Good News, Charlie Brown
The Complete Peanuts—and the trend it represents—is a multileveled triumph. First, it’s a triumph for art over kitsch.
Thursday, June 3, 2004
All men of good will are cheering the recent publication of the first volume of The Complete Peanuts, an ambitious project from Fantagraphics Books, most known as publishers of arty comics by the likes of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. The book debuted on the New York Times hardcover fiction chart at number 19. This series will reprint every single one of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips in handsomely designed volumes, each covering two years. The first volume, now available, covers the tail end of 1950, when the strip began, as well as all of 1951-52.
Allowing for no cynicism and no carping (except maybe the lack of color in the Sunday strips), this book—and the trends it represents—is a multileveled triumph. First, it’s a triumph for art over kitsch—for the integral energies of a work of popular art over the rampant and possibly damaging commodification of it.
And it stands up. This first volume will surprise those who only remember the canonical Peanuts as it matured in the late ‘50s and on through the ‘70s. (Most agree it lost a lot of steam and charm in the ‘80s, with the growing domination of Snoopy’s relatives and bird buddies.)
As the strip begins, Charlie Brown is a bit of a scamp, not the trod-upon but enduring loser he became. (Though the punchline of the very first strip, highlighting that these cute cartoon kids aren’t as cute as they might seem, is a friend saying of Charlie Brown, “How I hate him!”)
Peanuts in this first volume mostly revolves around genuinely childish shenanigans between him and three other characters, Shermy, Patty (not the later tomboyish, struggling-with-school Peppermint Patty) and Violet. They play in sandboxes and the snow, fuss over candy, and sell mud pies.
Snoopy is still a dog on all fours, evincing only subtle hints of his later quasi-humanity—and he isn’t even definitively Charlie Brown’s dog at the start, merely a neighborhood mutt of sorts. Schroeder shows up as an infant, already a piano prodigy. And before this volume’s end, Charlie Brown’s nemesis Lucy Van Pelt enters as an infant and quickly evolves into the super fussbudget and relentless needler of good ol’ Charlie Brown.
There from the beginning are Schulz’s strikingly clean and modernist pen lines, elegantly minimalist design and background, and indescribable but unavoidable sheer comic charm.
From its humble beginnings in fewer than 10 papers, it grew to be one of the most widely read objects in the history of the human race, an unprecedented popular success while still winning the love of intelligentsia ranging from Umberto Eco to Garrison Keillor (who wrote the introduction to Complete Peanuts Vol. 1 .) Peanuts’ dual levels of popularity are curious—on its own terms it added a distinctly modernist look (in the stark simplicity of its line and figure work, unique in its day, reducing cartooning to bare yet still skillful essentials) and an existential voice and image to the comics pages. As comedy and comics historian Ben Schwartz noted in a recent article in Comic Art, Schulz’s work fit in snugly with a American literary mentality exemplified by the likes of Salinger and popular sociology like The Lonely Crowd : “postwar failure and frustration.”
Indeed, far from merely charming and diverting, Peanuts presented every day for 50 years a curious and fantastic litany of failure (Charlie Brown), malice (Lucy), self-deception (Snoopy, Linus, Peppermint Patty), and genius that goes nowhere (Schroeder and his toy piano). Yet it still somehow became widely beloved on the crudest level of festooning bedsheets and lunch pails and pitching life insurance and cruddy snack cakes.
Yes, everyone loved Peanuts, but it’s sometimes hard, from the perspective of the fan of comics-art-for-arts sake, to figure out exactly why. The strip’s essence, one would think, would make hawkers of cheap products and cheaper sentiment run away from its characters screaming. Yet it remained compelling on so many levels that we managed to achieve an amazing level of pure cultural denial over what Peanuts was really selling us.
It’s true, I suppose, that all of us have elements of Charlie Brown, of Snoopy the supercilious fantasist, of Lucy the self-assured terror, somewhere in us, or at least in our experience. What Peanuts never gave us—even though myth would say lowest-common-denominator culture demands it—is uplift or a happy ending. It gave us one curious, alienated postwar American’s skill and vision and determination (he kept drawing himself in a final decade when he could barely draw an unshaky line) and that turned out to be more than enough.