by KC Carlson
In celebration of the not-quite-halfway mark of Fantagraphics’ wonderful The Complete Peanuts series by Charles M. Schulz – this is the 12th volume of a projected 25 – it seems like an appropriate time to check in with the Peanuts gang.
As was true of many kids of that era, Peanuts was my favorite newspaper comic strip, and a pretty substantial part of my early childhood. I diligently “collected” the strip, cutting it out of the newspaper each day (along with Dick Tracy and several others), and carefully stored my clippings in shoeboxes. I’d periodically pull them out and re-read them, and I also compared them to the annual Peanuts collections that my grandma Lil gave me each and every Christmas for well over a decade. Whenever I got the new collection, it was then time to cull out the strips that had been published in the books. Thus, pretty early on, I discovered that the book collections were not reprinting all the strips – a state of affairs true of pretty much all comic strip collections published at that time.
Over the years, there have been hundreds of Peanuts strip collections, many of them themed to cover selected strips over a number of years or even decades. Even in the many “continuity” collections, strips were missing, especially from the earliest volumes. As most of us know by now, the characters looked totally different in the earliest years of the strip, and as Schulz refined (some would say simplified) his drawing style, fewer and fewer of the earliest strips would be reprinted. Many of us were shocked to discover recently that there was a minor Peanuts character (Charlotte Braun) from the early years (1954-55, before I was born) whose strips were never reprinted. All in all, there were over 2,000 strips that had never been collected until the Fantagraphics series. Most of them were from the early years and were not reprinted because Schulz believed that they were not as good as the later ones. That turned out to be mostly true, but they’re still a fascinating look at a largely “lost” era of Peanuts.
I only bring that up to discuss what an important series this is. With the Compete Peanuts series of books, Fantagraphics has set high the modern bar for what comic strip collections should be – especially with the collector/armchair historian (and aren’t we all?) in mind. What they did was really no-brainer stuff: include every strip – no exceptions – in chronological order, with high quality reproduction, large reproduction size, and a nice big chunk of strips to read (two full years in most volumes, slightly more in the first one.) The Peanuts strips are reproduced a little small for my tastes, but they are of an unusual size, and besides, I very much like the overall, compact, easy-to-hold-in-your-hands package. Basically, they showed the big-boy publishers how to do it (although the others still haven’t learned much from it). The Peanuts volumes are worth every penny for the collector.
Since the first Fantagraphics Peanuts volume in 2004, several publishers have since come along – most notably IDW – and added several format improvements of their own: Sunday strips in color, historical and cultural annotations or essays, and larger reproduction. Some of these projects are moderately pricey, but the end result is generally gorgeous book collections of comics history.
Even though I collected the individual Peanuts daily strips as a kid, I always preferred to read them in larger groups – either as a fist-full of cut-out strips or as year-end book collections. It’s much easier and beneficial to read a long run of comics to gain insight into what the characters (and creators) are thinking and doing. Each individual strip – even if it’s not part of an actual story continuity – builds on the strip that comes before it. Although Schulz told many long and memorable continuity storylines throughout the series, many of his best ongoing stories were doled out in single installments or small handfuls of strips over a large number of years. Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football. Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. Linus and his connections with his grandmother and teacher, Miss Othmar. Lucy and Schroeder. Snoopy as novelist. The Great Pumpkin. And the long, involved saga of Charlie Brown, his baseball team, and their goal to win just one game.
By 1974, one of the years collected in this book, the Peanuts gang was changing, and so was I. I was entering college, a very broke work-study student. Extras like newspaper subscriptions went by the wayside – I would have to bum newspapers from roommates or friends to see the funnies (obviously way before the internet). So strip collections (my yearly “fix” from grandma) were pretty much my only way to keep up with my pencil and ink friends.
The strip itself was changing, too, some of which made me feel like I really didn’t need to check in every day. In just a year or two, the focus of the strip seemed to have changed to the adventures of Peppermint Patty and Marcie (fun characters but increasingly used too much and becoming occasionally shrill) or Snoopy’s extended family, beginning with Spike and eventually involving five of his seven brothers and sisters (the other two only appeared on the animated TV specials). I understand that Snoopy’s family were quite popular with many fans. Not me. Perhaps because I was an only child (and loner, at heart) and couldn’t relate to the situations.
Before that, a feeing of melancholy began to drift into the strip, right around the time that Schulz produced an extended storyline (collected in this volume) where Linus decides to throw a surprise testimonial dinner for Charlie Brown for his untiring efforts (although unsuccessful) as their baseball manager. Linus even goes to the lengths of inviting Charlie Brown’s baseball hero Joe Shlabotnik to be the guest speaker. Although somewhat skeptical at first, all the kids dive into making the idea a reality. And, when Peppermint Patty calls to tell “Chuck” about the dinner, we see the rare sight of Charlie Brown with a smile bigger than his own head.
However, as the gang are on the way to the actual event, Marcie points out that it’s somewhat hypocritical to have the event at all, since none of them actually believe that Charlie Brown is a good manager. So, everyone just goes home, leaving Charlie Brown (in a suit and tie) sitting by himself at the dinner. “I would have enjoyed even a hypocritical dinner,” he forlornly says.
And what of Joe Shlabotnik? You’ll have to read the book.
Later, in one of the most memorable sequences of the entire history of the strip, Charlie Brown begins to hallucinate seeing baseballs everywhere – the sun , the moon, on his ice cream cone. Even the back of his head develops a rash that looks like the stitches of a baseball. Embarrassed by the rash, he puts a paper bag over his head (with eye holes) and goes to the doctor for help. (“Am I cracking up, doctor? Is this the last of the ninth?”) The doctor advises him to go to camp for a couple of weeks to take his mind off baseball. So, with his bedroll (and still with the bag over his head), Charlie Brown sets off for a new adventure.
Arriving at camp, the other kids don’t know what to think of this kid with the bag on his head, so they nominate him for Camp President, and because they are kids, of course, he is easily elected. “Mr. Sack”, as he is now called by all the camp kids who now look up to him because of his wise rulings as President (mostly just common sense), Charlie Brown is astounded that the campers not only listen to him – they come to him for advice and even laugh at his jokes! Charlie Brown is having the best time of his life!
After a couple of weeks, Charlie Brown realizes that his head doesn’t itch any more. He wonders if his rash has gone away, but he is reluctant to take off the bag because he fears that he wouldn’t be Camp President anymore. So he decides to sneak out of the camp early one morning before anyone else is awake to take off the bag and take a look at the sunrise. (Neither of which he has done or seen since arriving at camp, apparently.) He’s horribly afraid that he will still see the sun as a baseball. We actually see what Charlie Brown sees – and no, it is not a baseball, but what he sees is so totally an off-the-wall non sequitur that many critics of the strip point to this “What th -?!” moment as the the exact point where the comic strip turns away from what it was into something else entirely. (I can’t in good conscience tell you what he sees, but trust me when I say that you’ve never seen anything like it before in Peanuts, and never would again afterwards.) It doesn’t help that the camp/Mr. Sack story is never really fully resolved, as the strip abruptly switches to Snoopy strips mid-week. Charlie Brown appears several days later, back at home and unsacked, not looking like a baseball, but he never mentions the camp or baseball-head incidents again.
Another long sequence has Peppermint Patty contrive a situation where she asks “Chuck” if she can stay overnight at his house for a couple of nights while her father is out of town on business, escalating the long-running crush she has on Chuck. When Marcie asks why she just can’t stay at home with her mother while her father is away, Peppermint Patty abruptly reveals “I don’t have a mother, Marcie.” Another first for Peanuts.
This later resonates in another longer storyline a year later (also in this volume), when Peppermint Patty decides to become a figure skater and disastrously asks Marcie to sew her a skating outfit for the competition, despite Marcie’s protests that she cannot sew. Of course, the outfit ends up a disaster (it looks like a sack and has no sleeves, or even arm holes). Marcie eventually saves the day when she realizes that the bigger issue is that Peppermint Patty doesn’t have a mother to help her make an outfit, so Marcie graciously volunteers her own mother for the role, and she makes Patty a beautiful skater dress.
Unfortunately, this makes Patty realize that it’s time to do something with her “mousy-blah” hair, so she turns to Chuck for help. It’s interesting to see Peppermint Patty get more into her feminine side during this period. (An earlier story has her and “Lucille” having an adventure getting their ears pierced at the local department store.) Chuck graciously volunteers his father – the barber’s – services. Unfortunately, he neglects to tell his father that Patty is a girl, and she emerges from the barber shop with a short boy-style hair cut. (It’s interesting to note that, now that you can see the shape of her very round head, Peppermint Patty with short hair looks very much like Charlie Brown with freckles.) Embarrassed to be seen like this at the competition, Peppermint Patty dons a ridiculous wig – one that makes her look something like Little Orphan Annie.
Other odd storylines in this particular book include Sally’s school building becoming self-aware – and developing a crush on Sally as well! Also, on the baseball field, Snoopy is neck and neck with Hank Aaron as he attempts to pass Babe Ruth’s home run record. (Begging the unasked question, if Snoopy hits so many home runs, why does their team never win a game?) Oddly, the team actually does win a game – when one-year-old Rerun Van Pelt, too little to pitch to, is walked to score the winning run. But the win is taken away when it is discovered that Rerun has bet (a nickel) on the outcome of the game. “But who would bet against us?” asks Charlie Brown, as Snoopy embarrassedly whistles beside him. Speaking of Rerun, we also see his very first adventures on the back of his mom’s bicycle in this volume. As a lover of great puns, I can’t neglect to tell you of all the really great strips – with really horrible puns – about Snoopy the aspiring author. And Lucy finally snaps, throwing Schroeder’s beloved piano into the sewer.
There are also a lot of strips about tennis, Schulz’s then-current passion. Which makes it a natural fit for Billie Jean King to write the introduction to this volume, discussing the quiet, unusual friendship between the tennis pro and the world’s most famous cartoonist. The turning points I’ve mentioned here make this the last book of truly classic Peanuts strips.
I think my favorite thing about the Fantagraphics Peanuts books is the index, where I like to check in on the number of appearances of the Peanuts minor characters. Shermy is already long gone, and Patty (the original one) makes only four appearances here. Violet appears seven times, but oddly, Pig-Pen does not appear at all during either 1973 or 1974. Three super-minor characters appear in this volume: The male-chauvinist Thibault returns to makes trouble for Peppermint Patty and Marcie for a week. Snoopy’s previous owner Poochie makes a cameo. And Loretta (who?) makes two virtually identical but pivotal appearances. Best yet, the index tells me there are a dozen “AAUGH!”s and 17 “Rats!” in this volume. Wish I had a index for my own frustrations…
I love this Complete Peanuts series and highly recommend it. In the earlier books, there were hundreds of strips that I never got the chance to read because they were never collected (or appeared before I was born). In the upcoming “back half” of the series, there will be hundreds more that I’ve never seen because I didn’t have regular access to newspapers and the original collections got too erratic for me to collect. I understand that the upcoming strips might be as erratic as well. I can’t wait.
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.