Trouble with Comics

Shells: A Modest Proposal

I’ve had an idea in my head for a few years now — probably ever since Fantagraphics started issuing their essential Complete Peanuts hardcovers, or maybe when Ivan Brunetti did that fantastic strip Whither Shermy? — that it would have been awesome if there had been an alternate comic strip featuring some of the most interesting or wonky secondary or tertiary characters that came and went over the 50 year run of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.

Talking to Chris Allen about this idea on the phone a few nights ago, he suggested the perfect title for the strip would be Shells. That’s hard to argue with, resonating as it does with both the Peanuts title and the somewhat hollow, undercooked nature of the proposed inhabitants of the strip. We did debate back and forth a bit about who the cast of the strip would be, but here’s who I would like to see, if this strip ever somehow magically came to be.

Shermy — It absolutely goes without saying that Shermy is not only in the cast, but he is the leader of the Shells gang. Click the link and you’ll see his Wikipedia entry is longer than that of many real-life celebrities! He was athletically superior to Charlie Brown (but then, who amongst us isn’t?), and most importantly, we must never forget that Shermy was a featured co-star (arguably, the star!) of the very first Peanuts comic strip. But when you read the strip over the course of its first few decades, you see that Shermy fades more and more into the background until finally (after his final nod on June 15th, 1969), he is just gone and forgotten.

Wikipedia says Charles Schulz didn’t like the look of Shermy’s hair, and didn’t enjoy drawing it. The article more significantly suggests that Shermy was too unremarkable in the face of more dynamic, developing characters such as Linus and Lucy, and that’s hard to argue. But I always like seeing strips that he appeared in, and I just can’t get it out of my head that not only was Shermy in the first strip, he was the only character with any dialogue! Therefore, I suggest to you that Shermy is essentially the Pete Best or Captain Pike of Peanuts, the guy who could have had it all, but ended up as a sad footnote to the greatest daily comic strip in the history of the medium.

Shells would make reparations for all these long decades of casual indifference, allowing Shermy to stand front and center and lead the way for this alternate gang of kids and their charming adventures and often poignant observations.

555 95472Quoting Wikipedia, “5…debuted in the September 30, 1963 strip, and appeared occasionally until the 1980s. 5 had brown spiky hair, and he wore an orange shirt with the number 5 on it. 5 was given a numerical name by his father, who was upset over the preponderance of numbers in people’s lives, although when questioned, 5 clarified that this was not his father’s way of protesting, it was his way of “giving in.” His last name, 95472 (the accent is on the 4), was taken from the family’s ZIP code; it is also the zip code for Sebastopol, California, where Schulz lived at the time.”

In Shells, 5 will take the Spock/Kramer/Yoda/Sheldon role, seemingly a secondary character but one who quickly becomes the fan-favourite of readers worldwide for his unpredictable witticisms and frequent and bizarre misadventures. I’m visualizing a lot of strips in which 5 goes on the road and meets a diverse and wild world of strange and crazy characters, and when he returns home to his friends, they never ask where he was, and he never tells. Also, he might be gay.

Patty — Of course, Peppermint Patty’s ascendancy meant the girl who was there with the name first had to take it on the chin. But in the earliest years of the strip (in the very first one, in fact), there she is, side by side with Shermy, holding her own, and later unfairly relegated to the dustbin of forgotten comic strip characters. She last appeared on April 11th, 1976.

I see Patty’s role in Shells as Shermy’s strong right hand. Romance would never be explicitly suggested, but it would be taken as a given by the readers that once their hormones kick in, Shermy and Patty are unquestionably destined to be together for life. In Peanuts Patty was a bit of a snob (often looking down on the other cast members with her even more sneering pal Violet), but I think in Shells she’ll be a bit more circumspect and perhaps even possess a certain girl-next-door charm and grace.

Violet — Now, Violet, on the other hand, I see as the holy terror of the Shells group. Since she was one of the longest-lasting of the lesser Peanuts characters (she last appeared November 16th, 1984), there’s much more backstory to work with in concocting her new Shells persona.

If you thought she was snarky and dismissive in Peanuts, in Shells she’ll ratchet it up to a whole ‘nother level.

In fact, Violet will start off obnoxious and eventually be revealed to be the villain of the piece, an acerbic and destructive force that everyone else will constantly have to be on guard against. Kind of like that crazy lady on Melrose Place? Which brings me to…

Miss Othmar — Never actually appearing “on-camera” in Peanuts, Miss Othmar was the subject of Linus’s profound first love. He was constantly disappointed by her, first learning that she was actually paid for what should have been a noble undertaking, teaching children. Later she married, and Linus refused to call her by her married name, refusing to accept that their love just was not meant to be.

Wounded by years of Linus’s scorn and disillusionment, I propose Miss Othmar finds her true calling running a Melrose Place-like group home for cast-off children on Shell Avenue in the forever-unnamed town in which the Shells gang has their adventures. In fact, “The Shell Avenue Home for Cast-Off Children” has a Schulz-like appeal, does it not? Therefore, Miss Othmar (now divorced and back to her maiden name, if not her maiden status) is in fact the very raison d’ĂȘtre of the Shells comic strip, the glue that holds it all together. Whether it’s a shoulder to cry on for Shermy, Patty and the rest, or the weekly pot-luck dinners she invites them all to, Miss Othmar will always be the calm eye in the center of the storm that is Shells.