The millions of readers of the Peanuts comic strip first encountered Snoopy as the First World War Flying Ace in 1965, when Charles Schulz drew the lovable beagle pretending his doghouse was a Sopwith Camel biplane. Dressed in scarf and goggles, Snoopy imagined that he flew in hot pursuit of the Red Baron, a reference to the legendary German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen. In later strips, Schulz enlivened Snoopy’s wartime fantasies with allusions to battle sites, planes, guns and popular songs of the Great War. The Flying Ace imagery – at times including barbed-wire trenches and mention of missing comrades – seemed especially grim, considering that Peanuts’ characters were all children. The Flying Ace persona prompted Mort Walker, creator of the military-themed comic strip Beetle Bailey, to ask: ‘What does a dog know about World War I and the Red Baron? Where did he get the helmet?’ And of the bullet-riddled doghouse, Walker declared: ‘Good golly, this has gone beyond the tale.’
In 1966, the Flying Ace storyline went even further ‘beyond the tale’ in the televised CBS Halloween cartoon It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. The main narrative centres on Linus, an ever-optimistic boy who, in the face of his friends’ doubts, waits in vain for the mythical, godlike ‘Great Pumpkin’ to appear on Halloween.
Overshadowing this plotline, however, are the surreal intrusions of Snoopy’s Flying Ace fantasies. Several times, the cartoon shifts abruptly between Snoopy’s imagined war antics and the ‘real life’ scenes of the wholesome, suburban Peanuts gang engaged in Halloween festivities, with little logical overlap. Visually and sonically, the Flying Ace sections resemble the classic dream sequences popular in mid-century Hollywood.
The Flying Ace first appears as the Peanuts children don their Halloween costumes and Snoopy puts on his pilot costume of goggles and scarf. While the children are otherwise occupied, the dog imagines himself in fierce aerial combat, ending with a crash behind enemy lines, punctuated by staccato artillery. After crashing, Snoopy traverses the ruined French countryside, the whole scene silhouetted against an apocalyptic sky. As Snoopy wiggles through trenches and passes signs for Châlons-sur-Marne, Pont-à-Mousson and the River Moselle, informed viewers can deduce that he is in a region of heavy fighting between French and German troops. A bleak soundscape of sirens, machine guns and a spectral chromatic flute motif accompanies his trek.
Given the dystopian intrusion into an otherwise gently cynical children’s cartoon, one wonders whether Charles Schulz’s own experiences in the Second World War shaped these scenes.