The Complete Peanuts 1950-1954 Box Set
Charles M. Schulz
704 pp., 58.93
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
Oh Good Grief!
First things first: The Complete Peanuts is not yet complete. This ambitious project of reprinting fifty years' worth of daily strips—some never before reprinted, some "lost" in archived newspapers until now—began in 2004, with four years' worth of strips published in two volumes every year, and it will conclude only in 2016. The companion volumes of Peanuts Every Sunday, beginning publication this year, will show the Sunday strips in their full and carefully imitated original newspaper color, since all the strips in the The Complete Peanuts are in black and white. Whether you are a Peanuts scholar or merely a passionate fan, it's a dream come true. No more frustrations at the non-sequiturs caused by other less complete collections' random deletion of key strips in a sequence. Now you've got the whole genetic development of what is quite possibly the 20th century's greatest comic strip (only Krazy Kat and Calvin & Hobbes offer any competition to that claim).
The earliest strips from the 1950s are the most startling. Peanuts has always been famously spare compared to the visual bombast of adventure strips like Terry and the Pirates or superhero comics. But its first years were even more minimalistic than the now-standardized version we all know so well. Charlie Brown's head is the size and shape of a watermelon, Snoopy is a sleek and lean little puppy. Their earliest companions are neither the famous van Pelt siblings nor the athletic Peppermint Patty (who doesn't debut until the mid-60s, with her four-eyed friend Marcie following in the '70s after a false start as a little camper named Clara) but only the boyishly bland Shermy and mean-spirited Patty, who in turn by the early '60s are all but phased out. Schroeder, Lucy, and Linus enter the strip as babies and only finish growing up to their final age of eight about twenty years later. Woodstock has countless taller and thinner bird predecessors before he finally stakes his claim as Snoopy's best friend a year or so after the eponymous concert.
Not long after the strip's debut, the landscape and characters took on their more familiar contours—I personally find the look from about 1958 to 1966 most appealing—and the retrospective pleasure for the reader comes in finding the firsts: the first mention of Beethoven and the Little Red-Haired Girl, the first attempt to cure Linus of his blanket habit, the first abortive kite flight, the first time Snoopy imagines himself as something else (a rhino, in 1955) and so launches himself into a thousand different personae including, most famously, the World War I flying ace. The suburban Minnesota of Schulz's upbringing is evident here, too: outside there are wide lawns, low-slung houses with tidy vinyl siding, sporadic birch trees, sprinklers and sandboxes; inside there are hyper-modern chairs and lamps, geometric-print drapes, diminutive radios and fat wooden TV sets, and the kind of toys children had before plastic. And the children's lives are consumed by the passions of mid-century American suburbia: Davy Crockett, ice cream cones, chocolate creams (but no coconut, please), snowmen, baseball, mud pies, and jump ropes. Over the years these give way to the more sophisticated pleasures—and burdens—of marshmallow sundaes, chocolate chip cookies, root beer, peanut butter sandwiches, thank-you notes, summer camp, the doctor's office, and school (including one building that, shockingly enough, commits suicide).
The sheer littleness of the Peanuts characters is the source of many of the gags, both verbal and visual. A longstanding source of humor in Peanuts is putting big words in little mouths: in 1961 they talked about higher criticism, syndicated medical columns, communism, and mass communication; by 1985, they were talking about branch managers, satellite dishes, frequent flyer miles, and the private sector. Visually, the early strips show Linus entrapping himself inside Tinker Toys and Lucy unable to lift her tennis racket. That was why, Schulz always said, there were never any adults in Peanuts (a syndicate-inflicted name he always hated for its dismissive attitude toward the subject matter): they just wouldn't fit in this kid's-eyed view of the world.
In time, of course, the parental void became a force in its own right—manifested most disturbingly in the feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which must be the most depressing children's movie ever made. Snoopy plays the adult role as needed, as attorney or surveyor or rescuer, or the children are adults to each other, especially when in need of psychiatric help. Peppermint Patty, who has no mother, is the official latchkey kid of the strip, but really they all are. The general momlessness, perhaps reflective of Schulz's mother's death just before he got drafted, appears again and again in Woodstock's anxiety to find his mom and wish her a happy Mother's Day, but the poor little bird never manages to do so.
It's the deep sadness that has always set the strip apart, and The Complete Peanuts is determined that you will pay it due notice. This may reflect a struggle for the soul of Schulz's creation. Does it lie in the dozens of tv specials and documentaries, the vast array of merchandise from mugs to mousepads to the Snoopy Sno-Cone machine, the "Get Met" insurance commercials that people of my age remember better than the newspaper strip itself—in short, in the first massively lucrative licensing of comic characters? The Peanuts empire basically invented the category of "gift book" in 1962 with Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, after all. And the message is relentlessly cheerful. Schulz may have had the good graces to mock his own success in the mid'80s character Tapioca Pudding, whose sole desire in life is to grace the cover of a lunchbox as a licensed character.
Or is the soul of Peanuts in the strip itself, whose most frequent topic is depression and whose characters regularly run each other down? In the very first strip, on October 2, 1950, a smiling Charlie Brown strolls down the street as Shermy comments to Patty, "Good ol' Charlie Brown … How I hate him!" The lead character's biggest flaw is not his unlikeability, as he believes, but his constant droning about his unlikeability in the presence of his friends, not to mention the irritating gullibility that drives him to try to kick the football year after year after year. Still, apart from his own culpability, there are long school days to be endured, the Little RedHaired Girl will never show her pretty face (when she moves away, a heartbroken Charlie Brown mourns, "I wish men cried"), and for all Snoopy's fervid imagination he will never be anything but a lazy beagle obsessed with suppertime. There is probably no more emotionally raw sequence in the whole halfcentury of Peanuts than Linus' discovery, upon the birth of Sally Brown, that Lucy wished he'd never been born. Seth, the designer of The Complete Peanuts and himself an accomplished cartoonist, takes this side of it to be the real heart of the matter and deliberately emphasizes the austerity, quiet, and melancholy of the strip. Of the nineteen covers so far, only three show unambiguous smiles on the characters' faces; the rest show grimaces, howls, reserve. The design of the books is beautiful but deliberately stark, with endpapers depicting almost barren northern landscapes in dramatic shadows.
Whatever the motivation in proving that Schulz was a serious artist and not just a commercial hack, the emphasis on the bleak is not misplaced. Besides the emotional frayedness, sometimes brutality, of Peanuts, there are startling little allusions to the greater fears framing domestic Americana: the H-bomb, fallout, a riot at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm over dogs being sent to Vietnam. And if there is any deep message underlying Peanuts, it is the impossibility of changing yourself or anyone else. Charlie Brown will never talk to the Little Red-Haired Girl, no matter how much Linus cheers him on; Linus will never give up his blanket, no matter how much Gramma bargains; Schroeder will always love Beethoven best, despite Lucy's wiles; Peppermint Patty will always have a big nose and freckles and get D-minuses; Woodstock will never be an eagle. Peanuts is a modest protest against American boosterism and self-help philosophy, resigned to the fact that the protest won't make the slightest difference. The medium is a good one for the message, because comics of this sort don't progress; they only repeat. The characters are forever locked into themselves.
On the other hand, it is a little too easy to overplay the melancholy card. There are real smiles and real victories. Snoopy celebrates with his bunny friends instead of hunting them, as Frieda wishes he would; Marcie's mom makes Peppermint Patty a skating costume since she doesn't have a mother of her own to do it; little Milo of the "Goose Eggs" wants to be just like Charlie Brown when he grows up. If Peanuts is manic-depressive, it's only because life itself is that way, and Charles Schulz is American life's faithful scribe.
Paralleling the struggle for the soul of Peanuts is the struggle for the soul of Schulz himself. A big, powerful, archetypal artist myth surrounds the memory of the man who died the day before his final strip was published. It is the Citizen Kane myth (reinforced by the many references to that film in the strip): that the man who had it all, accolades and awards and millions of devoted fans, remained to the end lonely, dissatisfied, and unloved. This is the narrative that informs David Michaelis' biography Schulz and Peanuts; it's also a narrative that has been persuasively deflated by Schulz's widow and children, most of all his novelist son Monte Schulz in a long biographical essay for the Comics Journal in 2008. Peanuts may say that people never change, but Schulz in fact did. Like many young people, he had a lot of hurts and grievances. And like many adults, he eventually grew up, moved on, and enjoyed a relatively happy final twenty-five years. Despite the common first name, Charlie Brown is not the spitting image of his maker. If anyone in the strip mirrors Schulz, it's Peppermint Patty: as others have pointed out, she shares his mixture of self-doubt and bravado, is an athletic whiz (as Schulz himself was, in very pointed contrast to Charlie Brown), and has no mother. Perhaps this is why by the late '70s she comes to dominate and Charlie Brown in many ways recedes from prominence.
Another archetypal artist myth might better characterize the story of Schulz and his creation, which is that happiness is the enemy of art. It was a good thing for Schulz the man that life got better by the mid-'70s, but it was a bad thing for Peanuts. Despite the earnest protests of comics scholars and admiring fellow cartoonists, by the late '70s Peanuts had begun to fade. The life went out of Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy; all that was left was stale repetition of the same old routine. Schulz resorts to unconvincing physical humor not emerging naturally from the characters' littleness, as in the early strips, but rather forced silliness, as well as bad jokes told by the characters themselves that no one else laughs at—a poor cop-out on the cartoonist's part. The emotional edginess vanishes from the strip, perhaps along with Schulz's old wounds. Or maybe it's just that thirty years is the limit of life in a time-arrested comic strip.
But probably all this analysis is more serious than Schulz ever intended for his art. His comic creation may have been worth more than peanuts, but it was, after all, just a daily strip in your local newspaper, a momentary smile or rueful nod of the head, the comfort of familiar faces. Those who learned the fine art of sarcasm from Lucy's caustic remarks and still say "good grief!" in the face of the ridiculous will delight in the range of trivia this comprehensive collection offers. Here you can learn that long before he was a dreadful minor league player, Joe Schlabotnik was an imaginary piano player made up by Schroeder on the spur of the moment; you can watch the cost of psychiatric help rise to 7¢, then to 34¢, all the way up to an appalling 50¢ before tumbling back down to "five cents, please"; you can meet long-lost characters like José Peterson (whose mom makes tortillas and Swedish meatballs for dinner), the stentorian Charlotte Braun, and Snoopy's aggressive tennis partner Molly Volley; you can even learn the name of the cat next door: World War II. Happiness is The Complete Peanuts.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is assistant research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the editor of Lutheran Forum.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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