Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, Volume 20: 1989-1990 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphic, 2013)

This is the most satisfying volume of THE COMPLETE PEANUTS in quite some while, a welcome anticipation of Charles Schulz' strong "finishing kick" in the 1990s.  Schulz had abandoned the traditional four-panel strip layout in 1988, but here is where he begins to really exploit it to its advantage.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the bittersweet 1990 sequence in which Charlie Brown meets pretty little Peggy Jean at summer camp.  "Brownie Charles" (as Charlie tongue-tiedly refers to himself when the two kids exchange names) nearly blows what seems like a promising relationship right out of the gates when he chickens out and refuses to let Peggy hold a football while he comes running up to kick it.  (Old habits are hard to break, after all.)  An angry Peggy leaves the scene, but then comes back, in a marvelous single-panel strip in which we see a dock-sitting Charlie's reaction from the back.  No four-panel strip could have packed a punch equivalent to that generated by this single scene.

During this period, Schulz also hits upon the notion of using single-panel strips as the bases for strings of related gags. Actually, "gags" is misleading, since most of these "one-and-dones" are more like ruminations or "moments in time."  For example, we see a number of panels in which Charlie Brown and a very dog-like Snoopy are sitting together, with Charlie thinking out loud about the relationship between boy and dog and Snoopy, of course, frequently thinking about other matters entirely, like cookies.  The tension between what Charlie thinks the relationship is and what the relationship truly is is softened by the quasi-sentimental presentation.

We're introduced to yet another Snoopy relative (Fat Olaf, this time) near the start of this collection, but Schulz seems to have made a conscious effort to dial back a bit on the canine family members, talking schoolhouses, and annoying pop-culture references that cluttered up PEANUTS in the 80s, returning instead to a number of first principles.  Snoopy's aforementioned interest in cookies reflects an increased number of instances in which the heavily anthropomorphized dog gets to do dog-like things.  The theme of Snoopy seeking Linus' blanket reappears with a vengeance, and even Pigpen is graced with a starring role in a continuity for the first time in Lord knows how long, running unsuccessfully (and, of course, unsanitarily) for class president.  Granted, too many characters end strips by saying "whatever," but... you know, whatever.

Lemony Snicket delivers one of the best introductory pieces of the series.  It had me laughing at several points, which, given Mr. Snicket's reputation, seems somewhat ironic.  I can definitely see how a strip with PEANUTS' view of life might "appeal" to such a character. 

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