Monday, March 30, 2009

Tapping the Well: Complete Peanuts 71-72

Rob reviews the latest volume of Charles Schulz's THE COMPLETE PEANUTS: 1971-72 (Fantagraphics).

The latest volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS finds Charles Schulz still at his peak, having completed the transition of the strip from its 60s heyday. While Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy were all still major characters and each had their own story arcs, they no longer dominated the strip the way they did in the 60s. What differentiates this volume from 1969-70 is that Snoopy as a fantasy figure also recedes a bit more into the background as well. This volume sees Schulz begin to really explore the possibilities inherent in Peppermint Patty, gives her a foil in Marcie, introduces the last outsider character in the strip in Rerun and gives Sally Brown a star turn.

Over twenty years into the strip, Schulz remarkably recycled very few of his jokes (there's one about Lucy and bugs that seems a bit familiar) and instead seemed to try to find new ways to amuse himself. The result was that his strip felt like several different overlapping strips in one, depending on the day. When he wanted to go with laugh-out-loud gags, Sally was his new go-to character. Her combination of naivete, obliviousness and blind rage made her perfect as a mouthpiece of malapropisms. While Lucy's rage was always a constant of the strip, Sally's anger was more unfocused and harmless, even if she was earnest in presenting her views. Strips where she panicked about missing Easter vacation in January, vowing that her teachers would "never get me to tell all I know" about oceans and misunderstanding that this wasn't a threat, writes a theme about the 4th of July because she's "a victim of programming", calls a dinosaur a "bronchitis" and erroneously comes up with a backstory for "forest strangers" point out her earnest cluelessness. Her real star turn came in a strip where she was forced to go on a field trip to an art museum, and warns a fellow student to "try not to have a good time...this is supposed to be educational". Schulz even went so far as to vary his visual approach just a bit with her, bugging out her eyes in one strip or making thicker black dots to indicate her being stunned.

Schulz was not satisfied to just crank out gags like this. He spent much of the volume exploring one-on-one relationships between many of the characters: Snoopy/Woodstock, Charlie Brown/Lucy (a perennial favorite), Charlie Brown/Peppermint Patty, and Patty/Marcie. Schulz dropped a surprising number of pop culture references in other strips, though never seemed comfortable enough to spend much time with them other than as one-offs. The strip where Linus is depressed because Bob Dylan was about to turn thirty was especially strange. There are also some extended fantasy sequences with Snoopy, unveiling his "Joe Cool" persona, but this doesn't dominate the strip during this period as much as the prior volume.

Peppermint Patty still felt like a character crossing over from a completely different strip whenever she appeared, but Schulz had managed to find ways to wrap her life up into virtually every other character in the strip. She still talked and dressed differently than everyone else (sounding way more modern than the others), but while she was every bit as aggressive as Lucy, she lacked her relentless narcissism. The extended stories with her and the clueless Charlie Brown make up the heartbreaking center of this book. She made up her mind that he had a crush on her (a clear displacement of her own feelings), while C.B. was still so hung up on the little red-haired girl that he couldn't figure out what was going on with Peppermint Patty. This played out when the two of them went to a carnival together and he inadvertently hurts her feelings, when Patty brutally dismisses him to Marcie when she wasn't aware that he was listening, and during one of the brilliant summer camp sequences when Peppermint Patty meets the little red-haired girl and realizes that she can't compete. Unlike the obnoxious Lucy, we really feel for Peppermint Patty when she suffers, because she really puts herself out there more than any other character.

Introducing Marcie as her Linus-figure was a stroke of genius and a cementing of Peppermint Patty's status as one of the major characters in the strip. Marcie acted as friend, adviser, catalyst and tormentor (always calling her "sir" certainly touched on P.P.'s issues with her own femininity, later played out in a memorable run of strips where she challenges the school dress code). It was interesting that Schulz was able to introduce such vivid characters about halfway through his run on the strip, characters whose quirks made them very different from the bland Shermy, Violet and Patty. At the same time, Marcie and Peppermint Patty weren't one-note jokes like Frieda or 5. One wonders how much potential he saw in these characters from the very beginning, or if his process of integrating them into the strip was more serendipitous.

Snoopy's antics seemed a bit tame here compared to prior volumes. Joe Cool was Schulz' interpretation of the modern college student and was more mildly amusing than really funny. There's lots of interplay between Snoopy and Woodstock (who is now Snoopy's secretary, bringing up a whole new world of jokes), including a couple of walkabouts. There's a bizarre sequence where Snoopy has to go off and aid a beagle named Thompson, who meets his end at the hands of a pack of rabbits. The funniest Snoopy bits involve his fascination with the "Six Bunny-Wunnies" books and their author, Helen Sweetstory. Snoopy becomes obsessed with the author, is crushed when he finds out she's a cat lover, travels to find her home and later writes an unauthorized biography of her. Schulz tosses in a few sly pop-culture references here in the titles of their books, like "The Six Bunny-Wunnies Join An Encounter Group" and "The Six Bunny-Wunnies Freak Out", the latter book getting banned by Charlie Brown's school.

There are still plenty of familiar strips featuring the old reliable characters. Linus' arc featuring him trying (and briefly succeeding) to give up his blanket addiction through Snoopy is a particular highlight. Lucy managing to get a promised kiss out of Schroeder if she hits a home run, only to turn it down when she does as a victory for women's lib, was both hilarious and topical. Lucy and Charlie Brown have plenty of great "psychiatric help" gags (though the booth increased in price to 7 cents in some strips). Charlie Brown's adventures at camp were now dependable yearly highlights, with Schulz understanding that repetition is the key through humor with Charlie Brown's tentmate saying nothing but "Shut up, and leave me alone!" The balance Schulz struck in this volume is as perfect as it would get: a perfect blend of fantasy, whimsy, jokes, heartbreak, topical references and sturdy characterization.

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