The Complete Peanuts 1950-1954 Box Set
Charles M. Schulz
704 pp., $49.99
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
Oh Good Grief!
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.