Media Matters

Good News, Charlie Brown

All men of good will are cheering the publication this month of volume one of The Complete Peanuts.

By 5.21.04

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All men of good will are cheering the publication this month of the first volume of The Complete Peanuts, an ambitious project from Fantagraphics Books, most known as publishers of arty comics by the likes of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. The book debuts this week on the New York Times hardcover fiction chart at number 19. This series will reprint every single one of Charles Schulz's Peanuts strips in handsomely designed volumes, each covering two years. The first volume, now available, covers the tail end of 1950, when the strip began, as well as all of 1951-52.

Allowing for no cynicism and no carping (except maybe the lack of color in the Sunday strips), this book -- and the trends it represents -- is a multileveled triumph.

First, it's a triumph for art over kitsch -- for the integral energies of a work of popular art over the rampant and possibly damaging commodification of it. Unlike last year's style-over-substance tribute to Schulz, designed by New York's pop-culture-fetishist-of-the-moment Chip Kidd, Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz, which contextualized Schulz's achievements in terms of artifacts -- toys, advertisements, yellowed newspaper clippings of the strips -- the devoted comics fans at Fantagraphics are letting the work speak for itself.

And it stands up. This first volume will surprise those who only remember the canonical Peanuts as it matured in the late '50s and on through the '70s. (Most agree it lost a lot of steam and charm in the '80s, with the growing domination of Snoopy's relatives and bird buddies.) As the strip begins, Charlie Brown is a bit of a scamp, not the trod-upon but enduring loser he became. (Though the punchline of the very first strip, highlighting that these cute cartoon kids aren't as cute as they might seem, is a friend saying of Charlie Brown, "How I hate him!")

Peanuts in this first volume mostly revolves around genuinely childish shenanigans between him and three other (largely colorless) characters, Shermy, Patty (not the later tomboyish, struggling-with-school Peppermint Patty) and Violet. They play in sandboxes and the snow, fuss over candy, and sell mud pies. Snoopy is still a dog on all fours, evincing only subtle hints of his later quasi-humanity -- and he isn't even definitively Charlie Brown's dog at the start, merely a neighborhood mutt of sorts. Schroeder shows up as an infant, already a piano prodigy. And before this volume's end, Charlie Brown's endless-childhood long nemesis Lucy Van Pelt enters as an infant and quickly evolves into the super fussbudget and relentless needler of good ol' Charlie Brown.

But there from the beginning are Schulz's strikingly clean and modernist pen lines, elegantly minimalist design and background, and indescribable but unavoidable sheer comic charm. In one strip, Patty approaches Charlie Brown playing sailor with a cap formed of a newspaper page. She asks for the Captain. Charlie Brown: "He's right over there, ma'am." Patty: "But how can I be sure which one the captain is?" CB: "His hat is made from the editorial section!" In another, Charlie Brown says to Patty: "Isn't your favorite radio program on at six o'clock?" Patty: "You're right! It is!!" She dashes for the radio. "Hey! It's six-thirty already! I've missed it!" CB: "I know it…I can't stand that program!"

FROM ITS HUMBLE BEGINNINGS in fewer than 10 papers, it grew to be one of the most widely read objects in the history of the human race, an unprecedented popular success while still winning the love of intelligentsia ranging from Umberto Eco to Garrison Keillor (who wrote the introduction to Complete Peanuts Vol. 1.) Peanuts' dual levels of popularity are curious -- on its own terms it added a distinctly modernist look (in the stark simplicity of its line and figure work, unique in its day, reducing cartooning to bare yet still skillful essentials) and an existential voice and image to the comics pages. As comedy and comics historian Ben Schwartz noted in a recent article in Comic Art, Schulz's work fit in snugly with a American literary mentality exemplified by the likes of Salinger and popular sociology like The Lonely Crowd: "postwar failure and frustration."

Indeed, far from merely charming and diverting, Peanuts presented every day for 50 years a curious and fantastic litany of failure (Charlie Brown), malice (Lucy), self-deception (Snoopy, Linus, Peppermint Patty), and genius that goes nowhere (Schroeder and his toy piano). Yet it still somehow became widely beloved on the crudest level of festooning bedsheets and lunch pails and pitching life insurance and cruddy snack cakes.

Yes, everyone loved Peanuts, but it's sometimes hard, from the perspective of the fan of comics-art-for-arts sake, to figure out exactly why. The strip's essence, one would think, would make hawkers of cheap products and cheaper sentiment run away from its characters screaming. Yet it remained compelling on so many levels that we managed to achieve an amazing level of pure cultural denial over what Peanuts was really selling us. It's true, I suppose, that all of us have elements of Charlie Brown, of Snoopy the supercilious fantasist, of Lucy the self-assured terror, somewhere in us, or at least in our experience. What Peanuts never gave us -- even though myth would say lowest-common-denominator culture demands it -- is uplift or a happy ending. It gave us one curious, alienated postwar American's skill and vision and determination (he kept drawing himself in a final decade when he could barely draw an unshaky line) and that turned out to be more than enough.

What this new reprint series tells us about our rich cultural moment, though, is unrelentingly cheery, even if Peanuts itself was far from it. This reissue project is a triumph for the cornucopian wonders of the wealthy west over the forces of cultural dissolution. This series is not an unprecedented achievement of archiving the easily lost middle and low cultures of our past, though it is so far the most popular and attention getting.

WHILE NOT ALL OF them were brought to fruition, ambitious complete reprint projects have been launched in the past two decades for such comic strips as Prince Valiant, Krazy Kat, L'il Abner, and, scheduled to start soon, Gasoline Alley.

We are living in a golden age of the preservation and reissuing of Everything, if there is even a small niche market for them, from DVD versions of canceled TV shows like Freaks and Geeks and Sledge Hammer! to CD reissues of obscure old singles of every taste, from garage punk to sunshine pop to foreign psychedelia to country blues.

Digitization as a means of media preservation almost guarantees that if anyone anywhere loved it, it will come back for fans both old and new. We aren't yet to the point where everything anywhere anytime is readily available to us; but we are getting surprisingly close, and this Peanuts reprint is a bellwether of that trend.

This is important. We are talking of physical goods here, of course, and a surfeit of them that can, admittedly, be maddening. But the physical in this case is a carrier for the spiritual, for an endless and endlessly renewed storehouse of love, affection, memory, and the means by which we have all understood, endured, and enjoyed our lives.

Buried in trash heaps of paper and vinyl, broadcast to the heavens, the interlocked joys and abilities of personal enthusiasm, technologies, and markets are resurrecting and preserving gems from what time and circumstance have caused to be tossed as rubbish with yesterday's newspaper. Even if you don't care if you never look at Charlie Brown's mopey mug ever again, we are all the richer for it.

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About the Author

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This is Burning Man (Little, Brown).