The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series.
Automatic Kafka was an incredible, short-lived series created by writer Joe Casey and artist Ashley Wood in 2002. Over the course of just nine issues, Casey and Wood delved into the problems of government corruption, the arbitrary and sometimes destructive nature of fame, the dangers of technology, and even a meta-discussion about the frustrations faced by the modern comicbook creator. All of this was explored through the eyes of the title character, a washed-up android superhero who just wanted to get as close as he could to something like humanity. It's an excellent series that is jam-packed with all manner of crazy, lewd, violent, and daring material, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. But for Automatic Kafka #4, Casey and Wood briefly set aside all of the people and things they had been and would be developing, and devoted an entire issue to the characters from the beloved newspaper comicstrip Peanuts. All grown up now, Charlie Brown and company still have largely the same relationships with one another that they had as children. The difference is that as adults, those relationships have become several shades darker.
It's remarkable the care that both creators took in composing this issue. Everything and everyone you could want to see from Peanuts is there, but twisted and/or pushed to its logical extreme so that we get a much different version of these oh-so-familiar faces and ideas. There's Pig-Pen as a homeless man, Woodstock as a tiny yellow bird whom Snoopy kills as a gift for his master, The Great Pumpkin as a delusion so powerful Linus must spend his days in an insane asylum. Schroeder shows up to play a concert, now a successful musician, but no less detached or wry than ever. And remember Lucy's five-cent psychiatry stand? Well she's a practicing therapist now, and Charlie Brown is still her patient/mental torture victim. He's also her estranged husband, and their dysfunctional, depressing marriage is the central focus of Automatic Kafka #4. Or perhaps more accurately, the focus is on Charlie's personal dysfunction and depression.
The basic arc of the story is this: Charlie Brown returns home after losing as a contestant on a game show (hosted by Automatic Kafka himself in the preceding issue), and is forced to live another day in a life that he despises. After an abusive therapy session with his wife, Charlie and his sister visit her husband (Linus) in the asylum where he now lives, and the doctor there gives them a pretty hopeless assessment of his condition. Then Charlie goes to Schroeder's concert, where he drinks all alone and watches Lucy shamelessly throws herself at their old friend. Also at the event is the Little Red-Haired Girl, now shallow and self-important and working at a makeup counter, and Charlie gazes at her from afar as she hits on some random, sleazy schmuck. Eventually, Charlie's inebriation and jealousy get the best of him, and he breaks, screaming at the aforementioned schmuck about how not everyone is beautiful or popular or successful or happy. Finally, he is thrown out of the party (at Lucy's shrill demand), and he stumbles into Pig-Pen living on the street. Returning home, Charlie finds the dead bird offering Snoopy left him, and then sets to writing a somewhat desperate letter asking for a second chance to appear on the game show on which he was so recently defeated. Basically, life dumps all over him, and even though he sees how sad and hopeless things really are, he tries to keep his chin up and look for potential routes to happiness in his dismal world.
Of course, this is exactly who Charlie Brown has always been: a sad sack buried in depression but aiming for optimism. It's what made him so charming and relatable in Peanuts, and it has the same effect in Automatic Kafka #4. Honestly, even if you'd somehow never heard of Charles Schulz's comic strip, this issue would still be great. I admit that the first time I read it, the Peanuts connection went entirely over my head, but everything is so well-scripted and the themes so universal that I loved the story anyway. You don't need to know everything about everyone's histories to understand the fucked up nature of all of their relationships in the present. We've all felt jealousy, hopelessness, and lust. We all have friends we've lost touch with, and others we wish we could. Everybody, at one time or another, takes stock of their lives and feels something comparable to, "Good grief." It's why Peanuts was and is so popular, and why it deserves this kind of thoughtful, brilliant homage. It's also why Automatic Kafka #4 can be read and adored without any prior Automatic Kafka or Peanuts knowledge whatsoever.
Then again, understanding the numerous, specific details which Casey and Wood include can only serve to improve the experience. Every page, if not every panel, has a tribute to the source material, a twist on it, and a bit of heartbreak. Even the cover is an allusion to Snoopy battling the Red Baron from atop his doghouse. Automatic Kafka #4 is a poignant and respectful examination of what made Peanuts so great, as well as a mirror held up to the comicstrip's darkest aspects.
Automatic Kafka #4 was published by WildStorm Productions and is dated December 2002.