Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Complete Peanuts, 1997 to 1998 by Chartles M. Schulz

The conventional wisdom is that Peanuts was tired and dull by the end of Charles Schulz's life, focused on standard gags and hampered by Schulz's increasingly shaky hand. And it's definitely true that the long continuities of the '70s were no more, and the more psychologically insightful (and sometimes emotionally painful) years of the strip were similarly far in the past. But Schulz had finally broken free of his four-panel prison a few years before, and the strips from 1997 and 1998 show an amazing flexibility and inventiveness, as Schulz kept finding new cadences for his strips and tried other panel layouts.

At this point, I should probably link to posts I've done over the past decade for the previous books in the series: 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, 1993-1994, the flashback to 1950-1952, and then just recently 1995-1996.

In that last post, I wrote about the looming end of the series -- we know it's looming, but Schulz didn't, until very near the end -- and how that can overshadow what's actually good and interesting in those strips. The same is true, probably even more so, for The Complete Peanuts: 1997 to 1998. Schulz's panel layouts get even more interesting in these years, with a number of strips with staccato panels -- up to six or seven of them -- to rattle through a run of dialogue, and many more in one single quieter long panel.

And if he didn't have the three-week epic camp or baseball stories of the '60s and '70s any more, he did something quirkier these years, bringing Snoopy's brothers Andy and Olaf in to visit, and then sending them off on an odyssey to find their other brother Spike, out in the western desert. Andy and Olaf are less capable than even the hapless Spike, so they keep coming back -- every month or three, the two funny-looking dogs return, with another story of not quite making it to Spike, and what they found instead. Schulz keeps these stories in the established milieu of the strip -- Spike's desert, the suburban landscape around Snoopy's doghouse -- rather than showing us Andy and Olaf actually in the various places they visited by accident.

And it has to be said that Schulz was a very funny cartoonist by this point in his career: each strip is funny and precise, based on the personalities of his cast and enlivened by new characters: Rerun, in particular, gets to grow into more of a rounded person, and not just be the little kid stuck on the back of his mother's bicycle, as he was when he first appeared.

Again, I still wouldn't call this peak Peanuts. But it's doing different things than peak Peanuts was, and doing those things equally well. This was a strong, vibrant, funny strip from beginning to end, the product of one devoted, hard-working, honest cartoonist sitting down at that board day after day for fifty years to come up with another idea, another joke, another drawing.

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