Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, 1983-1984 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2012)

I'm wending my way back into unfamiliar territory as the march of 1980s PEANUTS continues.  The latest PEANUTS collection that I ever read (as opposed to possessed; that volume came from the library) topped out at about the midway point of this volume, roughly late 1983.  Thus it was that I bailed at just about the time when Snoopy's heavy-eyelidded, floppy-hatted brother Spike had established a new venue for gags and situations in the desert country outside Needles, CA.  Actually, this is giving the eternally passive Spike a little too much credit for proactivity; it's more like Omniscient Creator CMS established the site for him. 

Surprisingly, I was able to extrude more entertainment value out of my first extended exposure to Spike than I had been led to anticipate.  Part of the reason may be that I interpret the world of Snoopy's bro as something of a satirical comment on the suburban fantasy world that ol' Snoop had long since built and grown to dominate.  The first extended "desert continuity" in this volume finds "Foreign Legionnaire" Snoopy and his bird-troops marching to Spike's rescue after they learn that Spike is "surrounded by coyotes."  Of course, we never see the coyotes; instead, we see Spike sitting in the middle of a ring of rocks.  And that's pretty much all Spike does; he simply sits there like a lump and waits for Snoopy to bombard him with cans of dog food, can openers, tea bags, etc. and finally "chopper" to the rescue.  There's something ineffably pathetic about Spike's extreme phlegmatism in this situation; he's not taking imaginative advantage of his surroundings and molding them to his needs, he's letting his fantasy surroundings control him.  The subsequent gags in which Spike talks (er, thinks) to cacti have a very similar feel to them.  Is Schulz suggesting here that a fantasy existence can be carried too far?  Just as Snoopy's blossoming as a major character grew out of Schulz' restlessness with his reputation as a highbrow thinker and philosophizer and his desire to simply have some fun with his characters, did Schulz decide to develop Spike when thinking up interesting new occupations and personae for Snoopy had become a chore rather than a delight?  (This was, after all, the era in which Schulz was willing to "sell out" to the extent of creating the infamous Flashbeagle.)

Back at our familiar suburban popsicle stand, most of the attention centers on Peppermint Patty and Marcie.  Schulz may not have been aware that he was sending mixed messages by having Patty actually fail her grade (so, all those D-minuses, screwed-up book reports, and sleeping jags finally had tangible consequences??  Who knew?) but then get to go on a trip to Europe with her Dad on the suggestion of the school psychologist.  ("Every time I try to figure that out, I get dizzy!" grouses straight-A student Marcie.)  Schulz sidesteps the potential awkwardness of putting Patty all by her lonesome in a class full of unfamiliar kids by having the "snoring ghost" of Patty's past curricular pratfalls convince the spooked school authorities to let her move up a grade after all.  Patty also subjects Charlie Brown to a new form of sporting humiliation by hiring him for her baseball team -- as a costumed mascot.  Working off the "Mr. Sack" premise of a decade before, it's somewhat surprising that "hidden" Charlie doesn't turn out to be the best mascot ever.  Speaking of "Mr. Sack," it's a wonder that Schulz didn't feel the need to hide his own head in a bag after brazenly recycling a previously-used gag (Lucy's building of a head-standing snowman that has "all the snow [rush] to his head") in the strip of 1/7/84.  This will not be the last time that the aging Schulz, that most conscientious of all comic-strip creators, carbon-copies something from his past.

Leonard Maltin's introduction is enjoyable and entertaining -- and that, of course, is the only novelty we get when it comes to "packaging."  I hate to say it, but THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, taken as a whole, now looks pretty drab and bare-bones compared to the more elaborate and ancillary-heavy approaches taken in most of Fantagraphics' and IDW's other ongoing reprint series.  Since we've come this far with no substantive changes, I'm guessing that the current TCP format will be employed to the bitter end.  Fine by me; the contents, after all, are still very much worth reading, though the strip's glory years have now passed.

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