In the beginning was Peanuts. Peanuts is arguably the most popular and influential comic strip of all time.
When beginning my research on Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts to write this review, I carried around a few different books on the comic to various coffeehouses that I work at. At first I would sit down, eager to read more about Charlie Brown and his world. If I had any doubt in the universal appeal of Schulz’s work I didn’t after meeting so many others that loved Peanuts. I soon lost count of the number of people, strangers really, who came up and excitedly told me that Peanuts was their favorite comic strip. It seems like everyone has a soft spot for the little boy and his beagle. Charlie Brown and Snoopy are now iconic characters, recognized around the world. It is not hyperbole to refer to Peanuts as an institution.
Published by Fantagraphics, The Complete Peanuts: 1950 – 1952 collects Charles M. Schulz’s first two years on the iconic comic strip. Now available in paperback, this little volume is a perfect, compact summer vacation read. With an introduction written by Garrison Keillor and a biographical essay by David Michaelis, the book is beautifully designed.
Looking at some of Schultz’s earliest Peanuts strips was a thrilling experience. In the very beginning of this strip, Charlie Brown had not yet donned his trademark zigzag shirt. Those first few strips without him wearing the shirt were actually quite shocking; it almost seemed like Schulz did not get a handle on who Charlie Brown was until he had him put the shirt on. Before the zigzag shirt Charlie Brown was also easily confused with supporting character Shermy. After the shirt is added Charlie Brown and Shermy begin to diverge in general appearance and temperament.
Other elements that I had previously took for granted were conspicuously absent in these early strips. Snoopy is much more doglike, walking on four legs rather than two. Personas such as the Red Baron or Joe Cool occur much later. In these early strips Snoopy had not even began to perch on top of his doghouse. No mention was made of the Great Pumpkin. Lucy has not yet opened up a booth selling psychiatric help. These complications and embellishments occur later in the Peanuts oeuvre.
In these early strips Schulz was still refining and developing his cast of characters. Some personalities I was already pretty familiar with and it was delightful to be able to take a closer look at their initial introductions. Snoopy is already poised to steal the show; he is an adorable rascal and always getting into everything. Though neurotic, Charlie Brown is a loveable goof.
Other characters, such as the headstrong Patty (not to be confused with the similarly-named Peppermint Patty) and straight man Shermy, were less familiar. Both Patty and Shermy play prominent roles in these initial strips. Later additions include Charlie Brown’s crush Violet as well as the toddlers Schroeder and Lucy. Lucy’s younger brother Linus is also introduced in these early strips. I was surprised how this collection really showed me how Schulz established and built up the relationships between characters rather slowly. Schulz really took his time, allowing the reader to really get to know the cast of characters.
Schulz’s ability to create such a rich world with an economy of elements is impressive. Sweet without being overly saccharine, Peanuts is deceptively simple. The strips are genuinely funny, full of slapstick humor as well as clever wordplay. The artwork manages to be charming and spirited while using an economy of lines. Any aspiring cartoonist should have this volume on hand.
Schulz managed to tap into universal truths about childhood without sounding pedantic. Peanuts is imbued with so much grace and nuance while still remaining playful. Charlie Brown and his friends explore the tensions and challenges of people decades older than they are.
All of the characters are wonderfully complex. The loveable Charlie Brown craves acceptance from his peers but cannot resist making a good joke at their expense. Though often depicted playing with dolls, Patty asserts the value of women and refuses to accept any notion of male superiority. Schroeder’s passion for music, while played for laughs, also hints towards a respect for all-consuming artistic talents that cannot be ignored. Lucy delights in histrionic behavior with such self-awareness that you realize she is in on the joke.
Schulz knew how to juxtapose adult anxieties with children’s gameplay. Kids who talk about being depressed or hypocrites while engaged in high-energy play are not real kids. Instead, Schulz made the characters in Peanuts mirror adult concerns and responsibilities. When we laugh at Charlie Brown we are really laughing at ourselves.
Schulz emphasizes this metanarrative in several instances. Peanuts exploits this to great effect while also commenting on the medium of comics itself. The characters in Peanuts are seen reading comics, often remarking at how engrossing and wonderful the medium is. Less frequently, other moments directly address the characters living within the comics medium. In one strip, solitary genius Schroeder is frustrated with the lack of appreciation his music receives and reaches his boiling point when Charlie Brown does not understand the significance of possessing perfect pitch. Instead of simply stomping away, the last panel has Schroeder directly address the reader exclaiming, “Sometimes I think I should put in a transfer to a new comic strip!” By presenting them utterly devoid of irony, Schulz handles moments like these without making them cheesy or clichéd.
I found myself admiring Charlie Brown’s outlook on life. Charlie Brown is often thought of as a somber personality, prone to depression and existential angst. But Charlie Brown is earnest. Though often discouraged, he perseveres. Charlie Brown is frequently shown losing but he is not a loser. Charlie Brown is also easily cheered, possessing the admirable ability to laugh at himself and enjoy small victories. All things considered, exploring the beginnings of Charlie Brown’s comic strip life was a wonderful adventure.