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Working for "The Complete Peanuts"

Working for "The Complete Peanuts"

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The very first "Peanuts" strip sets the tone for the next fifty years.

Do we really need another "Peanuts" book? Charles Schulz's magnum opus is in no danger of fading from the public consciousness. Bookstores stock collections of the strips, storybooks about the characters, and even books about the strips. Many newspapers still carry "Classic Peanuts" in their comics sections. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the rest grace puzzles, clocks, pillows, backpacks, t-shirts, and countless other items. A Charlie Brown balloon floated down the street in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And as the holiday season approaches, TV viewers will once again watch Charlie Brown find the true meaning of Christmas and the world's most pathetic tree.

But at least in this case, there is a real need for another "Peanuts" book - or rather, series of books. Because this series of books is "The Complete Peanuts", published by Fantagraphics.

So what's so complete about "Complete Peanuts"? Well, Charles Schulz drew the comic for fifty years without assistance. Every line, every word, every strip, all his. And every one of those strips will be reprinted in "The Complete Peanuts". Each volume contains two years worth of strips and two volumes will be released every year. So with volumes one and two out now, I'll be shelling out for volume 25 to complete the set in roughly eleven and a half years. Aside from every weekday and Sunday strip in existence, "Complete Peanuts" features introductions by such celebrities as Garrison Keillor and Walter Cronkite, and design work by indy cartoonist Seth. Seth's artistic touches make "Complete Peanuts" stand out from the crowd of other "Peanuts" collections. The cover of the first book, with its subdued reddish-brown background and glaring portrait of Charlie Brown, seems much more in tune with the tone of "Peanuts" than those numerous collections with their bright, happy covers.

But what really has fans drooling over these new collections is the fact that some of these strips have never been collected before. It seems strange that such a well-known and well-loved comic strip would have this problem. But most of the books you see on shelves today focus on strips Schulz drew after he had figured out the "Peanuts" formula and style, circa 1957 and onward. The earlier comics don't look like "Peanuts" as we know it today, so publishers tend to ignore them. What's even stranger, considering the later success of "Peanuts", is how few papers originally carried it. In fact, one Sunday strip ran at a time when so few comics sections included "Peanuts" that the first two panels of it could not be located for publication in Volume 2. (Traditionally, the first two panels of a newspaper strip contain the title panel and/or some throwaway gag so that editors strapped for space can simply cut them.) In order to keep this particular Sunday in the same format as the others, Seth once again stepped in and used his considerable talents to create substitute starting panels. Fantagraphics has said that if the missing panels ever show up, they will be printed in a future volume.

The early Charlie Brown, accompanied by a puppy Snoopy, has not yet been beaten down by life's cruelty.

So "Complete Peanuts" is certainly an interesting idea and an impressive undertaking. I doubt anyone would say that having every "Peanuts" strip ever drawn back in print is a bad thing. But is it actually worth getting? Is anyone aside from the truly devoted fans of the strips going to want these books? I say yes on both counts, for two main reasons.

In his early appearances, Schroeder was a baby of many talents.

One is that the books are so interesting historically, especially these early volumes. Since newspaper strips require new content daily, Schulz couldn't afford to sketch or write any kind of development work that wouldn't be published. Like many stars of the comics, the "Peanuts" gang evolved in front of their readers. Though these first few years of strips are still recognizable as "Peanuts", they also show Schulz trying out a variety of ideas that would later be modified or abandoned altogether. The early Charlie Brown is not yet the put-upon perpetual loser we know today. He's on a more even footing with the other kids and frequently even makes jokes at their expense. Stranger still, he sometimes shows a level of self-esteem bordering on egotism. Schroeder began life as a baby virtuoso, unable to stay up for his own eight o'clock concert. Later, Schulz made him closer to Charlie Brown's age, a practice he would repeat with Lucy, Linus, and much later, Sally. (The latter two, however, always remained a little younger than their siblings.) At one point, several strips ended with a character saying "And that's the way it goes", suggesting that Schulz was trying to develop it into a catchphrase. And, of course, there's Charlotte Braun.

Or was that the other way around? A moment from Charlotte Braun's brief career.

In late November of 1954, Schulz thought it might be funny to create a female counterpart to Charlie Brown. Now keep in mind, our zigzag shirted hero hadn't yet developed into the modern wishy-washy blockhead. Even considering that fact, Charlotte Braun was not exactly a female version of Charlie Brown. She looks somewhat similar to him and her head may be equally round, though her curls make it hard to tell. In her debut strip, she informs Charlie Brown that her friends call her "good ol' Charlotte Braun". But her main character trait is her loudness, something that never really showed up in Charlie Brown's personality. The near-deafening volume of her regular speaking voice caused most of the other characters to find Charlotte Braun very annoying. Unfortunately, Schulz and his readers seemed to feel much the same. Charlotte Braun appeared in only seven strips before disappearing from "Peanuts" and the collective memory of a few rabid fans of the comic.

The other reason that "The Complete Peanuts" is worth picking up is perhaps the best: it's just plain fun. However well-meaning all of that Peanuts merchandise may be, it tends to make people forget what the strip is actually about. During a time when kids in comics tended to be either little angels or mischievous rascals, Schulz managed to perform a variety of balancing acts with his characters. Charlie Brown and company have conversations that would seem far beyond most real children, yet the readers never doubt that they are kids. Images of Charlie Brown standing on his pitcher's mound, flying his kite, or digging through a bag of candy evoke a traditional nostalgic view of childhood. But in context, these images speak of failure and disappointment. Charlie Brown will always blow his team's chance to win the big game, or just about any game for that matter. Assuming his kites even get off the ground, they fall victim to the kite-eating tree. And lurking somewhere inside that bag of candy is a dreaded coconut.

Not every Schulz strip is a perfect gem, but the early 1950s "Peanuts" is a pleasure to read completely apart from what would come later. The differences between the "Peanuts" comics of this era and the more modern ones are not flaws. The style and stories Schulz used before finding his formulas are both a fascinating timeline and a fun read. Schulz's characters have become cultural icons, but it's important that people look back and remember the original comics that gave them that status. "The Complete Peanuts" lets modern readers do just that. Old fans and newcomers alike should definitely check out this series.

Long before making psychiatry her trade, Lucy psychoanalyzes herself.

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