Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952 by Charles M. Schulz

I have thrown a lot of words around here about Charles M. Schulz's cartoon magnum opus -- see my posts on the volumes covering 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-19641965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1991-1992, and 1993-1994 -- but the first few volumes came out before I had started this blog. (Which makes this a very long publishing program, since the last volume is rolling off the presses this month.) I've never actually had the opportunity to bloviate here about the very beginning of Peanuts.

Of course, lots of other people have bloviated before me -- check out the Google for Peanuts around the time the first volume published in 2004, and you'll see the cartoon to the right (the very first Peanuts comic strip, from October 2, 1950) reprinted a hell of a lot, along with plenty of chin-scratching about how mean these kids were in the early days, how Schulz's style was clearly different then, and how the core cast didn't really start to assemble for another year or so. But this is my chance to dig my reviewing mitts into The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952, so forgive me if I don't let go of it easily.

The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952 shows us a very different strip than the Peanuts we know -- it's different both from the often sad sequence of long continuities and strong characterization of the '60s and early '70s, and even more different from the mostly sunny, mostly gag-a-day version of the strip featuring Snoopy that flourished from the late '70s through the end in 2000. Schulz's characters started out as real children, doing almost entirely childish things, with a level of cruelty and heartlessness that Peter Pan would approve of. The larger, and usually sub-textual, philosophical questions won't start showing up for another couple of years. So this book has stories of kids alone, in a mostly stark landscape, without parents or teachers or other adults. (Charlie Brown didn't get a barber father to talk about for several years, and the talking school building was several decades in the future.)

The cast is also notably different -- Charlie Brown was there from Day One, but he was a cocky, self-confident kid. The doubts and misery came later, as he turned into Schulz's viewpoint character, and not just a kid to make gags around. The rest of the opening-day cast is mostly forgotten now, because Schulz had them in as placeholders, and replaced them over time as he had better, more specific ideas. So Patty and Violet were "girls," and not much more. But Lucy was first a cute little kid, and then a fussbudget, and then (long after this volume) something like the fictional version of Schulz's first wife. Sally, too, started out as a cute kid, a more refined version of the initial version of Lucy, and clicked as Charlie Brown's kid sister. Similarly, the undifferentiated Shermy is joined, and nearly lapped, in this volume by the more specific and interesting Linus and Shroeder.

Coming to the very early Peanuts after seeing only late Peanuts for a long time can be a breath of fresh air: I loved this volume when I read it the first time. There's so much energy and emotion here; this is before Schulz sublimated those unruly kid feelings into his standard plots, and if that makes it all pretty scattershot, it's still an energizing kind of scattershot. Schulz did get better than this, definitely -- but he was interesting and exciting and original right from the beginning.

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