Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Comics: Good Grief

The Complete Peanuts Volumes 1 (1950-1952) and 2 (1953-1954), Charles Shulz. Fantagraphics Books.

Charles Shulz provided me with a lot of words in my childhood: Good Grief. Kite-Eating Tree. Security Blanket. Supper Dish. Beethoven. World War One Flying Ace. Psychiatry 5 Cents. Naturally Curly Hair. Great Pumpkin. Fussbudget. Joe Cool. Woodstock. Stupid Cat Next Door. Sidney or the Bush. Can't Stand Coconut. Goat. Blockhead. Crabby. Slugs. Little Red-Haired Girl. Sweet Baboo. Gully Cats. Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. Happy Dance. Blech.

Happiness is a Warm Puppy. Good Ol' Charlie Brown.

Peanuts started seven years before I was born, but when I was growing up, we had the square-bound books of the collected strips in the house (Peanuts, More Peanuts, Good Grief More Peanuts) and read them and re-read them to tatters. And the first Christmas and Halloween specials were just rolling out, establishing the strip as the hot replacement for L'il Abner in the American comic lexicon. We took a lot of our cues from the gang - frustrated loser Charlie Brown, bossy Lucy, intellectual Linus, creative Schroeder, and in particular Snoopy as the dog with an extensive fantasy life. So when the first volume of the complete collected strips came out, I picked it up, and then waited so long to write about it that the second volume came out.

The collected sets overwhelm me with both a sense of nostalgia and a sense of admiration. In these early volumes, we see the stuff that is to come, the pieces falling into place, both in pictures and in words. The early graphic world of Peanuts is much more three-dimensional than the later years - things live in the foreground and background, and characters do bits of business that have little to do with the task of propelling the last-panel gag. The gags themselves are more "smilers" than "laughers" - bits of observational humor and personal interaction that underscore the idea of kids as their own proto-adult world.

But the pieces are falling into place. Early Charlie Brown is more mischevious. Lucy is more childlike and needy than bossy, she and Schroeder being the youngest of the group at the start. Piano prodigy Schroeder is more of the group's intellectual, since Linus, arriving on the scene later, is still pre-verbal in his early appearances. Snoopy is more like a dog than a raw expression of fantasy. Shultz is trying things here, and blessed with hindsight, we can see the bits of the universe coming together.

Not everything works, and the strip's history records that as well. Snoopy has a voice balloon in a couple strips, but has yet to embrace his thoughts on-page. Unseen adults have lines from off-panel, which changes the dynamic from kid-kid relationships to child-adult ones, and that goes away over time as well. A multi-Sunday strip epic shows up, continuing from week to week (young Lucy goes golfing) an experiment that is not repeated, as similarly unrepeated was an attempt to name the Sunday strips.

The core at the start is Charlie Brown, Sherman, Violet, Patty, and Schroeder, with Lucy showing up soon afterwards as a near-toddler. Linus arrives as a target for Lucy's growing selfishness, and Pig-Pen shows up early as well to great success. But in the closing pages of Volume 2, we meet Charlene Braun, the forgotten member of the Peanuts gang, one I never knew existed, because her strips never showed up in earlier collections. A loud young girl with curly hair and a similar name to Charlie Brown, Charlene never got the traction she needed - her loud voice was sucked up by Lucy, and her curls regenerating in with the similarly ineffective later character Freida.

These volumes are great presentations, lovingly assembled, the first with an intro by Garrison Keillor, the second volume by Walkter Cronkite. The first volume reprints a Fantagraphic interview with Charles Shulz that shows the man as an honest, open, caring man - Charlie Brown grown up. I found myself awash in memories and smiles as I reconnected with the gang.

More later,