by KC Carlson
Whenever the Christmas holidays roll around every year, I think everyone lapses into being a kid again, even for just a few seconds, remembering all the interesting family get-togethers and your favorite gifts — the ones that really stick to your brain for decades.
For me, a large part of Christmas is about reconnecting with Charles Schulz’s classic Peanuts characters. I was really never disconnected with them, as every day I read the strip in the morning newspaper. When everybody else was done with the paper, I faithfully cut out that day’s strip and carefully put it into a shoebox (one of many) filled with years and years’ worth of the strip, all in chronological order. It was the first indication to me (and my long-suffering parents, who had to shuffle my collections around the state every time we moved) that I was going to be a collector of stuff. Otherwise known as a “packrat” — a term I heard behind my back for years while growing up.
Actually, it was kind of foolish that I was so diligent in trimming out each day’s Peanuts strip, since as a regular Christmas occurrence, I would receive the latest Peanuts book collection under the tree, a prized gift from my Grandma Lil, each and every year. Most kids probably wanted the surprise of not knowing what they were getting from Santa, but I kinda liked knowing that I would always be getting at least one present that I would cherish every year.
LIFE AT LIL’S
Grandma Lil was probably my favorite relative, mostly because I spent so much time with her as a kid. She was my defacto baby-sitter, as my parents — who were members of the Sports Car Club of America — often spent weekends away at races. I would get dumped off at Grandma’s on a Friday night (after stopping to get her a case of beer for the week). Over years of weekends at Grandma Lil’s, she taught me how to play cards (poker, rummy, and dozens of variations of solitaire — four of which I still remember). I also read a tremendous number of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (entire novels squeezed down to about 100 pages and published 4 or 5 to a book!) while she watched “her shows”. Her house was full of them, and I read a lot of stuff that I probably shouldn’t have been reading! She also tried to get me to drink beer with her, starting when I was around 10, but I hated the taste (and still do).
We also endlessly played a (probably now extinct) game called Carroms, which was like a mini-billiards game, played on a square hardwood board with little netted pockets in the four corners. Instead of balls, you played with multicolored plastic rings. I think you were supposed to play it like billiards, using little half-sticks like pool cues, but there really wasn’t enough room where we played to do that. Plus, I was notoriously bad at it, so I think I suggested getting rid of the “cues”, and I moved the shooter ring around the board by flicking it with my index finger (or middle finger, when my index finger started hurting too much). It hurt like hell after an hour or two, so then I came up with the concept of wearing a band-aid (or two) with the padded part over the fingernail. It helped… a little. When my parents would pick me up on Sunday night, my mom would always ask “what’s wrong with your fingers?” because they were usually bloody and bruised.
It was called Carroms because the goal of the game was to shoot all of your color rings (called carroms) into the pockets, using the shooter. There were often other player’s pieces in the way of straight shots, so you had to “carom” an angle shot off the wooden railing to hit your piece. The carrom board also had a checkerboard grid printed in the middle of the board, so you could play checkers or (if you had the right pieces) chess. The flip side of the board had a recessed “hole” in the center of the board, surrounded by maybe a dozen pegs sticking out of the board. Grandma Lil couldn’t remember what that was for, so we never played it. We had to prop the board up on four Reader’s Digest Condensed Books or else the pegs would scratch the table, so the books came in handy!
I wasn’t around when Lil passed away, but my cousin Margaret saved the board and the caroms for me for years — as well as a wall clock made by my grandfather, a jeweler and “tinker” who passed away before I was born. I grew up with that clock. It was a big pendulum wall clock, made of wood, that was so loud it kept me awake. I would sneak out of bed to stop the pendulum, so I had to wake up before my parents every morning to get the clock reset and started again.
CAREER COUNSELING – AT AGE SEVEN
I wasn’t much interested in Lil’s TV shows (although I do remember staying up late and watching the moon landing with her!), so I always brought some comic books with me, and occasionally one of my boxes of Peanuts strips to read. And sometimes I liked to draw. Even at an early age, I instinctively knew that I wouldn’t have the skills (or the patience) to draw like Carmine Infantino or Curt Swan or Jack Kirby. (Okay, I could kinda draw like Jack — I loved his huge hands and squared-off fingers!) Not that I knew who any of these people were at this time, but you know what I mean. I couldn’t even come close to doing what these artists could do with a pencil.
But you know what? Back then, I bet I could draw Snoopy! Or Charlie Brown’s head! (Where’s my compass?)
Turns out I could draw them. They’re not very complicated, which is one of the secret charms of the strip — pretty much everyone can draw a passable Charlie Brown or Snoopy head! Even me! Especially with the encouragement of Grandma Lil and my mom — who secretly sent some of my drawings to Charles Schulz, who actually replied! That letter got lost over the years, but in my files is another letter from Mr. Schulz. This one is a reply to a letter from me, asking him if it would be okay if I started a Peanuts Club and requesting permission to draw a poster with some of the characters on it. (He said yes!) The club actually existed — there was one other member, whose family soon moved away to Washington, D.C., and I lost track of him. Also, at some point, my mom wrote to Mr. Schulz about a particular strip that she liked and asked if she could get a copy of it. He also responded to that by sending a full-sized photostat of the the original strip (so it’s big!). She had it framed, and I inherited it when she passed away and have displayed it in the house ever since.
Grandma Lil discovered my interest in Peanuts when I used to draw the characters at her house. She probably saw one of my shoeboxes full of clipped strips, too, and so when she discovered that there were collections of the Peanuts books published every year, that was my annual Christmas present from her. She also knew about my interest in comic books, which turned into my annual birthday present from her – a yearly subscription to Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, which I continued to get long past the time I normally would have stopped reading it, which I ended up appreciating all the more. Later, after I grew up and went off to college, and for years after, my comic book collection (already quite large) went to live in Lil’s house, where they were safe until I had a regular place of my own.
The Peanuts strips began to be collected into books in 1952 by Reinhart and Company and by Holt, Reinhart and Winston beginning in 1960. The volumes were larger than a mass market paperback (although Peanuts collections were also published in that format), and they probably contained about a year’s worth of strips, although they were not always published chronologically, and the books didn’t always publish all of the strips. (The earliest, formative years of the strip, were not completely collected, something I didn’t find out about until many years later.) After a while, the Sunday strips were held aside and published in special books — the same physical size, but published and bound horizontally instead of vertically. For a long time, they were all kept in print, and many volumes (especially the early ones) were reprinted dozens of times. And they were all priced at $1.00. (Possibly cheaper in the Fifties.) They remained at that price until 1970, when the price increased to $1.25 (with a change to glossy covers).
I probably started receiving the Peanuts collections for Christmas in the early 1960s, and after figuring out there were several previous volumes I didn’t have, my mom started helping me get one of those earlier books every Christmas, also. The only thing better than a Peanuts book for Christmas was double-dipping Peanuts books for a few years.
In 1974, the price jumped again, to $1.50 for one book, before the series changed in 1975 into a physically larger format (called “Peanuts Parade”), doubled in page count, and sold for $2.95. Additionally, most of the previous books were reprinted (with approximately two previous volumes in one new book) in this new format. The series gained volume numbers (on the spine), but that was confusing, as volumes of newly-collected strips were mixed in with the reprinted volumes. Regular price increases occurred in 1979 ($3.95), 1980 ($4.95), and 1983 ($5.25), and by 1986 (at $5.95), the “Peanuts Parade” format was done, the last volume appearing with a radically redesigned cover format.
By this point, the original legacy of Peanuts strip collections becomes very confused, as the series bounced from publisher to publisher, seemingly gaining a new format every three or four collections. I stopped collecting around this point, distracted by real life. If you’re interested in more detail about the collections, check out Peanuts expert Nat Gertler’s awesome website AAUGH. com for more details. I get lost in there for hours looking at cool stuff.
STARTING OVER FROM SCRATCH – AND DOING IT THE RIGHT WAY
The current publisher of the Peanuts comic strip is Fantagraphics Books. The Complete Peanuts book series began in 2004 with the goal of publishing every Peanuts comic strip — both dailies and Sundays — chronologically in book form. Generally, each volume of this beautiful hardcover series collects two full years of the strip in black and white. As of this writing (December 2013), there are only five volumes to go, with the final volume scheduled to be published in 2016. This is nearly 50 years of comic strips!
This Christmas, Fantagraphics presented Peanuts fans with a wonderful holiday present: Peanuts Every Sunday, a deluxe art book publishing all of the Sunday strips for 1952-1955 in a giant format approximating their original publication (depending on how your local Sunday paper actually formatted the strip at the time), and completely and beautifully recolored, based on the original publication colors. I recently reviewed this book for Comics Worth Reading.
If Peanuts Every Sunday isn’t under your Christmas Tree this year, put aside some of your Holiday “loot” (as early Schulz might say) to make sure you pick it up as soon as you can. You won’t regret it. It’s the kind of gift book I’d be getting for Grandma Lil, if she were still around. Thanks for supporting my strange collector quirks and taking good care of my comics for a while, Lil. I really miss you right about now.
KC CARLSON: Didn’t even talk about the obvious Peanuts/Christmas connection — the classic animated special A Charlie Brown Christmas. We’ve all seen it dozens of times over the years since its debut in 1965, but most people have no idea what a fascinating history the show has, from bucking TV traditions, to using real children as voices, including the secret history of how the show has been edited (and “corrected”) over the decades. If you get stuck some place with nothing to do over the holidays, I recommend surfing around to “re-discover” the story behind the show. Start with all the great trivia at the show’s IMDb page. Happy hunting!
P.S. The shoeboxes of carefully clipped and collected Peanuts strips are long gone! <Sniff!>
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. Bah, humbug!