Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, 1985-86 BY Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Press, 2012)

I've often wondered why Charles Schulz abruptly decided to ditch the established four-panel format of PEANUTS in the late 1980s in favor of a freer, less predictable approach.  When you think long and hard about it, this was a remarkable thing for a creator to do after 40 years of work... but, after you read the dull-as-ditchwater work in this latest collection, you may begin to appreciate why Schulz felt a need to shake things up.  These are the "fallow 80s" that Kim Thompson talked about in his article on PEANUTS in THE COMICS JOURNAL's 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century -- not the PEANUTS of "Snoopy relatives and talking schoolhouses" (the former had, by and large, already been introduced in the late 70s and early 80s, while the talking school building was a product of the "Me Decade" as well), but the PEANUTS of utterly uninspired (and even slightly creepy) gimmick characters, relentlessly repetitive gag themes, and characters slumping in beanbag chairs, scrunching up their faces in disgust, and closing out strips with world-weary "Whatever"s.  It's quite fitting that Spike, that sachem of saguaro solitude, rates this collection's cover; this is as close to a creative "crawl through the desert" as Schulz ever got.

Even when Schulz decided to "step outside the box" during this period, he tripped over the edges of the "box" and fell.  Take (please!) Tapioca Pudding, Schulz' attempt to satirize the 80s fad for characters created for their license-ability.  One of Schulz' rare forays into truly meaty topical humor during this period -- as opposed to gimmicky things such as Snoopy wearing a mohawk or dancing as Flashbeagle -- T.P. could have served Schulz well for a while had he handled her characterization correctly.  He could have made her slightly annoying but could still have given her a reasonable chance to interact with the rest of the gang as a semi-equal, much as Frieda of the "naturally curly hair" did some 25 years earlier.  Instead, he reduced T.P.'s entire character to a series of repeated catchphrases.  She constantly greets other kids with "Hi, my name is Tapioca Pudding!" and proceeds to describe how wonderful she would look on a T-shirt or lunch box.  And you thought that Charlotte Braun's range was limited.  Realizing the corner into which he had painted himself by relying on this unimaginative wind-up toy routine, Schulz ended T.P.'s career after only a couple of months.  That's still more time than was vouchsafed to Maynard, Peppermint Patty's sarcastic "tutor" during a series of 1986 strips -- and a good thing, too.  Maynard's character design is among the most unpleasant Schulz ever came up with: heavy-lidded eyes, hair that looked as if it had been cut with a machete.  Even for a character we weren't supposed to like, Maynard's appearance was downright disturbing, as if a future ax murderer were lurking under the surface. What was Sparky thinking?

The few memorable sequences here are most notable for their airs of either sadness or cynicism -- a deadly cocktail under any circumstances, but especially tough to swallow in the bittersweet world of PEANUTS, where dreams are frequently crushed but hope normally springs eternal.  Snoopy the World War I Flying Ace returns for several "adventures," if you can call them that, and gets to experience the end of the war while sick in bed with influenza. Sally's characteristically overwrought concern over a department store Santa Claus' weight problem leads to a mini-riot and to Saint Nick suffering a heart attack that necessitates "triple bypass surgery" (a phrase Schulz seemed to like for some reason, though not as much as "angel-food cake with seven-minute frosting").  Visits to summer camp take on an even darker tone than normal as the gang is perpetually rained on in 1985 and must endure a "survival camp" the following year.  What irritates me the most, however, is the increasing recurrence of "Whatever" as a punch line.  Over the course of his career, Schulz had become a master of winding up a gag with an unexpected ending line, one frequently tinged with a bit of wistful philosophy.  Even his stock closers -- "Good grief!", "Rats!", "I can't stand it!" -- had the distinction of being entirely his own creations, at least in that context.  For Schulz to begin to rely on catchphrases created by others -- and notoriously unlikable ones, at that -- is truly painful to behold.  As I said above, Schulz must have felt that something had gone awry in his creative world during this period.  I haven't seen many of the format-change strips, so I'll be looking forward to the 1987-88 collection to see if Schulz starts his comeback.

1 comment:

Joe Torcivia said...

“Instead, he reduced T.P.'s entire character to a series of repeated catchphrases.”

But, Chris… Wasn’t that what the Pre-Ducktales ‘80s were all about?

Maybe T.P. (perhaps the initials signified something) “returned to her home planet” like “Poochie”!

You’ve made me all the more glad I only saw a few of these strips in passing.

“Whatever!”