Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, VOL. 19: 1987-88 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2013)

On February 29, 1988, shocked fans of PEANUTS discovered that Charles Schulz had abandoned the "four squares [as in panels] a day" daily-strip format that had served him so well for 37 1/2 years (less a couple of quirky experiments in the strip's very early days).  Schulz actually took his sweet time in exploiting the new format, with most of the remaining 1988 dailies being presented in the form of three identically-sized larger panels.  Single- and double-panel strips soon began to appear, however, a foreshadowing of the strip's aesthetic bounceback in the 1990s.  The shakeup came just in time, as the strips enjoyed (or, in all too many cases, yawned over) by the American version of "the DuckTales generation" weren't much of an improvement over the rather tired stuff that Schulz had been dishing out since the early Reagan years.  Even Fantagraphics seems to have recognized that putting this latest collection together was something of a drag for all concerned; the introduction by Garry Trudeau is simply a reprint of a column Trudeau wrote at the time of Schulz' retirement in 1999.  With so many recycled gags being used here, what was the harm in using a recycled commentary?

The much-mocked Tapioca Pudding has dropped from sight by the start of 1987, but her female replacement (of sorts), a little girl named Lydia with whom Linus shares a number of surreal conversations, makes up the difference simply by virtue of her weirdness.  She constantly asks Linus, "Aren't you kind of old for me?" and quite literally changes her name on a daily basis.  Remarkably, this character would hang around the strip for the better part of a decade, arguably mining more out of an obvious case of schizophrenia than any fictional character ever has.  With Sally's unrequited crush on Linus having become something of a cliche -- let's not even talk about Lucy's thing for Schroeder anymore -- I do credit Schulz for trying to approach the "bizarre romance" theme from a somewhat different angle.  Lydia, however, is so peculiar that I must count her introduction into the main cast as a mixed blessing at best.  Perhaps she will be given more "normal" personality traits as time goes on.

The tone of this volume is summed up by the "Lucy/Charlie Brown/football" strip of October 23, 1988, in which the two characters trundle through their notorious routine without a single word being spoken until the last panel.  At the end, Lucy sighs, "Eventually everything in life becomes so routine."  Supposedly, Schulz was completely burned out on ideas for this yearly ritual and managed to dredge up another one only because President Reagan told him that the bit was his favorite PEANUTS moment.  I suppose that one could call this minimalist version of the routine "inspired" because it strips everything down to its existential essence, but I'd prefer to call it an indication of a very tired and jaded creator.  What I've seen of the 90s PEANUTS, however, suggests that much better things are to come in Schulz' final decade.

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