Friday, December 21, 2012

The Complete Peanuts, 1983 to 1984 by Charles M. Schulz

It's pointless to wish for things to always stay the same, since they never have and never will. And the early '80s Peanuts cartoons are not the same as the the punchier strips of the '60s and early '70s, just as those high points were very different from the early days of Peanuts in the '50s. I've lamented that change in the past -- see my slew of posts about the previous dozen-plus books in this series -- but perhaps I've learned better, or just gotten used to the change.

There also was a shock-of-the-new effect going on, I expect: I was born in 1969, so my own Peanuts-reading days mostly started in the mid to late '70s, corresponding very closely with Schulz's gradual shift from sadness to sun during that period. Oh, Peanuts always had a lot of sadness to it -- more than anything else on the comics page -- but in the '70s, it changed fundamentally from being primarily a strip about a boy tormented by his failures to being mostly a strip about a dog's flights of fancy.

These are still good cartoons, here in The Complete Peanuts 1983-1984, this dispatch from the early '80s -- maybe not as good as the cartoons from fifteen years earlier, and certainly not good in the same way -- but they're reliably funny and occasionally moving. The deep sadness that used to manifest in Charlie Brown now comes up, less rawly, in Peppermint Patty's school troubles, which are usually just for laughs but sometimes still bring up that old sense of existential failure that was Peanuts's go-to emotion in those bleak late-60s days.

But who wants bleak all the time? Peanuts was never that; the difference between 1968 and 1983 is really the question of the emotional center of the strip. In the '60s and early '70s, Charlie Brown -- battered by baseball failure, his own kid sister, his bad penmanship, and Lucy in the days when she was a real force -- was that core, standing in for everything Schulz felt as a failure in his own life. By 1983, Snoopy (and his growing family) was that center, and Snoopy, for all of his occasional moments of worry, is the omnicompetent one of Peanuts, secure in his own ability to redefine himself for whatever he needs to be.

So these two years see a lot of Snoopy and Spike, a lot of Rerun (who is nearly impossible to tell apart from Linus, other than the situations he's in), and a lot of Charlie Brown being a straight man. They were the best thing on a whole lot of comics pages some of the days of those two years -- depending on what else a particular paper was carrying -- and they were good and entertaining comics then, and are still that now. For work done by the same one man, day after day, more than thirty years after he started that project, that's not just impressive, it's amazing.

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