Peanuts & Aesthetic Identity

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanut...

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanuts television special. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent essay cartoonist Scott R. Kurtz objected to the creation of new Peanuts content. This essay led me to consider the matter of aesthetic identity and the creation of this essay.

In the specific case of Peanuts, Charles Schulz was rather clear that he was the only one who could draw Peanuts. While there has been, as of this writing, no attempt to create new Peanuts strips, Boom Studios released a Peanuts comic book with new content that was not created by Schulz. There is also a rumor that the folks behind the movie Ice Age will be making a Peanuts movie written by Charles Schulz’s son and grandson.

Obviously, the continuation of characters and settings beyond the death of the original creator is nothing new.  Nor is the transfer of creative control of characters and settings anything new. Characters such as Superman and Batman live on after their creators have died. Star Trek continued after the death of Gene Rodenberry with the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and a new Star Trek movie. Frank Herbert’s Dune universe has spawned numerous books written after his death, including prequels. The same is true of Asimov’s Foundation series.

In general, the legal matters regarding the continuation of characters and settings when they are no longer in control of the original creator can be easily settled. After all, it seems rather well established that such intellectual properties are just that, properties. As such they can be inherited, bought and sold like any other property. So, if a company owns the legal rights to Peanuts, then they can do with Peanuts as they wish within the specifics of their rights. Naturally, there can be nasty legal battles and disputes when it comes to specific properties, but this is not anything special to such intellectual properties.

Since I am not a lawyer but a philosopher, I will not focus on the legal questions. I will, instead, focus on the philosophical matters.

One point of concern is the matter of ethics. To be specific, there is the moral question of whether or not the creations should be continued after the death of the creator. This can, of course, be tied to the legal concerns in many ways. If, for example, the creator agreed to this continuation in a contract or other agreement, then it would seem that the continuation would be morally acceptable. If the creator made it clear that s/he did not want the work continued, then even if someone (say a relative who inherited the property) had the legal right to continue the work, then doing so would seem morally dubious. This would also apply to cases in which characters and settings had entered the public domain. While people would have the legal right to use the characters and settings, there is still the moral question of whether or not they should do so—especially when their efforts degrade the characters and settings. For example, the John Carter movie is based on Burroughs’ works which are now public domain. However, the treatment of these excellent works was so awful that it seems that Disney acted in an immoral way by degrading the characters and settings with an inferior work. While the moral concerns are both interesting and important, I am also concerned with the matter of aesthetic identity.

Philosophers have disputed the matter of identity for quite some time and have focused on specific types of identity, such as personal identity. Fortunately, aesthetic identity can bypass many of the usual metaphysical problems regarding identity since the fictional characters and settings do not have the ontological status of actual people and settings (unless, of course, one believes that fictional worlds are also actual worlds). However, there are still concerns about identity in the context of aesthetics.

In the case of characters, the concern is similar to that of personal identity: when a character is continued by someone other than the original creator, is the character still the same character? To use a specific example, if someone else draws and writes Charlie Brown, is that character still Charlie Brown in terms of his aesthetic identity? Or is it just a character that looks similar and says similar things—a mere imitator? In some cases, it would seem that the continuity of aesthetic identity is possible. After all, it seems reasonable to claim that many comic book characters retain sufficient identity to still be the same characters even though they are drawn and scripted by different people (and played by different actors in movies).  Interestingly, it can be argued that in some cases even the creator of a character fails to preserve the aesthetic identity of a character. What is needed, of course, is a full account of aesthetic identity of characters—a project that goes beyond this short essay.

In the case of settings, the aesthetic identity would also be a matter of concern. For example there is the question of whether or not the Dune universe in the newer prequels is similar enough to Herbert’s Dune universe in terms of its aesthetic qualities. While the identity of a setting would include the obvious factors such as getting the locations, inhabitants, history and such right, there is also the matter of capturing the “look and feel” of the setting. So, while a book might get all the facts about the Foundation universe right, it might fail to capture the aesthetic qualities that make the Foundation universe the Foundation universe. As with the aesthetic identity of characters, the specific conditions of the aesthetic identity of settings would also need to be developed.

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  1. I think part of the reason why continuations (if they can indeed be so called) of this sort are often controversial is precisely that they are a product of their legal environment: more precisely, that unless the creator of a work did groom some successor, it looks very plausible that there is no principled aesthetic distinction to be drawn between commercial continuations made for profit and amateur fanfiction made for fun. We get invited to believe that the official, commercial continuation is somehow special (because if we tried doing that we’d be sued), but it’s quite easy to make a plausible argument for Imperial nudity here. However, the trouble is perhaps not so much that there might be a break in aesthetic identity as that a successor hired by a deceased author’s estate will tend to have no better a chance of maintaining aesthetic identity than you or I would, be that chance good or bad.

  2. Claire Creffield

    This is really interesting. There seem to be lots of interesting questions that could be asked. One thing that occurs to me is that an aesthetic element such as a character (or a setting) will often be essentially a component, a part of a larger aesthetic creation (the novel, the cartoon, the series of cartoons). Preserving the continuity of that character will then involve not just preserving enough continuity of its own (intrinsic) features (what it looks like, its dispositions to act, feel, etc). It will also involve preserving a continuity of its function in relation to a whole — which in turn involves some sort of continuity of the whole itself. “Charlie Brown” might not in fact be Charlie Brown if he was plonked into an animation that was sufficiently different from the original Schultz stories.

    This seems more evident in the case of Charlie Brown than in some genres. In a psychologically very rich realistic novel, for example, a character might be sufficiently person-like that you might start to view her continuity of identity in the same ways that you would view that of a real person who was just like her. If Rochester’s first wife acts sufficiently closely in accordance with the dispositions, motivations, and so on, that we know her to possess from reading Jane Eyre, then we will allow that is is her, too, in The Wide Sargasso Sea.
    Possibly, though, we might be making a mistake if we conclude that being the same person makes her the same character: the latter might involve showing that there was enough continuity not only of her selfhood but of her function in relation to a sufficiently continuous artwork. The Wide Sargasso Sea might well possess the right kind of continuity with Jane Eyre, since both novels speak to similar themes. But if it didn’t, then calling her the same character in each might be problematic.

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    Mike is quite correct when saying, “Philosophers have disputed the matter of identity for quite some time” and there is no consensus. The debate of identity will not resolve the problem. If the promoters can demonstrate a reasonable profit from doing so, then the almighty dollar may decide whether the Peanuts series will have new composition, especially if the idea has support from descendants of Charles Schulz.

    Different examples of character and setting have been mentioned. One cannot transport a 16th century character into the 21st century and expect her to have the same morals and responses. The character would be as different as the setting. In the matter of Peanuts, the setting is a mirror of the character of Charles Schultz, so comparisons such as the Dune universe fall apart. This brings the point that the creation of new Peanuts scenarios would be more comparable to a biography of Charles Schulz. Assuming biography is a synonym for aesthetic identity, there is nothing stopping the promoters from creating new Peanuts scenarios.

    There is one more question if they create new Peanuts scenarios. So far, everyone has argued in favour of not altering the original strips. However, when creating new scenarios are they desecrating the art like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa?

  4. Robert,

    That is an interesting point. What counts as “canon” seems to be set by whoever owns the legal rights instead of being based on the actual content of the work. So, for example, the truly horrible Alien and Predator movies are canon, although they mostly just desecrate their superior predecessors.

  5. Claire,

    Excellent points. As you note, characters like Charlie Brown are much like real people-partially defined by their relations to others and their setting. So, Charlie might no longer be Charlie if he was put into a sufficiently different context (just as the same might happen to actual people).

    Then again, maybe aesthetic (and personal) identity can persist even through such changes. So, for example, Charlie Brown could become a character in the Walking Dead or Dr. Who and still be Charlie Brown. It would actually be kind of cool to see Dr. Who team up with Snoopy (his doghouse has some TARDIS like properties, suggesting that Snoopy might be a Time Lord canine).

  6. Dennis,

    Interesting points. On the one hand, it would seem that new works do not desecrate the originals-after all, they would remain intact. On the other hand, if the work is looked upon as a whole, then the addition of new works could be seen as on par to modifying the Mona Lisa. Or, perhaps a better analogy would be like tagging on more new material to a classic movie.

  7. Dennis Sceviour

    Mike,
    That is an interesting comparison about classic movies. However, consider the pure intrinsic view of Charles Schulz, which is akin to aesthetic identity. His compositions were a reflection of himself. When we read in the Peanuts comic strip “psychiatric help – 5 cents”, it is an exploration of the mind and character of the author. In comparison with movies, an example of a living biography is “Being John Malkovich”. It is supposed to be a story about someone finding a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich. The interesting difference with the Peanuts media is that the protagonist gave permission for his character to be explored. Charles Schulz has not given such permission.

    On the other hand, Charlie Brown may simply be another literary alter ego. This is too academic. Katy Perry is what is happening.

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