Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1977-78 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2010)

You can really sense PEANUTS starting to slip in this volume. Perhaps Schulz was suffering through the early stages of the "malaise" that infected American life during the Carter years, but the strip in this era could be fairly characterized as uninspired and uninspiring. Nothing sums up the funk as well as the irritating plethora of "Cat Slash Fever" gags in which the unseen "cat next door" responds to Snoopy's baiting by slashing various improbable designs into Snoopy's doghouse. This is probably PEANUTS' weakest running gag in my memory, not least because it tears equally sizable holes in Snoopy's carefully constructed character. Mischievous and impish the "humanized" beagle may be -- witness his frequent teasing of Lucy and security-blanket swiping -- but he'd have to be a purblind idiot not to realize that he's taking his life in his own paws when he ridicules the "stupid" cat. Even Sally's perpetual "punctuation practice" and Peppermint Patty's school-time snoozes are funnier than this... and yet, Schulz kept going to the well. It's as if he couldn't think of anything better to do.

Schulz' efforts to create new characters during these years also display a certain coarsening of the master's brush strokes. Tennis bitch Molly Volley is probably the strip's most unpleasant newcomer since Charlotte Braun (perhaps the two were related?) and, aside from being a "one-court pony" with literally no life in the strip outside of her sport, she has dated surprisingly badly. Schulz was clearly trying to spoof the "bad boy/girl" tennis stars of the 1970s with Molly, but the era of the abrasive tennis jerk has long since passed; annoying grunting while hitting a ground stroke simply can't hold a candle to whining and temper tantrums. Schulz enjoyed a bit more success with the creation of the stringy-haired Eudora, who befriended Sally at summer camp in '78 and subsequently moved into The Gang's neighborhood. With Sally having developed into a little cynic in many respects, Eudora restored a sense of the "ill-informed innocence" that informed the characterizations of the early Sally and Linus. Lacking a limiting shtick like "naturally curly" Frieda, Eudora would have seemed a natural to have become a permanent strip fixture as Sally's pal, but her career only lasted until the mid-1980s. I can't help but think that, had Eudora been introduced just a bit earlier in the strip's history, Schulz would have been more successful in creating a truly distinctive personality for her.

It can't be a coincidence that Schulz reprised/revamped a couple of continuities from the recent past during '77 and '78. There are definite echoes of the classic "Mr. Sack" story from 1973 in the kite-eating-tree-biting, EPA-hunted Charlie Brown's being dragooned into coaching baseball for a bunch of "tiny little kids." As in the earlier continuity, Charlie is believed to be something he's not -- competent -- and this time, he even gets to depart the scene with a "victory" of sorts. The best thing about the story, though, remains the tree-biting set-up. Snoopy's would-be wedding to a mysterious female beagle he met while on guard duty at Peppermint Patty's house lacks the panache of the "soft-pawed sweetie" continuity of the early 70s, perhaps because (at least according to David Michaelis' theories) Schulz wasn't working out clutter from his personal life as part of the creative process. Eudora and Sally meeting at camp, of course, parallels Charlie Brown and Linus meeting Roy and Peppermint Patty meeting Marcie (or a proto-version of same) during previous Summers. Oh, yes, and Spike briefly returns -- with Hogan's Heroes obsession intact, no less -- but Schulz was still some time away from fully committing to the character as a regular contributor.

Alec Baldwin provides a good introduction, and the production values are as handsome as ever, but this is probably the least satisfying volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS to appear to date. Not that it's Fantagraphics' fault, of course.

3 comments:

joecab said...

Is there a specific place in the strip you can point to when the quality began declining earlier than here? As a kid, I specifically recall the point where Patty realized that Snoopy was actually a dog and not a funny-looking kid with a big nose was that point. (I've heard others say the introduction of Woodstock was it.)

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Well, at least Peppermint Patty finally gets a cover. Too bad it's not for a better collection.

Chris Barat said...

Joecab,

I don't think there was a single tipping point; it was a combination of factors. I definitely think that the overemphasis on Snoopy hurt the strip, but that occurred over a period of years.

Chris