one of those rare artists who has the spooky ability not just to unlock the closed box of his memories but also of revealing that innermost experiences are not so different from our own. In his dredging up of buried inviolate childhood memory, Wilson most closely resembles Lynda Barry, who in her new book Blabber Blabber Blabber cites him as an influence.
If we think about Nuts as a strip about memories, then some of the ambiguities of in this comic clear up. The Kid is of an ever-shifting age because he’s Wilson at various stages of childhood, sometimes quite small and at other times budding into sexual interests. One of the most affecting of these strips has the Kid leaving the hospital after a stay talking to a still sick friend named Billy. With his head shaved Billy clearly has cancer. The Kid promises to visit Billy but in the last panel in a thought cloud reflects, “I’m never going to visit him, and I’ll always wish I had.” (page 54, panel 6) That’s not a young boy’s thought, but rather the retrospective wisdom of age conferred upon a child.
Wilson genuine bravery, as this strip makes clear, is not that he set himself up as a rival to Charles Schulz but rather the directness with which Nuts confronts genuinely painful and baffling topics like sickness, mental illness, and death. When dealing with master artists, any ranking becomes absurd because each creator is memorable by the individual mark he or she leaves. So let’s leave Peanuts comparisons aside and say that Nuts is one of the major American comic strips and we’re lucky to have the complete run in this handsome, compact volume.