Thursday, May 27, 2004

Good Grief

The Complete Peanuts, v. 1; 1950-1952, Charles M. Schulz, Fantagraphics, 2004

Perhaps essential for every home in America, this first volume shows the beginning of almost everything that would become iconic about Peanuts. The strip begins with Shermy, Patty, and Charlie Brown. But it is only Charlie Brown who goes on to be a major character, Shermy and Patty declining into minor support roles as newer characters caught Schulz’s fancy. This is not entirely evident in the first few weeks of the strip as Charlie Brown has equal or less face time than the other two and is often bested by them.

In the course of this first volume, Lucy, Linus, and Schroeder appear; Snoopy seems to solidify more and more as Charlie Brown’s dog; Violet is introduced as Patty’s friend; Charlie Brown’s first shirt, a plain white T is replaced with the well-recognized collared shirt with zig-zag stripe; and most surprisingly, Charlie and Lucy’s sparring with the football begins. Though not how you’d expect.

It is illuminating to watch a strip in its infancy prior to its enormous popularity in the world . Characters I’d known my whole life merely in their “mature” approximately 6-to-8 year old incarnations are often introduced as babies. Like a soap opera, these characters quickly grow up to the same age as the others while the others are still in their holding pattern of childhood.

As a bonus, this first volume also has the lovely quality of letting you not only watch characters grow, but also letting you watch Schulz grow. His early strips are less detailed and contain less background. The familiar round open mouths of his characters (see Lucy yelling for example) are merely a curvy line or two lines angled together. The totally familiar faces are fluid in this collection, Charlie Brown's hairstyle, height, and dress slowly morphing into the kid we all identify with.

And from the very beginning, Schulz's unique twist on the lives of children, on the nature of comic strips, and his wry sense of humor is almost shocking. We are used to it now, though in later years it would soften somewhat. The sense of the absurd, the classic juxtaposition of the commonplace with the unexpected, the sheer existential pining of the strip are all there to see from page one.

Within the first three strips we are introduced to Shermy whose punchline for strip one is “Good ol’ Charlie Brown…How I hate him!” In strip two, Patty socks Charlie Brown in the eye in the middle of singing “Sugar and spice and everything nice.” And Snoopy gets doused with water on the third day. The collection reads as a constant battle, a series of mishaps, accidents, and violence, tempered with a zany sense of wonder.

And the younger characters waste no time in getting into the fray. When we first meet Lucy, she is a wide-eyed innocent unable to count beyond one and sleeping in her crib. She isn’t long in becoming the world-class fussbudget we all know and love, besting Charlie Brown at checkers and telling a phone solicitor that she's the head of the house. Likewise Schroeder is a piano-playing baby unable even to speak, though he soon outgrows this and kicks Charlie Brown and Patty out of his house for talking over a recording of Beethoven. In coming volumes, we will see more of the common characters introduced like Peppermint Patty and Marcie, Woodstock, Franklin, and Pig Pen with all their attendant monomanias.

The universal appeal of Peanuts can hardly be overstated. No less a member of the Intelligentsia than Umberto Eco is a fan and is quoted on the cover (one can hope they tap him to pen an introduction) while the no-brow schlockmeister Garrison Keillor adds a pointless essay at the beginning of the book. The entire point of the misguided Keillor piece strikes me as a nationwide call, “Look, I knew Charles Schulz well enough to call him ‘Sparky’.” The whole thick volume is book-ended with essays and interviews and it is what follows the reprinting of the first two years of Peanuts that is of any value as far as non-Schulz material.

The end essay by David Michaelis is both biographical and analytic and his author note informs us that he is writing the first full-length biography of Schulz. This is surprisingly long overdue. Perhaps it’s more of a testament to typical American dismissal of comic strips and illustrated novels as mere child’s play without redeeming qualities that we’ve had to wait this long for an actual book length work on the man and his work. There is also a lengthy interview that is penetrating and insightful which gives some great background history.

The book is obviously a labor of love. The strips are printed three to a page until the Sundays start to show up and consume full pages to themselves. The layout has a crispness and the reproduction of such old strips is clean and precise. Each page has a middle corner notation letting you know on the left page the month and the right page the year. These are helpful little tags that many another publisher would certainly just as well have left off.

The fine people at Fantagraphics deserve your money, no matter how you choose to give it to them. They publish many traditional items such as this Peanuts collection and reprints of the old Pogo and Krazy and Ignatz strips (pure repetitive genius), and then they also put out some of the finest alternative comic strip collections like Maakies, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and comics in general. They went through a spot of financial difficulties recently, filing for bankruptcy, and The Complete Peanuts might get them out of the hole.

I find this volume so hard to critique and review. How do you review something that is so infused with love and is at the same time such a part of your existence you can’t imagine its absence? Imagine writing a review of the sun or of air and water. Most comic strips in the newspapers are lame little things that barely elicit a tiny smile while this volume had me laughing out loud on nearly every page. Schulz’s humor is a wonderful thing; it is laughing in the face of tragedies large or small, though in Peanuts they are mostly small, personal, but nevertheless cutting and heartfelt.

This simple volume is a wonderful companion to Pantheon Books 2001 collection Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz. The two books together show such a profound respect for their subject matter, I was sure, searching my memory, that Peanuts was put out by Fantagraphics as well. Such is not the case, even if there are enormous similarities in their packaging.

Fantagraphics intention is to put out the full fifty years worth of Peanuts, two volumes a year, over the next 12 ½ years. At thirty dollars a volume ($750.00 over 25 volumes, projected without inflation or rising publishing costs), the only criticism I have is that the price of the collected complete series would be well worth insuring against theft, fire, or other accidents.

But what price love?

No comments: