Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Nearing The End: The Complete Peanuts 93-94 and 95-96

When Fantagraphics was given permission to publish The Complete Peanuts, doing so in chronological order, it gave the audience a chance to look at old work with new eyes. There were a number of rewards in the early going since so many of Schulz's earlier strips had never been reprinted, mostly due to the author's request. There were some gags he didn't like and others that he thought might become dated too quickly. Given his astounding seven-days-a-week workload for close to fifty years, it's no surprise that there'd be a few clunkers and even a few repeats thrown in there. What was revelatory about the first ten to fifteen years was the incredibly high hit-to-miss ratio in his strips. Something like eighty to ninety percent were at the very least good, and many of them were great. He'd take an idea and sometimes go on a two ore three week run with it.

The second big surprise was that once the strip moved into the 70s, it maintained an incredibly high level of quality, like between 65-75%. The strip was quite different in some ways, with the addition of characters like Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Woodstock and Spike, but that gave Schulz a chance to reinvent the strip with characters who were far more fully-formed than ciphers like Patty, Shermy, Violet, etc. Familiar characters like Pigpen and Schroeder also faded into the background a bit, because there wasn't much to these characters other than one or two gimmicks. While the tone of the strip became increasingly sentimental and sometimes nonsensical (mostly in the guise of Snoopy), the pathos of Charlie Brown stayed at the same level while the strip was deepened through the struggles of Peppermint Patty, who became the strip's emotional center and its soul in its last 25-years.

The impetus she provided sustained Peanuts through the 1980s. While not at the same overall level of quality, the strip continued to explore Peppermint Patty and her travails. Interestingly, that included her shoddy treatment at the hands of Charlie Brown, something that was never commented on by any of the other characters. Indeed, both Marcie and Peppermint Patty were fairly unabashed in expressing their affection for Charlie Brown, only to have it met with stunned silence, time after time. Charlie Brown may have been a loser in the context of his own peer group, but Marcie and Peppermint Patty were genuine weirdos, and he had no idea how to interact with that particular tribe.

This brings us to Schulz's little-discussed work in the 90s. One can see his line start to tremble as his once-confident minimalism sometimes devolved into figures that looked barely rendered. Other times, the lines, word balloons and even lettering shaky almost to the point of looking like it's vibrating. The volume covering 1993 and 1994 still has plenty of good ideas and great gags. Schulz is at his best when doing stories about baseball. It's Charlie Brown at his purest, as an idealist and optimist who never stops trying, no matter how many times he's failed. The storyline involving Roy Hobbs' (from The Natural) great-granddaughter, picked up now and again over the span of a couple of years, is a particular stand-out. It's an absurd concept that gives the strip a shot in the arm, as Charlie Brown actually wins a couple of baseball games going up against her, only to have her eventually reveal that she let him win because of her affections for him (once again rejected!) was the sort of heartbreak Schulz was so good at in the sixties.

Many of the gags here do feel like Schulz was "flipping channels", so to speak, as every day he'd turn his attention to something he thought was amusing, perhaps searching for a spark for a longer narrative. On any given day, that could be looking in on Spike; the struggles of Peppermint Patty in school along with her foil, Marcie; Snoopy as the World War I flying ace; Charlie Brown's bedtime existentialism, Lucy yelling and Rerun's consistent bafflement regarding the world. Only the baseball strips felt completely "lived in", as though Schulz effortlessly picked up the long-running baseball narrative wherever he left off.

Just when you thought Schulz was drifting, however, he'd uncork some solid continuing narratives. The strips set at camp are always strong, but the series where Snoopy's in the hospital were unusually touching. There was genuine emotion in Charlie Brown's concern for his dog, leavened by the comic relief of Spike, Andy and Olaf (Snoopy's brothers) showing up at Snoopy's bedside. The football strips are surprisingly visceral, as they are inevitably played in the mud and involve lots of hard hits. Seeing the sheer joy on the face of Peppermint Patty (and the ambivalence of everyone else) makes these strips a delight, and it's clear that Schulz enjoyed adding levels of detail almost unheard of in his other strips. The same was true for his series of D-Day strips commemorating its fiftieth anniversary, as Snoopy is depicted going through its hellish conditions with nary a joke to be found.  The most jaw-dropping strip is the Sunday cartoon where Spike details why he came to live in the desert: because he hated the experience of having to try to hunt and kill something. Again, this was a no-punchline strip that's emotionally raw, the kind Schulz would spring on readers after weeks of silly gags.

In the 1995-96 volume, the ratio of hits-to-misses starts to sharply drop. His most efficient joke machine, Sally Brown, starts to crank out the same punchlines again and again. Aside from an attempt to run away from home that's amusing, she falls prey to the same tedium that started to afflict most of his characters as Schulz appeared to be running dry of inspiration. In order to break out of the tedium, Schulz went against his own tendencies a few times. Charlie Brown meets a girl who wants to dance with him and he's elated, until he thinks he made her up somehow. When she proves to be quite real and asks him to a ball, he winds up getting kicked out because Snoopy crashed the party. While that's a more typical ending for a Charlie Brown story, the one where he comes in and mops the floor with a marbles hustler named Joe Agate is an unabashed win for "Cool Thumb" Brown. Perhaps the fact that he was sticking up for someone else (Rerun had his marbles hustled from him) made this work so well.

Snoopy's on the cover of this one as the World Famous Attorney, and he truly dominates the book. Some of his characters are truly awful (the card player named "Joe Blackjack" is perhaps Schulz's least inspired idea), but roping Spike into the increasingly-detailed World War I fantasy (here, Spike's in the infantry and stands in a trench) was actually quite clever and opened up some more storytelling lanes for Schulz. More and more, it became difficult to predict the strip on a daily basis. It frequently got weird as often as it was hacky or sentimental. That included Schulz more frequently altering the structure of the strips, going to one-panel strips with a sort of panorama effect of gags. That was often used for the strips where the gang was waiting for their schoolbus, which generated a new barrage of gags, as well as the weirdly contemplative strips where the characters would discuss Jesus (often asking if he had a dog) or Snoopy would make a reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald. In continued stories, the one-panel strips stack quite nicely to create a visual gestalt that Schulz probably never even considered. Some of the low-lights (other than drawing kids with backwards-baseball caps) included a joke about "beak-piercing" and a truly lowest common denominator gag about The Macarena. There are moments of heart and wit, but 1996 was the first time Schulz really seemed to be in a creative rut. Considering that this came forty-six years into doing the same strip, day after day, it's not a bad record. I'll be curious to see if the final two volumes show Schulz shedding some of that sameness by getting weirder.

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