Book Review: Charles Schulz, “The Complete Peanuts: 1973 to 1974″
I am a bald, neurotic person with poor social skills and an equally dismal amount of self-esteem. It is only logical that I see so much of myself in the character of Charlie Brown. I’m in good company as report after report, after bio after expose, has confirmed Peanuts creator Charles Schulz used his famous loser as an outlet for his own emotional shortcomings. Beyond Schulz’s passing it is hard to imagine such an iconic and influential figure having such a poor self-image. I suppose that is what made his creations so identifiable — there’s an innate authenticity and an emotional archetype for everyone, often many of them at the same time. Who hasn’t felt totally dumped on — or like Linus, a precocious, somewhat worldly personality still clutching to things that offer security; or like Lucy, whose ambitions and forthrightness often causes more harm than good?
The real magic was what Schulz was able to get away with, available to those who chose to catch it but almost invisible to those who read the comic strip for its simplistic trappings: Snoopy’s eternally aborted mystery novel, Pigpen’s hygiene issues, Schroeder’s constant blocking of Lucy’s advances and all rendered in Schulz’ uncluttered, perfectly framed panels. These were offered up in front while quotes from philosophers, historical figures and Biblical passages were smuggled in through the back door. Freud and Jung received as much time at Lucy’s psychiatric booth as one-two punchlines and putdowns. You didn’t have to be super smart to appreciate Peanuts, but if you were, you probably were already a convert.
Fantagraphics Books continues its series devoted to chronologically packaging the strip and has not missed a step along the way. I’ve collected books such as these in the past, with the rush of instant audience gratification at the start and a whole lot of frontloaded hoopla, but when the crowd calmed down the attention to detail also faded. Simple design guidelines fell by the wayside, introductory pieces from notable devotees dropped off, and even the quality of the printing itself flaked out. I’m pleased to inform that the latest edition, the twelfth in the series, is as lovingly curated as the first and features an introduction by Billie Jean King. It’s another nice touch in the series that not only do people directly involved with the Peanuts universe have a say, but those who came to great acclaim get to tie in their accomplishments to the specific edition’s timeframe and highlights. As a commentator on comic strips, King may seem out of place, but as societal and historical touchstone of the early 1970s, she fits perfectly. Schulz made sure back in those strips her contribution to the sport of tennis was celebrated, as well as her place in the women’s movement.
Again, the printing screams “quality,” with the best reproduction of Schulz’ art in rich black placed on crisp, white paper. While that sounds like a given, please note that for the better part of the series, these strips were printed on newsprint stock paperbacks. They did the job but seldom clued the reader in to the skill with which each panel was rendered. At first glance everything looks like broadly captured squiggles, but take note of each panel, how the composition is faithfully carried over from one to the next versus the often used shortcut of close-ups or wide angles. It looks easy but anyone who has tried their hand at sequential art will tell you so — it’s maddening. The books are library-quality with tight, sturdy binding and a proper dustjacket, and the entire series is designed by comic artist Seth providing reverential continuity to the whole.
As recently discussed by my colleague Ann Logue in her Numberscruncher column, the day of the comic strip is coming to an end. As papers collapse, or choose not to pay syndication fees, or just choose to run the most ineffectual strips left in the marketplace, it is nice to know that one of the form’s greatest achievements is being held up as the accomplishment it really is. Never has someone so wishy-washy and alienated as Charlie Brown been loved by so many for so long.
The Complete Peanuts is available from Amazon.com.