Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1971-72 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2009)


I wouldn't go so far as to accuse Fantagraphics of misrepresentation, but... the heavy "Sally focus" promised on this volume's dust jacket (and teased by the preliminary interview with actress Kristin Chenoweth, who played Sally in the late-90s revival of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN) can only be considered a minor theme in this latest collection. Sure, Sally is now a fully-paid-up cast member complete with enough hangups and neuroses to keep a platoon of shrinks occupied for an indefinite period of time, but there are far deeper doings afoot than her struggles in school. Heck, she isn't even "Sweet Babboo"-ing Linus just yet. No, it's Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty who provide this volume's most memorable and poignant moments. Schulz may have made conscious efforts to be more "relevant" during this riotously incoherent cultural era, but the rock-solid virtues that had built PEANUTS' massive audience are still very much in evidence, above all Schulz' gift for characterization.

Peppermint Patty and her cast of friends -- Roy, Franklin, and, starting in the summer of 1971, Marcie -- are now established as regular players, albeit in a neighborhood that seems to be somewhat removed from the "classic" PEANUTS neighborhood. (Whenever Patty wants to get together with Charlie & co. for some reason, she still either has to meet him at camp or call him on the phone.) As pages flick by, however, Patty and Charlie begin to appear together more and more often, and their relationship begins to turn into something very unique and touching, reflecting the growing complexity in Patty's personality. Patty veers between exasperation at Charlie's inevitable gaffes, inadvertent disparagement (as during the classic game of "Ha Ha Herman!"), intrigue at the possibilities inherent in his presence ("you touched my hand, you sly dog!"), and, most painful of all, realization that she carries certain burdens that, while they are not as heavy as Charlie's, make the two of them kindred spirits of sorts. When Charlie tactlessly mentions the Little Red-Haired Girl during a trip to a carnival (a sequence that, while I don't believe it was ever reprinted in book form, did appear as part of the movie Snoopy Come Home), Patty stalks off in disgust. During a later trip to camp, though, Patty actually sees Charlie's would-be girlfriend and is overcome by sudden self-loathing. The long series of "treeside conversations" between Patty and Charlie commences, with each struggling to communicate deep feelings with decidedly mixed success. It is during this period, too, that Patty begins to clash with authority figures, including a run-in with the school administration over the dress code. The carefree, swaggering Patty of the late 60s is no more. Welcome to the psychological jungle, kid.

Speaking of well-developed characters, Snoopy continues to score plenty of memorable moments, though "Joe Cool" -- this era's attempt to hatch lightning from the same bottle from which Schulz had earlier decanted "The World War I Flying Ace" -- hasn't aged that well. Snoopy and Woodstock's quest to meet Miss Helen Sweetstory of "Six Bunny-Wunnies" fame (a fame that doesn't prevent one of her hippy-dippier, oh-so-early-70s tomes from being banned by the school board), Snoopy's attempt to read WAR AND PEACE one word at a time, and the migratory trip that leads ol' Snoop to the "six-story parking garage" that has displaced the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm are much more memorable. Linus rates a moment of triumph when, attempting to go "cold turkey" with his blanket once and for all by giving it to Snoopy for (chuckle) safekeeping, he actually succeeds -- until, alas, Charlie Brown takes pity on him and gets him "hooked again" with a new yard of outing flannel. Linus and Lucy's baby brother Rerun Van Pelt is, uh, sort of introduced herein -- he won't actually appear on panel for a while and won't become a major cast member until much later -- and, yes, even Sally does star in some of her most memorable gags (including the classic "I got a C in coat-hanger sculpture?" gag, which was probably clipped and saved by many, many art teachers back in the day). Take it from me, however, Charlie and Patty are the characters whose trials and tribulations will stick with you this time around.

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