Sunday, August 26, 2007
This Is The One
The COMPLETE PEANUTS series from Fantagraphics has been chugging along for three-plus years now, and a new volume isn't greeted as an event anymore. The first seven books showed the evolution of the characters, some false starts (the characters 3,4, and 5 never really caught on), and presented a fascinating collection of never-before-reprinted strips, including an early continuity featuring an out-of-character Lucy in a golf tournament with actual adults.
But THIS is the one. This is where it all comes together. 1965-66 was the absolute height of Charles Schulz's continuity storytelling. It starts off with the finale (continued from the previous volume) of Charlie Brown's agonizing attempts to put off writing a school-vacation book report as long as possible. He can't bring himself to actually do the work, but he can't enjoy a single minute of his Christmas break, either.
Then we proceed to Sally's childlike/adolescent humiliation at having to wear an eyepatch for her amblyopia. Charlie Brown's total humiliation at the spelling bee, after which he screams at the teacher and spends a week of strips dreading his visit to the principal's office. Lucy and Linus's deep sadness when their parents decide to move away from the neighborhood (temporarily, of course). The introduction of beatnik lesbian Peppermint Patty, an ideal foil for the others and a perfectly realized character from Strip One. The first, agonizing, Little Red-Haired Girl strips --and, counterpointing them, the first two summer camp storylines, where we see that even losers can leave their familiar surroundings and, temporarily, become Someone Else.
And near the end, in a horrifying sequence, Snoopy's doghouse burns to the ground. This storyline in particular taps into a lot of genuine fear and dread, from Snoopy trying to sleep on the charred, bowed, fish-skeleton framework of his former house; to Lucy's blame-the-victim insistence that "he was probably smoking in bed"; to Snoopy's frustration with red tape as he tries to build a new home.
Schulz's timing is at its height here, and so are his facial expressions. Incidental panels pop out at you, like Charlie Brown and Snoopy sitting together on a chair, talking; or Snoopy angrily BOOT-ing Lucy clear out of the panel when she suggests his plans for a new home are too extravagant -- "He's only a stupid dog!" There are curiosities, too, like a Christmas strip wherein Linus recites the same verse as in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but in Revised Standard translation, not King James. (The strip, which I believe was published after the Christmas special, takes pains to point out the source version. It must have been important to Schulz for some reason.)
Most of us initially read these strips in scattered, dog-eared paperbacks, the strips shuffled and rearranged. Sometimes this made the continuities tighter -- for instance, Linus's two strips about "the gift of prophecy" appear here hundreds of pages apart, but they're funnier when read together. But assembled in order of original publication, these strips really show a cartoonist at the absolute height of his powers. This is the first volume where the incidental, one-off strips never let you down. Spliced in and among the continuities are such gems as Snoopy waiting in line for the movies with everyone else, proud of belonging, until he reaches the front and realizes "I don't even know what's going on"; Lucy's hilarious non-fight with Snoopy; and Violet -- a much-diminished character by this point -- proclaiming to Charlie Brown, "I'll be glad when I grow up and can move out of this neighborhood...everyone around here bores me!" "Everyone?" he replies. "Especially 'everyone'!!!"
And sometimes, Schulz weaves storylines together in unexpected ways. While Charlie Brown deals with the horrors of the spelling bee in the daily strips, the Sundays feature some of the finest of the surreal, mock-melodramatic Snoopy/Red Baron gags. Then, in the last daily of that sequence, Charlie Brown -- trudging home after "the worst day of my life" -- thinks, "On a day like this, a person really needs his faithful dog to come running out to greet him." Snoopy, of course, sits astride his sopwith camel, wholly focused on his quest for the Red Baron. Charlie Brown just sighs.
One note: Skip the Hal Hartley introduction. Hartley completely ignores this finest period of Peanuts, dwelling instead on (a) lesser strips from a later period and (b) his own films and the critical reaction to same. The piece is both egotistical and out of place; it would have fit much better in a later volume or, preferably, in a drawer. This book deserves better.