We all know him. He was around for some 50 years. But during most of that time he seemed depressed, unsmiling. But, like most human beings, he didn't START OUT that way: he started out smiling and happy till life battered him down. And we're thankful for that because when life made him a human punching bag he developed incredible wisdom. For a kid. For a Peanut.
The first edition of Fantagraphics Books The Complete Peanuts is out, this containing every single one of Charles "Sparky" Schulz's first 1950-1952 years. And, as this review in the refreshing Pop Culture Gadabout web log points out, Charlie Brown quickly evolved and grew. Literally. He started out as one of the smaller characters and grew comic strip style from there (remaining that way for 40-odd years). Fantagraphics will be printing a volume a year of these books until "Sparky's" complete immortal Peanuts work is published. (I can't wait to order mine from Amazon).
But what's most important about the strip, Gaddabout notes, is this:
- The "Peanuts" gang may have had some limited growing up to do, but as a newspaper strip cartoonist, Schulz was in control of his medium from the get-go. These fifty-year-old strips remain funny – something you definitely can't say about many other strips from the same era (or, indeed, last week's "Cathy").
- In a way, they seem fresher than the strips from the nineties, and not just because we're discovering many of the established strip routines for the first time (first time Charlie Brown gets a football moved away from him, it's not even done intentionally – or by Lucy). No, what helps to keep 'em fresh are Schulz's vision of childhood as a battleground and his sense of timing (influenced by comedian Jack Benny, David Michaelis notes in a supplementary biographical essay, and though I'd never recognized that fact before, it makes instant sense to me) impeccable. A lot of cartoonists have labored to replicate Schulz's voice, but they never quite get it.
Indeed, if you haven't seen Jack Benny (who GREATLY influenced Johnny Carson and "Frazier's" Kelsy Grammar) get some of his VHS videos (early 50s shows are best) and/or the old radio shows. No one had better timing...and it wasn't just his deadpan look and the way he slowly "scanned" the audience on TV after a joke, but what he did between sentences — and even the way he timed individual words IN sentences (which is why his radio shows hold up, except for the obligatory musical interludes). If you do think of it that way, Peanuts' comedic evolution does indeed become crystal clear.