Tuesday , September 29 2020
Volume One in a new series of hardbounds reprinting Charles Schulz's classic comic strip.

The Complete Peanuts

First time we see good ol’ Charlie Brown, in the opening volume of The Complete Peanuts ($28.95, Fantagraphics Books), it’s in a fairly unfamiliar pose: walking down the sidewalk, arms a-swingin’, big ol’ smile on his round face. Not a queasy half smile, not an eyes-shut, lost-to-the-world-around-me smile – just a happy li’l folk’s smile.
He’d grow out of that grin, of course, and one of the pleasures of the first volume in this ambitious book series reprinting cartoonist Charles Schulz’s landmark comic strip in its entirety (starting with 1950-52) lies in watching him “mature” into the more familiar emotionally battered everyman we all know and love. In the first strips of 1950, he’s clearly meant to be younger than either Shermy or Patty, the two kids he’ll eventually push out of the limelight: he’s not yet in school nor tall enough to meet either of his co-stars eye-to-eye. Yet thanks to the kind of aging process only seen in comic strips and soap operas, Chuck quickly catches up to the other two, where he’ll remain for the duration of the strip’s forty-plus years.

The same process occurs with other characters in the series: Schroeder, Lucy and her younger brother Linus are all introduced in turn as babies in volume one, though the first two rapidly sprout to become peers (toy piano genius and “Miss Fussbudget of 1952,” respectively) with other neighborhood kids. Linus would take a little longer to age, which may be the real reason he never could abandon that security blanket. Even Snoopy, the final major figure from these early years, is more puppy than full-grown beagle dog. We’re not privy to his inner thoughts ’til 1952.
But if the comic melancholy that characterizes “Peanuts” at its peak hasn’t fully flowered in volume one, all the basic elements are there: Schulz’s elegantly frugal inking style and stylized vision of children’s bodies (which exaggerates their heads to, in part, emphasize their thoughtfulness), his unsentimental take on childhood fears and aspirations, his clear-eyed understanding of the volatile nature of kids’ relationships. Second strip into the book, Patty, strolling along that selfsame sidewalk, stops momentarily to slug Charlie Brown for no discernible reason. CB himself indulges in violence and tantrums for thoroughly petty reasons in these early strips; he’s also an inveterate jokester, who ends many a daily strip being chased by his victim. “It’s risky, but I get my laughs,” he tells the reader
As a reader born the same year that Schulz’s strip debuted, my first experience with the early “Peanuts” was through small Fawcett paperback collections. A lot of the strips in this book never saw reprinting in those early paperbacks, presumably because the artist’s vision of his kids had already developed to the point where their jokes were incompatible with their more established characters. In one early strip, for instance, Charlie Brown comes upon a drawing of himself rendered on a neighborhood fence. “That’s not me at all!” he proclaims, and he fixes the caricature by affixing a big grin to its face. By the 1960’s, our hero wouldn’t have dreamed of altering that image: he just would’ve sighed and accepted it as one more random humiliation in a world packed with ’em.
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.

It’s not saying anything surprising to note that Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” is one of the singular achievements of comic strip art. But it is worth noting – after years of overexposure, diminishing return animated adaptations and Butternut bread commercials – that the strip can still be an unabashed joy to read. Next volume in Fantagraphics’ reprint series is scheduled for autumn of this year. I’d start saving my pennies now. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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