The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952
by Charles M. Schulz
Good Ol' Charlie Brown
A review by Chris Bolton
The Peanuts gang has literally been in my life forever. I've seen home
movies of myself as a baby, playing with plastic toys of Charlie Brown, Snoopy,
and Lucy long before I could have possibly understood who they were. I began ritually
watching the holiday TV specials as a toddler, and I had a cherished Snoopy Sno-Cone
Maker (and, briefly, a Snoopy electric toothbrush) in my early elementary school
years. I spent entire weekend visits to my father's apartment reading his tattered
mass market collections of vintage Peanuts comic strips, even as the newspapers
carried current strips in which the art was sloppier and the punchlines notably
sappier (that there was a three-decade gap between the strips in the books and
the newspapers wasn't clear to me until I was a bit older).
Charles Schulz's creations were indelible. It wouldn't be overstating matters
to say I grew up with them -- and, in time, grew out of them, as well.
In my pre-teen years, Calvin and Hobbes caught my fancy, right around
the same time I started to finally "get" Gary Larson's Far Side
strips. As a teenager, I also became taken with Lynn Johnston's For Better
or For Worse (the teenage son happened to be roughly the same age as me,
which made his adolescent trials more compelling than Charlie Brown's forty-year-long
unrequited crush on the little red-headed girl).
By that age, Charlie Brown felt like an anachronism. Schulz's deceptively simplistic
drawing style and repetitive stories grew tiresome. Before long, Peanuts sat
on a dusty shelf in the back of my mind, alongside other past-their-prime comic
strips like Beetle Bailey, Mark Trail, Hagar the Horrible, and especially
The Family Circus.
Thankfully, Fantagraphics Books has found a way to reinvigorate Peanuts --
by taking us back to the beginning. Their insanely ambitious Complete Peanuts
series intends to bring out every single Peanuts strip Schulz ever drew, two
books per year, for a projected total of twelve years. That's an incredible
amount of work -- on Fantagraphics's end, yes, but it also highlights just how
tireless Schulz was, especially considering he never used an assistant. Although
I'll likely skip the later years (past 1980, let's say), the first four volumes
do an excellent job of reminding those of us who forgot just how vital and hilarious
Peanuts once was.
The first volume takes us from 1950, when Schulz sold his weekly strip "Li'l
Folks" to United Feature Syndicate (which then retitled it "Peanuts,"
to Schulz's lifelong dismay), to 1952. If one can only afford a single volume
in the series, this is the must-have. Here we see the very earliest renditions
of good ol' Charlie Brown, as well as a supporting cast that will likely be
alien to younger readers, including Violet, Patty (not Peppermint), and Shermy.
Snoopy doesn't yet speak, or act like much more than an ordinary dog.
Charlie Brown himself, however, emerges almost fully formed. While he's a bit
sharper-witted and more cynical than the perpetually defeated sad sack he would
become, most of the unlucky boy's misfortune is in place, along with a few of
Devoted Peanuts fans may look upon the fourth
volume (1955-1956) more fondly, as this is the point at which the strip
begins to feel more like what it would eventually become -- albeit sharper,
funnier, and still somewhat crueler. Snoopy utters his first words in this book
(Schulz later turns his dialogue balloons into thought balloons, making Snoopy's
voice a little more credible), which also introduces "Pig Pen" and gets
the infant Linus on his feet and talking. And there's the added treat of another
long-forgotten character Schulz ended up jettisoning: Charlotte Braun, whose
name suggests a foil for Charlie Brown, although her only apparent personality
trait is talking loudly (a quality that is ultimately folded, more fittingly,
into Lucy's character).
The most astonishing aspect of these strips is the dark humor. While Schulz
maintained a much-vaunted tone of sadness and longing throughout the strip's
run, these books showcase the "causal cruelty and offhand humiliations"
(to quote from Matt Groening) that kept the early years so sharp.
Take, for instance, the strip from Sunday, January 23, 1956, in which Charlie
Brown futilely argues with the sun to stop melting his snowman. Standing over
the slushy remnants of his creation, Charlie Brown laments, "There's nothing
left! Only a memory and a carrot!" At which point Snoopy trots by, casually
eats the carrot, and saunters off licking his lips, leading Charlie Brown to
mutter, "Only a memory..."
Moments like these capture a poignancy that was missing from most of the day's
other strips -- and isn't often found on modern comic pages, either. In addition,
the earlier Peanuts had more of a playful, surreal streak, from Linus's
square balloons to the September 27, 1956, strip in which a mortified Charlie
Brown literally shrinks to half his size.
Four books into the series, The Complete Peanuts promises a dizzying
array of delights for years to come; even if, like me, one chooses to eschew
the post-'80s material, that still leaves eleven books to anticipate -- which
means six more years of collecting. Compare Schulz's output to that of Bill
Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, which ran for ten years (minus two hiatuses)
and fills three large, heavy hardcovers in the just-released The
Complete Calvin and Hobbes. While Watterson's collection will possibly necessitate
some reinforcing of one's bookshelf, the completed Peanuts project will
likely require an entire bookcase of its own.
Given the choice, I prefer Watterson's tireless imagination and exquisite,
intricate artwork. There's much less of it, true, but Watterson wisely quit
before repeating himself, whereas Schulz continued tangling Charlie Brown in
a kite-eating tree and having Lucy yank away footballs for arguably fifteen
or twenty years longer than necessary.
And yet, there's no denying that Calvin and Hobbes could not have existed
without Peanuts (Watterson himself freely acknowledges the debt). Schulz
pioneered the transition of comic strip children from cuddly moppets to complex,
multi-dimensional people. Furthermore, one can easily see the impact of Snoopy's
animal impersonations (eventually including his play-acting as a "World
War I flying ace" piloting his house/plane into dogfights with the Red
Baron) on both Calvin's flights of fancy (i.e. Spaceman Spiff) and on the very
character of Hobbes, a talking tiger.
Regardless of the quality of these strips, the Fantagraphics editions are simply
beautiful to behold. Every volume is lovingly designed (by the artist Seth)
with evocative covers and page spreads, and each includes a foreword by the
likes of Matt Groening, Jonathan Franzen, and Walter Cronkite, along with a
biography of Schulz. Best of all, the comic strips are arrayed in a manner befitting
Schulz's simple but effective layouts. Those old paperbacks of my father's arranged
the strips vertically like building blocks, one daily strip per page, with the
first two panels on top of the last two, throwing off the precise rhythm of
a horizontal strip. Sunday strips were often truncated and awkwardly divided
over several pages. Fantagraphics restores the correct layout, remaining true
to Schulz's original intentions, and even includes the expendable single-panel
gags that opened most Sunday strips (newspaper and book editors often excised
these for more space).
The Complete Peanuts is more than a necessary archive of a strip whose
historical importance to the medium can't be overestimated. The word "essential"
is bandied about a little too often with regard to collected editions, but there's
no exaggeration in stating that The Complete Peanuts is essential to
everyone who appreciates the perfect marriage of word and image that makes the
comic form so unique and precious.
The adult in you will appreciate the artistry of Schulz's work. The kid in
you will love the beagle pretending to be a rhino. Both will be delighted by
The Complete Peanuts.