Saturday, August 22, 2009

Where I Came In: Peanuts 73-74

Rob reviews the latest volume in the career-spanning collection of Charles Schulz's classic strip, THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1973-74.

The latest volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS held a special meaning for me, since these are the first comics I started reading as a four-year-old child. As far as I can remember, PEANUTS may well have been the first thing I started reading, period. These weren't necessarily my favorite strips from Charles Schulz (even as a child, I recognized the greatness of the late 50s and early 60s), but there's a reassuring sturdiness to them. At the same time, Schulz was trying any number of new ideas to see what would stick. As a result, the day-to-day tone of the strip often widely varied, from one-liners to familiar psychological explorations to continuity stories to long riffs on sports to social commentary. To his credit, Schulz wasn't afraid to abruptly drop an idea when it stopped working, or more likely, when he lost interest in it.

A case in point was the end of the Poochie saga that started in the previous volume. Here, Schulz took an unusually melodramatic turn by ret-conning Snoopy's original owner into the strip, a girl named Poochie. When we finally meet her, Schulz either decided it wasn't working out as he expected or had deliberately framed it as a shaggy dog story, but in any event the sequence ended with a befuddled Poochie encountering Joe Cool and walking away. Schulz also briefly took on gender discrimination head-on in the form of Marcie (a character who got a great deal of attention in this volume) dealing with the sexism of Thibault, a boy who didn't want her on the baseball team. To say that Schulz's take on this issue was heavy-handed is an understatement, even drawing Thibault with a permanent scowl that all but paints him as a villain. Schulz concludes the sequence with Marcie punching him in the face and doesn't pursue the issue this directly any further.

Schulz always noted that his first mission as a cartoonist was to be funny. While his most memorable strips may have been ones that traded in melancholy, a number of his daily strips were devoted to one-off gags. In this volume, Schulz went from setting up those gags in the form of his characters to having Snoopy literally type wordplay jokes for the reader. A number of these gags were obvious groaners, but Schulz anticipated the audience's reaction with the real gag of each strip: the "audience" of his typewritten story committing an act of violence on the punster. "She creamed him with the electric toaster" was a particular favorite of mine. Speaking of Snoopy, while he's as much a mainstay as ever, he doesn't quite dominate the action as much in this volume as in past years, at least in terms of lengthy fantasy digressions. We get the occasional appearance of Joe Cool and the WWI fighting ace, but more in one-offs as opposed to days-long sagas.

In terms of the longer sequences, Schulz concentrated on Charlie Brown and his relationship with sports and summer camp. When Charlie Brown finally cracks up and sees a baseball rise in the east instead of the sun, he even develops a rash on the back of his head in the shape of a baseball. Forced to go to summer camp wearing a paper sack over his head, he suddenly becomes beloved and respected by his peers (despite the nickname of "Mister Sack"), even becoming camp president. Once again, Schulz ends this sequence with a bizarre blackout of a joke, featuring the first and only appearance of MAD's Alfred E Neuman. Schulz had gone from a fairly grounded sense of consensus reality to Snoopy's flights of fancy to outright weirdness. That became quite evident when he introduced the character of the sentient schoolhouse that Sally started to talk to, one that dropped bricks on people it didn't like. Like every other fantastical element in this strip, Schulz introduced it matter-of-factly and without explanation. Schulz really took to this idea, turning to it frequently late in 1974.

Those weird digressions apart, Schulz really did play out his ideas on the baseball diamond during this era. He throws Rerun Van Pelt on the baseball team, has Snoopy pursue Babe Ruth's home run record at the same time Hank Aaron was going after it (adding a bit more social commentary), and having an actual win overturned because of a gambling scandal. (Shades of Pete Rose--Rerun bet on Charlie Brown's team, even as he was a player!) Schulz also did a series of somewhat hacky gags featuring Snoopy as a tennis player; it was clear that Schulz had suddenly become enamored of the sport and wrung every bit of humor he could muster from Snoopy playing an unseen opponent. This is the first time for me as a reader where an extended series of Shulz gags felt creaky to me now, but 24 years into his tenure, it wasn't surprising to see him eager to try something new to him.

That seems to be the essence of Sparky Schulz to me: even with the pressure of the daily grind and his position as the lynchpin of what had become a vast empire, Schulz wrote to amuse himself. He never hacked out a drawing and freely experimented with new directions, characters and points of view. By 1974, the strip moved away from the dominant quartet of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus and Lucy and saw Marcie and Peppermint Patty as crucial catalysts. Unlike the more generic Peanuts characters like Shermy, Patty and Violet, Schulz went out of his way to give his new characters distinctive & quirky personalities and backstories. They weren't one-joke characters like Pig-Pen or Frieda, but true extensions of Schulz's personality like his immortal earlier creations. While Schulz repeated motifs and extensively sampled certain gags over the years, he refused to completely freeze his characters in time. Indeed, he changed his focus from the philosophical and psychological aspects of the characters and their relationships to an approach that was simultaneously broader but more in tune with contemporary issues. By 1974, he had come up with so many ideas that it was easier and easier to take a pit stop at older ideas with a fresh narrative--and in so doing, throwing older readers a bone--and quickly moved on from them into a new idea. At his best in this volume, Schulz gave the readers some of the best stories of his career. The chronological presentation of the material is so important in building a true rhythm with the reader, and I'll be curious to see how his oft-maligned 1980s strips feel when read in a collection. In the meantime, seeing how the strip's tone furthed descends into absurdity in the late 70s will also be interesting to observe, especially if Schulz's heart doesn't seem to be in the non-absurd stories.

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