Books — The Complete Peanuts

 The sneaky side of Charlie Brown surfaces in early Peanuts strips

In the Peanuts collection—two down, 23 to go

By Lisa Parsons [lparsons@hippopress.com]

The Complete Peanuts: Dailies & Sundays 1953 to 1954, by Charles M. Schulz, Fantagraphics Books, 2004, 325 pages.

Fantagraphics Books is rising admirably to the challenge of publishing “the definitive collection” of Peanuts strips.

The first volume presented strips from 1950 through ’52.

Now here’s the second of the planned 25 hardcover volumes. Like the first, it is sturdy enough for your home museum but also a comfortable size and quite readable.

In these early strips, sometimes Charlie Brown’s the loser you’re familiar with, but sometimes it’s others who are taken advantage of while Charlie Brown seems more the insider. We see Charlie Brown as a know-it-all nag, Charlie Brown as oblivious to others’ feelings, Charlie Brown as the rejecter of a suitor; it’s Charlie Brown who pushes Violet off her tricycle and hits her with a piece of sod, in the service of a cartoon gag, and it’s Charlie Brown who dumps a bowl of popcorn over Lucy’s head when she gets annoying.

These jokes are about the joke, not about the characters. Anyone can deliver the line. Reading these early volumes is like going back and watching the first season of Cheers—you recognize hints of what it would become, but even the show itself didn’t know yet.

Though we see nebulous signs of Linus’ sagacity (he does impressive things with blocks and balloons), he is at this point a pre-verbal infant. And though Lucy is flip and crabby already, she’s not the only one.

Snoopy is smaller and more flat-headed than later, and still mute except for arfs and growls, and there’s no Woodstock yet.

In these days before the characters slipped into their well-defined roles, Schulz made lots of if-it-ain’t-one-thing-it’s-another jokes. He dealt with self-consciousness, and feeling left out, and wondering what you want from life.

In one strip, Lucy and Violet shoot the breeze over ice cream. “My Dad bought me a new gym set,” says Lucy—a younger Lucy than the stage manager you know from the Christmas TV special. “It’s got two swings on it, a parallel bar, a teeter-totter, a pair of rings and a trapeze… on the sides it’s got a bell, a water spray, a basketball hoop, a siren, a slide and a big umbrella.” Pause.

“I’m scared to go near the thing!” Her demeanor suggests she’s used to having life throw this sort of obstacle at her. And she’ll finish her lunch and go back for another day, another donut.

As a mother, I read that particular cartoon as a commentary on over-parenting. But I remember reading it for the first time as a naïve kid, and I viscerally understood Lucy’s experience. You read Dilbert today to know that it’s not just you, that society really is absurd, that your boss really is crazy and he’s not the only one? A seven-year-old can read Peanuts and discover the same wonderful reassurance, the same camaraderie—replace the word “boss” with “parent.” The world is big; the world is full of bells and whistles and water sprays and hoops to jump through—and people who expect you to like it.

When Lucy loses a helium balloon in one full-length Sunday strip, she gasps with horror. Tearfully she pleads with the balloon to come back. Then she shakes her fists menacingly toward it. As it floats away, she alternately pleads and threatens, pleads and threatens… and ends balloonless, with a dejected “Oh, Rats!”

How much more like life can you get?

Walter Cronkite wrote the foreword to this volume, which also, like the last installment, has an index to help you seek out that one favorite cartoon.

- Lisa Parsons

 
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