My last extended exposure to PEANUTS -- and, curiously, my only exposure to PEANUTS "in the raw," since the Wilmington paper did not carry the strip during my childhood -- came in the Fall of 1980. The Notre Dame student paper, THE OBSERVER, ran the strip, along with DOONESBURY and a most peculiar new panel called THE FAR SIDE. It was still readable, to be sure, but there's no question that I had fallen out of love with what Charles Schulz was trying to do at the time. Too much Snoopy and Woodstock, Peppermint Patty and Marcie, and Beagle Scouts, and not enough of the core cast and the clever philosophizing that I had come to enjoy so much in the PEANUTS reprint paperbacks. Schulz was on the brink of what THE COMICS JOURNAL's Kim Thompson once dubbed "the fallow 80s," the decade of "Snoopy relatives and talking schoolhouses." Well, the "talking schoolhouses" in fact predated the 80s, but I'll see Kim those and raise him "talking cacti in the desert near Needles." What I've seen of 80s PEANUTS, I haven't much liked, mainly because Schulz openly pandered to pop culture far more than he had ever done before (Flashbeagle, anyone? Or how about some Tapioca Pudding?). Perhaps more extended exposure to the era in FG's immediately upcoming volumes will change my opinion. For the time being, however, there is a definite fin de siecle feel to this end-of-the-70s collection.
There are only a handful of really memorable sequences here. Every PEANUTS fan "of that age" no doubt remembers the story of Charlie Brown checking into the hospital for a couple of weeks with a mysterious ailment. Schulz also takes the first of what will ultimately be several shots at fundamentalism by making the gang's 1980 trip to summer camp a trip to a "Jesus Camp," where the stories by the fireside have to do with "the last days." Schroeder is "flown" to music camp by the World War I Flying Ace, Peppermint Patty has an improbable "fling" with the long-forgotten Pig-Pen, and Charlie Brown and a Beagle Scout get lost in the snow, necessitating a seemingly interminable "rescue mission"... all cute, but in no way uber-meaningful. Even Schulz' touch with new Snoopy personae seems to have been mislaid. The April Fool is no threat to the Easter Beagle or the World War I Flying Ace, and let's not even talk about the "World Famous Surveyor." To his credit, Schulz does make some good, renewed use of the Flying Ace as a nostalgia-tinged character who spends more time quaffing root beers and buttering up Mademoiselles than engaging in aerial dogfights.
I hope that Fantagraphics takes a hint from the newly launched FLOYD GOTTFREDSON LIBRARY and puts some additional juice into the ancillary offerings in the remaining volumes of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS. Rather than celebrities of various alphabetical levels (Al Roker, here) who all seem to say the same basic things about how PEANUTS "spoke to" them when they were growing up, why not get some cartoonists to do the remaining introductions? Surely these creators would have many interesting things to say about how PEANUTS influenced comics in general and their own work in particular. The production of this series appears to have been put on "autopilot" of sorts, which has the advantage of giving pride of place to Schulz' work -- as it should be -- but looks increasingly shabby (and unworthy of Schulz as more) -- and more elaborate -- collections of classic strips hit the shelves. Let's see whether FG rises to the challenge and shakes things up a bit.