Mr. Charlie #65 says it’s not too late to get your Charlie Brown on:
It has been about a year and a half since Fantagraphics Books began publishing THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, their ambitious 12½ year, 25-volume series that will reprint the entirety of Charles M. Schulz’s classic American newspaper strip, Peanuts. Some of the strips have never been reprinted, and Fanta’s series is the first chronological reprinting of Peanuts.
Much has been made of the fact that Schulz created a strip in which the lead character, Charlie Brown, was a depressed kid. Author David Michaelis, in an essay entitled, “The Life and Times of Charles Schulz” (included in The Complete Peanuts: 1950-52), writes that while action, adventure, vaudeville and melodrama, slapstick and gags dominated American newspaper comics by the mid-20th century, Charles Schulz “dared to use his own quirks – a lifelong sense of alienation, insecurity, and inferiority – to draw the real feelings of his life and time.”
While Schulz’s life and experiences growing up in St. Paul (feelings of alienation and loneliness, the Depression, the death of his mother, and WWII) obviously affected his outlook on life and his work on the strip, I’ll leave dissecting of his life to more informed and skilled people. However, during my trek through the first volume of The Complete Peanuts, I’ve come to understand that part of what Schulz did in creating Peanuts was create a world where, at least, his fictional self could feel safe. Artists, writers, poets, etc. often try to order the world they live in by creating fictional versions in which they control process of living, the environment, and the outcome, and that’s what Schulz seemed to be doing with Peanuts.
Anyone who has read the strip for a long time knows that adults rarely made appearances in the strip. Early in the strip’s run (the first 27 months of Peanuts’ existence – the strips contained in The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952), grownups didn’t appear “on panel.” Schulz indicated their presence with a word balloon indicating that they were speaking, but the adults were essentially offstage. Still, one can’t help but feel that adults are nearly always present in the strip. The first characters to appear in the strip, which were Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty (not Peppermint Patty), and, of course, Snoopy, rarely strayed far from home. Their adventures and mini dramas always took place in the safety of their idyllic neighborhood; therefore, they could play, explore, and have adventures without having to worry about facing any kind of danger from which their adults could not protect them.
Even Schulz’s drawing is safe and sheltered at the start of the strip. His line is simple, and he composes the cartoons via a series of simple shapes with unadorned forms. It’s uncomplicated and makes Peanuts something not so special, perhaps being like a comic strip version of The Little Rascals. I think the first time Schulz took a step in advancing the strip both in terms of the drawings and the drama was the strip from September 24, 1951 when Charlie Brown shows Schroeder, then barely a toddler, how to play a toy piano. The strip finishes with Schroeder sitting in front of the piano and instantly launching into a complicated piano composition. Schulz uses an intricately drawn piece sheet music in the word balloon to indicate Schroeder’s musical prowess. This was a certain signal that Schulz was going to be moving on with the strip, and that he was going to make Peanuts more than just a comic strip with kids as the featured players. Schroeder’s impromptu performance is what would define the character through the life of the strip in Feb. 2000.
After that episode, it was evident that Schulz had started to play with panel composition, especially as to how he placed characters and objects in the strip for dramatic effect. There is more foreshortening, and he shifts the light sources as much as he shifts the characters. In the Sep. 25, 1951 episode, he repositions Charlie Brown, Patty, and Schroeder in three separate panels so that he could not only establish mood, but also emphasis the magnitude of Schroeder’s accomplishment.
Throughout the rest of the strips in this first volume, Schulz’s art begins to make the world of Charlie Brown and his friends more three-dimensional, and the cartoonist begins to flesh out and expand the cast. Besides the original quartet, Violet arrives five months into the strip’s run (Feb 7, 1951). The aforementioned Schroeder arrives on the scene as an occasionally cantankerous infant (within a year he’s not only walking, but also keeping up with the other kids). In early March 1952, Lucy Van Pelt arrives as a toddler, and six and a half months later, her brother Linus debuts as an adorable infant who can’t sit up without falling over. Charlie Brown has his first of many Halloween insults (10/30/1951), and 1952 ends on the kind of note that defines the strip. Charlie Brown is late getting to a post-Christmas party at Violet’s house. When he calls Violet to inform her that he’ll be late, she tells him that no one even noticed that he wasn’t at the shindig.
The Complete Peanuts – 1950 to 1952
CARTOONIST: Charles M. Schulz
EDITOR: Gary Groth
ISBN: 1-56097-589-X; hardcover
347 pages, B&W w/color endpapers, $28.95
Introduction by Garrison Keillor
This volume is also available directly from the publisher, Fantagraphics