March 6, 2009

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The Complete Peanuts Volume 3 1955-1956

Written by Charles Schultz
Illustrated by Charles Schultz
Fantagraphics

As we wind our way through the Eisenhower years, Peanuts is still a strip seemingly at war with itself. As I've mentioned previously, there is a strong battle between simple, comic stip style gags (Matt Groening singles out the "kite tied to an anchor" as an example) and the deeper, angst-ridden moments where Charlie Brown's worries about how much everyone hates him are almost painful to read. By the 20th or so time that Violet and Patty are thrown into Charlie Brown's face to berate him, the only natural reaction is to wince--or worse. (I found myself mentally shouting at the book--STOP TRYING TO WIN THEIR LOVE!)

But that's the point and the depth of Peanuts, isn't it? The main characters, particularly Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy, become more than little doodles--they start standing in for people you know. Why do I want Charlie Brown to stop hurting himself by sticking around people who hate him? Because I did the same god-damned thing, and I bet at least a few of you reading this did it, too.

Though there's quite a bit of painful commentary on childhood going on, Snoopy shines through as the god of fun in the Peanuts world. Given a larger role over the course of these two years, he shows intelligence beyond the scope of a funny dog, starts getting picky about food, and immiates a whole host of animals, from snakes to vultures to rhinos to Lucys. He'll dance for no reason, swipe Linus' blanket, or try to be the Peggy Fleming of the sidewalk. Whenever the stip falls a bit too far into a depression, Snoopy is the venue Schultz uses to lighten the mood.

And man, they are just laugh-out-loud funny a good chunk of the time. Charlie Brown may be the stand in for Schultz himself, but Snoopy is where he placed his unrestricted sense of fun.

It should be noted here that I think in this volume we see Snoopy's doghouse used as a "real" house for the first time, a theme Schultz will revist over the course of the strip.

As Snoopy slowly becomes, well, Snoopy, Shultz also starts firming up the rest of the cast. Charlie Brown is officially the loser now--he's bad at school, sports, and friendships, finding a kindred spirit only in Schroeder, who seems to rag on him the least. (He also hangs out wit Linus a lot but right now, those are set up mostly to show how smart Linus is compared to the older Charlie Brown.) The impish pranks are gone almost entirely, leaving Calvin to sit in the brain of Watterson for another 30 years or so.

Linus, while still shown as a baby, is portrayed as whip-smart, able to do nearly anything the older kids can, and frequently better. He's also philosophical, taking Lucy's bullying with a smile or asking the point of certain actions. Schultz still has him act childish here and there but I doubt that will last much longer. Lucy is not quite a total jerk yet but you can see it's coming. She's mean to Linus and Charlie Brown a lot more often, and frequently yells for no reason. Lucy is also the weak link in this collection, as Schultz has her doing the same gags OVER AND OVER AND OVER again. I know this was a daily strip, not originally meant to be read as a trade, but still, the scenes were almost word-for-word at times within only a few months of each other.

It's an odd time to be a part of the supporting cast. Shermy is pretty much confined to group shots and the ocassional straight man part. Pig Pen comes in for a gag here and there, with a clear indication he's proud of who he is. (He's our cover person this time and gets the great line "I'M WELL READ!" placed on the back cover comic.) Schroder is still in love with Beethoven, but it's clear there's only so many jokes to be mined from that. (I particularly like the Davey Crockett versus Beethoven gags.) Charlotte Braun is mercifully forgotten. Violet and Patty are pretty much just around to insult people. As Shultz finalized his plans for the Browns and the Van Pelts, it kinda feels like he forgot the rest a bit here.

This are not the best Peanuts comics ever. Fantagraphics notes that more than half are new to modern readers (i.e. never reprinted), and I can sort of see why. However, for those who are comic historians and fans of Peanuts, there's plenty here to enjoy. Watching Schultz develop his writing style is quite a treat, and well worth your time.