Friday, October 9, 2009

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1973-74 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2009)


This latest collection's cover (Woodstock's tiny head casting a far-too-large shadow) and introduction (by Billie Jean King, who, unlike a number of the folks whom Fantagraphics has dragooned into providing PEANUTS-related musings, actually knew and was good friends with Charles Schulz) are first-rate, and several of this volume's continuities are among the most ambitious and/or outlandish "Sparky" ever concocted, but one could reasonably argue that Schulz' creation reached a "tipping point" in the mid-70s. Whether it was due to the overuse of Snoopy and Woodstock, the introduction of several less-than-stellar long-running gag themes, or an increasing amount of reliance on what one might call "the PEANUTS of the absurd," one can detect a certain coarsening of the master's touch. For sure, the intelligentsia of the era had moved on to new favorites, particularly DOONESBURY, perhaps reacting to Schulz' refusal to touch upon the partisan rancor and ugliness of the Watergate era. Schulz, who'd made frequent references to Vietnam, hippie culture, space travel, feminism, and the like just a few short years before, completely eschews topical material here, apart from one stand-alone gag in which Sally worries that her school desk has been "bugged." Instead, he indulges in such transient personal passions as running Snoopy through a large number of gags involving tennis, the artist's latest pastime. PEANUTS was never truly about "relevance," but Schulz' decision to shrink the borders of his "universe" marked a definite shift in his thinking. Many later references to pop culture in the strip would be much more exploitative in nature, in the manner of a "hit-and-run" late-night comedian, and lack the cleverness and subtlety of Schulz' work of the mid-50s to the early 70s.

The "rare gems" (you're welcome, Patty) in this collection are a trio of legitimately memorable, and even touching, continuities. The most famous of these is probably "Mr. Sack," in which Charlie Brown begins to envision every round object he discovers as a baseball. He even picks up a seamed rash on his head. Sent off to summer camp as a palliative, the embarrassed Charlie, wearing a sack over his head to hide his rash, quickly becomes the most popular kid in camp! "A prophet is without honor save in his own country," a bemused Charlie sighs regarding his improbable apotheosis. This story is most famous for its completely unexpected ending gag, which, though it resolves nothing insofar as Charlie's malady is concerned, drags in a familiar media figure to provide what, for Schulz, was "shock value." In a sense, however, this story may have ultimately sent Schulz down the wrong path. Charlie's problem is so weird that it might as well have happened to Snoopy, who's long since carved out his own little fantasy-laden "sub-universe" in the PEANUTS gang's neighborhood. There's the rub: what makes "sense" for Snoopy may not work quite as well for the "real" kids. It was soon after this that Schulz introduced one of his zanier notions, the "talking" school building that drops bricks on people it dislikes. More were to follow.

Much more conventional, but every bit as well executed, is the five-week story of Peppermint Patty preparing to enter a "skating competition." Patty is assisted (and, sometimes, hindered) in this project by Marcie and Snoopy, both of whose relationships to the peppy one change dramatically during this era. Marcie is still rather obsequious and still makes with the "Sir"s, but she's far more willing to confront her flighty friend on issues of importance -- none more important than when she forces Patty to realize that Snoopy is actually a dog. Marcie also learns that Patty doesn't have a mother, which leads to a warm moment when, following a botched attempt at making Patty a skating dress, she has her own mother fix the problem. Finally learning that Snoopy is a beagle doesn't prevent Patty from turning to "coach" Snoopy for help in getting ready for the "skating competition" -- which, needless to say, has a funny twist that knocks Patty for a loop.

Finally, there's the "Guest of Honor" continuity from early 1973, in which the gang, wonder of wonders, decides to give Charlie Brown a testimonial dinner in honor of his efforts as a baseball manager. The affair (complete with master(?) of ceremonies Joe Shlabotnik -- who, no surprise, gets lost on the way) ultimately falls apart after everyone realizes that pretending that Charlie is a figure worthy of honor is hypocrisy. There's a real bite to this story, one almost duplicated by the late-1974 tale in which neighborhood snowman-building is "organized" to the point of having leagues, referees, and parental support groups. In between, however, there are rather too many gags about novelist Snoopy's bad puns, Peppermint Patty's classroom denseness, Rerun's near-death experiences on his mom's bike, and, of course, Snoopy's tennis-playing. It's still great reading, of course, but a few cracks in the foundation are now apparent.

1 comment:

Mark Arnold said...

Actually, the January 1, 1974, strip has a topical reference. Linus walks in to see Lucy watching the "Rose Parade" and asks if the Grand Marshal had gone by. Lucy says, "Yeah, you missed him...but he wasn't anyone you ever heard of!" Charles M. Schulz was Grand Marshal that year.