September 8, 2009

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The Complete Peanuts Volume 4 1957-1958

Written by Charles Schultz
Illustrated by Charles Schultz
Fantagraphics

It's appropriate that Snoopy is on the cover of this set of cartoons from Schultz' landmark series, as it's during these two years that Snoopy really comes out into his own as a character.

Shown doing dog things only in the most sarcastic manner possible, Snoopy thinks in very human terms and tries to find an identity for himself--vulture, bald eagle, penguin, and even a polar bear. In some ways, he's just like every other character in Schultz's increasingly drama-filled strip, even if it's disguised in clownish forms. Snoopy, like his owner, can't find his place in the world, and must keep trying over and over again.

He's not fantasizing war stories yet, but he is trying to be someone he's not. In that way, his bravado is a mirror to Charlie Brown's open honesty about his insecurity.

Or maybe I'm just doing what everyone else who re-reads Peanuts does--trying to find psychological foibles on a comics page.

Whether or not I'm reading too much into things, it's clear that Schultz is moving into darker territory here, as the failings of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, and the rest start to take center stage, and the comics get stronger continuity. An entire week at a time follows a central storyline, such as Charlie Brown's miss of a crucial pop fly or Linus' attempt to shake his blanket. The daily nature of things is used more for tragedy than for jokes, unless it involves Snoopy. Even recurring gags like Schroeder's love of Beethoven are used for pain, as Schroeder completely forgets his birthday after reminding others over and over again.

There are still little sight gags, like showing the innovation of poor kids at Halloween or Snoopy's dismissal of Schroder's classical music (drawing a square with his ears), but even those have an edge of sadness to them. Pratfalls are opportunities to dismiss hubris, and it's only very rarely that a strip is just meant to be played strictly for laughs (a puckered Snoopy is said to be eating peanut butter, for example.)

Almost every thing else runs from the outright sad, such as Charlie Brown going home so a little kid doesn't see him cry, or the underlying comment, as when Linus declares when he grows up, he'll be a fanatatic or that cowboys and indians has been changed to liberals and conservatives (how true, Sparky, how true).

Scenes such as Charlie Brown, after being told by Violet that she never wants to see him again, asking "Define, 'never.'" may bring a chuckle, but it's an uncomfortable one. I sometimes wonder how this comic made it in 1950s America. After all, by the time I was reading Peanuts in the early 80s, we had come to accept that America was flawed (even if you yourself were flawless!). This is Charles Schultz telling 1950s America this day in and day out. Was everyone so worried about commies and nukes they didn't notice the subversive commentary going on right under their very noses in their newspaper?

Again, this may be a case of re-interpretation based on a different mindset, but I can't help but feel that in these two years, Peanuts took a long walk down a darker road that's only hinted at in the first six years of the strip. The comics contained within are excellent and show none of the wear and tear that would drag Peanuts down after awhile, but man are they depressing when you start to look past the initial gag and see just how pained Charlie Brown is, how needy Lucy is (though she won't admit it, and uses brashness to cover it up), and how Linus, the "normal" one, is having just as much trouble by virtue of his superior intellect and lack of age peers. (Linus is still the younger brother but has really grown up in this stretch in order to take on a new role.)

If you only think of Snoopy as the Hallmark card, cartoon special version, take another look at these early strips and you'll see a totally different side to the work. "Life is full of rude awakenings," says Snoopy after falling off his doghouse. Indeed, Snoopy, indeed!