Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Complete Peanuts, 1999 to 2000 by Charles M. Schulz

This is the end; this is not the end.

This volume finishes up Fantagraphics' decade-plus reprint project covering the entirety of Charles M. Schulz's fifty-year run on Peanuts, with the last full year of strips and the few in early 2000 that Schulz completed before his health-forced retirement and nearly simultaneous death. (Sunday strips are done six to eight weeks early; his last strip appeared on the Sunday morning of February 13, and he died the evening before, in one of the most perfectly sad moments of timing ever.)

So that's the end.

It's also the beginning: also included in this book are all of the Li'l Folks strips that Schulz created for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1947 through early 1950, and which he eventually quit when his attempts to move it forward were turned down, freeing him to rework much of these ideas (and even specific gags) into what would become Peanuts.

But it's also not the end: there is one more book in the Fantagraphics series, the inevitable odds & sods volume with advertising art and comic-book strips and several of those small impulse-buy books from the '70s and '80s that Schulz wrote and drew featuring his Peanuts characters.

So The Complete Peanuts, 1999 to 2000 is the end of Peanuts. And it's the pre-beginning of Peanuts. But it's not the end of The Complete Peanuts.

Since we're talking about a fifty-year run by one man on one strip, and a publishing project that spanned more than ten years itself, perhaps some context would be useful. Luckily, I've been writing about these books for some time, so have a vast number of links back to my prior posts on the books covering years 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 back to the future with 1995-1996 and 1997-1998.

By this point in his career, Schulz was an old pro, adept at turning out funny gags and new twists on stock situations on a daily basis.  But maybe his age had been catching up to him: there's a wistfulness to some of the gags from the last few years of the strip, and something of a return to the deep underlying sadness of the late '60s and early '70s. But Peanuts was always a strip about failure and small moments of disappointment, and that kept flourishing until the end.

And, if his line had gotten a bit shaky in the last decade of Peanuts, it was still expressive and precise. And there's no sign of his illness until in the the very last minute: the third-to-last daily strip, 12/31/99, suddenly has a different lettering style in its final panel -- maybe typeset based on Schulz's hand-lettering, maybe done by someone else in his studio to match his work. Then the 1/1/00 strip is one large, slightly shakier panel with that different lettering. And 1/2/00 is the typeset farewell: Schulz, as far as we can see in public, realized he couldn't keep going at the level he expected of himself, and immediately quit. There was no decline. (The last few Sunday strips, which came out in January and February of 2000 but were drawn earlier, don't show any change at all until that final typeset valedictory -- the same one as the daily strip to this slightly different audience.)

In the book, that loops right back around to the earliest Li'l Folks, which had typeset captions. And then we can watch Schulz take over his own lettering and get better at it over the three years of that weekly strip, hitting the level he maintained for fifty years of Peanuts after not very long at all.

We can also see Schulz's art getting crisper and less fussy as Li'l Folks goes on, as he turned into the cartoonist who would burst forth with Peanuts in the fall of 1950. Li'l Folks is minor, mostly -- cute gags about kids and their dog, mimicking adults or pantomiming jokes based on their shortness -- but there are flashes of what would be Peanuts later. And I mean "flashes" specifically: Schulz re-used many of the better ideas from Li'l Folks for Peanuts, so a lot of the older strip will be vaguely familiar to readers who know the early Peanuts well.

Perhaps most importantly, putting Li'l Folks at the end keeps this 1999-2000 volume from being depressing. It's already shorter than the others, inevitably, but putting the old strip back turns the series into an Ouroboros, as if Schulz was immediately reincarnated as his younger self, with all of his triumphs ahead of him (and heartaches, too -- we can never forget those, with Schulz and Peanuts).

Peanuts was a great strip, one of the true American originals. And it ended as well as any work by one creator ever could, having grown and thrived in an era where Schulz could have control of his work. (If he'd covered the first half of his century, that probably wouldn't have happened: Peanuts is the great strip that ended partly out of historical happenstance and partly because Schulz and his family wanted it so.) So there is sadness here, but there's a lot of sadness in Peanuts anyway: it's entirely appropriate.

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