Monday, March 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #82: The Complete Peanuts, 1987 to 1988 by Charles M. Schulz

Everyone writing about American comics has to deal with Schulz, one way or another. Either they relentlessly focus on the long-underwear crowd and ignore that anything else ever existed -- which is the style of far too many commentators -- or else, at some point, you need to wrestle with the man who more than anyone else imported psychology, modernity, and ambiguity onto the comics page.

So it's no surprise that I've written about him a lot, as this complete reprinting of his life's work has rolled forward, two books a year, from Fantagraphics over the past decade. (And we might have gotten used to it, but it's still a stunning achievement -- what will be twenty-five matching books, together exquisitely presenting a 20th century masterwork, every one of the 17,897 strips Schulz wrote and drew and lettered over a fifty-year period together in one unbroken string.) I may repeat myself, here, but here's what I said before, about the books covering 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-1964, 1965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, and 1985-1986.

Schulz dropped down from four panels to three on his dailies in the middle of the stretch of strips collected in The Complete Peanuts 1987-1988 -- right at the end of February 1988 -- and it was almost a clean break, with only a few three-panel strips before that and a handful of four-panel strips afterward. Schulz did start indulging some one-panel strips during this stretch though, which is interesting: they're clearly his work, and feature Peanuts characters, but they don't have the same rhythm as his main strips; they're "off" in the same way the 3D '60s Viewmasters and the comic-book versions of the characters are "off."

Three panels have a different rhythm than four as well, of course. And Peanuts kept simplifying and honing itself as a daily gag strip in these years -- Schulz was always a great gag-man, though his humor, even at its sunniest, ran to the wry smile rather than the belly-laugh most of the time. But each strip was a little shorter and simpler, with less room for set-up and nuance, beginning early in 1988. My eye can only barely detect the beginnings of a quaver in Schulz's line at this point, but there are plenty of people better at seeing that than I am.

There's still plenty of sadness and regret in Peanuts, even at this late date, though it's more muted, and Schulz doesn't engage in the long continuities of the '70s (Mr. Sack, the Pattie/Marcie/Charles love triangle) anymore. Interestingly, Charlie Brown starts quoting his grandfather in the ways he idolized and talked about his barber father in the earlier years of the strip.

In these years, Peanuts was still a fine strip: funny and amusing and occasionally deeply insightful in the ways it was so regularly in the '50s and '60s. It was still Peanuts; it just wasn't as good as Peanuts ever got anymore.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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