Sunday, November 9, 2008

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1969-70 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Press, 2008)

This latest PEANUTS collection features an unquestionable "tipping point" -- and you can get a hint as to what it is by checking out the front cover's featured player. No, it's not the high point of the "World War I Flying Ace" era; in fact, the fad that had begun in '66 quietly exited the scene during this period. (The brooding 6/1/69 Sunday strip could be taken as a formal recognition of the fact. When the "Flying Ace" returned to the strip a decade later, the bullets and dogfights were dispensed with in favor of a more wistful, nostalgic approach.) But there's no question that Snoopy becomes the strip's primo star during the height of what Sally memorably mischaracterizes as the "Age of Aquariums." Other characters get memorable moments within these pages, of course, but Snoopy gets far and away the most meaningful "panel time."

Many longstanding Snoopy-related themes that would carry PEANUTS through the next decade and beyond are first introduced here. The horde of identical birds that had long interacted with Snoopy is finally pared down to a single companion, Woodstock, who henceforth will serve as ol' Snoop's "Bird Friday" and silent (apart from the occasional outburst of crooked vertical lines) partner in countless strips. Snoopy's persistent efforts to wade through those infamously "dark and stormy" opening sentences and gain fame as the "world's greatest novelist" also begin during this time. Most symbolic of all are the trio of continuities that I'll call "The Head Beagle Trilogy." In round one, Frieda, making her last valiant effort to get Snoopy to chase rabbits, commits a fatal faux pas by reporting his lax attitude to "The Head Beagle." She thereby becomes a pariah (perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the naturally curly one dropped out of the main cast soon thereafter!) as Schulz builds the "fear factor" up to comically grotesque proportions. A most unsatisfying concluding strip, however, leaves the reader with a sense of letdown. Ditto the second series of strips, in which the H.B. assigns Snoopy to a "secret mission" on the playground. Schulz again drops the ball by allowing Snoopy to linger there for only two days' worth of strips before getting chased away. Finally, Schulz decides to cut to the chase and make Snoopy HIMSELF the Head Beagle. This works out much better, though it does seem rather strange that the H.B. is apparently responsible for the activities of all dogs throughout the world (!). The not-yet-named Woodstock has his most memorable "anonymous" role as Snoopy's secretary; that gig would linger beyond the end of the continuity (not to mention be featured in the feature film Snoopy Come Home several years later). After Snoopy gets stripped of his title (for cracking under the strain and seeking asylum with Peppermint Patty), Schulz mines a few more continuities out of the situation. The most memorable of these finds the deposed kingpin invited to speak (?) at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, only to be caught in the middle of a riot protesting the plight of Vietnam "war dogs." Readers of David Michaelis' SCHULZ AND PEANUTS will recognize this as the story in which Schulz was supposedly "mirroring" his concurrent affair. (I won't comment on that here, but does anyone remember that Snoopy had been ready to get married to that "skating/beach beagle" a few years before? And I don't even want to think about what Snoopy's fling with "three airline stewardesses" might represent.) Perhaps in reaction to all this overheated material, Snoopy's next major "role" after the "Daisy Hill Riot"/"love affair" sequence was the far more prosaic one of a "world-famous grocery clerk."

Snoopy's "journeys to places unknown" also result in several memorable continuities in this volume. First, the beagle goes on an unsuccessful journey to find his mother. Snoopy would meet plenty of relatives -- too many, in fact -- in the years just ahead, but the time for doing so was not quite ripe. Then, in late 1970, Snoopy helps Woodstock walk (note the verb) south so that the bird "won't upset the ecology." The pair get only two blocks from home, but Snoopy's kidnapping by an over-eager little girl would be used again during Snoopy Come Home. (The girl isn't quite as wacky here as she is on screen; in fact, she goes nameless and only appears in two panels.)

Snoopy dominates the proceedings, but Charlie Brown and Linus get to star in what is undoubtedly the volume's most inexpressibly sad continuity: the sudden departure of the Little Red-Haired Girl from the neighborhood. Tragically, Charlie can't bring himself to speak to his icon, even at this juncture, and the angry Linus flips out, screaming his frustration at his tongue-tied friend and even threatening Lucy when she happens to get in the way. Linus gets in one final lick, too, kicking Charlie in the butt a few days later after the wishy-washy one begins mooning over "what might have been" yet again. Was this continuity ever reprinted in books? If so, I never saw it. I can understand cutting out the gags in which Charlie falls headfirst out of a ski-run chair lift and jumps headfirst off a baseball backstop, but if the book publishers really did ignore this sequence out of some misguided sense of sensitivity for Charlie (or for Linus' reputation), then they missed a trick.

Several stand-alone gags illustrate the conservative vision at the heart of Schulz' work, even as he tried to understand -- and, in certain instances, co-opt -- the rebellious spirit of this famously turbulent time. The "Love Balloon" gag of 4/19/69 could almost be taken as a veiled rebuke of the hippie-ish sentiment that "love is all you need." Even more memorable is the strip of 7/30/70 in which Schulz ever so delicately skirts the issue of abortion. "Your ignorance of theology and medicine is appalling!" snorts Lucy after Linus wonders aloud what would happen if a couple decided not to have a baby "waiting to be born" in heaven. "I still think it's a good question," muses Linus, and the question still bedevils our society to this day.

Fantagraphics' presentation is the same as it ever was, including the obligatory introduction, this one by Mo Willems. It's substance over style all the way, only now the substance comes packaged in black-and-white spotted fur, for the most part. Essential, as always.

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