Although the comics were primarily about entertaining children with joy and comedy, Schulz didn't shy away from more complex interpretations, even wondering if his strip was "cruel".
Celebrating Peanuts: 60 YearsPublisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Length: 544 pages
Author: Charles Schulz
Publication date: 2009-10
"Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy... how can I ever forget them..."
- The final words on Charles M. Schulz's final Peanuts comic.
The century's first decade saw three key works that seemed to fundamentally and retroactively alter the "meaning" of the Peanuts gang in ways that deepened the comic strip for some readers, while others reacted with outrage.
Launched in 2004 by Fantagraphics, the ongoing, multi-volume Complete Peanuts has been beautifully designed and organized by the cartoonist Seth, and made with the participation of Charles M. Schulz and his estate. It features every strip, year by year, with introductory essays by an odd variety of celebrities that includes Walter Cronkite, Whoopi Goldberg and Diana Krall, among others.
Equally gorgeous, Chip Kidd's Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz (published in 2001) combined the qualities of a history and a scrapbook of artifacts about Peanuts as a pop culture phenomenon, while David Michaelis' 2007 biography Schulz and Peanuts offered a deeply insightful examination of the complex and fascinating character of Schulz himself.
Each of those projects garnered considerable acclaim, as well as some interesting criticism. The latter generated the most controversy, with the Schulz family publicly speaking out against Michaelis' work. In a widely publicized email to the author, Schulz's son Monte wrote that he was "astounded and shocked" at Michaelis's book, which he describes as "a salacious account of [my father's] love life and the size of his bank account," and calls the author's work "unintellectual and amateurish."
"Your book is so fundamentally false in its portrayal of my father, so narrow in its description of his character, and so deceitfully uninterested in telling his life story (as opposed to your moralizing psychological analysis of him, which is not 'biography'), that I have neither the desire, nor any intention whatsoever, of revealing any of the many, many factual errors in this manuscript."
Kidd also faced what he called "a chorus of discontent of how the grand master's work was portrayed."
"There was one chat room thread that pretty much likened my treatment of Peanuts to an act of necrophilia on Schulz," he said in a 2003 interview.
And a recent article in the Walrus took Seth to task for making Schulz's work adhere too closely to a particular interpretation:
"Make no mistake: this is Seth’s Peanuts more than Schulz’s...[H]is take on Peanuts is the one through which most future readers will understand the strip, and with which future critics will have to wrestle. It is, in other words, authoritative. And that he presents us with a version of Peanuts that looks so brazenly unfamiliar should come as no surprise when we consider how ready he is, elsewhere, to discard, tweak, or wholly invent broad swaths of cartooning history."
Despite the criticisms, that interpretation seems to be the new standard in any discussion of Peanuts. It's one that considers Schulz's work to be dark-edged, melancholic, existential, philosophical, and generally deeper than it had been portrayed in pop culture (and by the Peanuts franchise itself) in the past.
"A lonely, forlorn Peanuts"
It can be argued that the depth was inherent in the comic strip all along, and that many readers picked up on those qualities in childhood. But the franchise itself always seemed to revel in the positive, and rarely drew attention to itself as a "dark and complex work of art". As the Walrus article describes:
"[Seth's] design choices are atypical of pretty much anyone else’s take on the strip. The interiors, cast in a melancholy shade of blue, isolate the kinds of objects he so loves to centre out for attention in his own work: a car here, a mailbox there, a snowman, a record player, a puddle, a tree. They are divorced from the children who otherwise populate the strip, and who themselves hover solitary on the cover, the spine, the flaps. Seth’s is a lonely, forlorn Peanuts."
With all three books coming out at roughly the same period, and all generating controversy that sounded familiar, perhaps Seth's presentation isn't so "atypical". Those three works didn't invent the "dark" interpretation of Peanuts (for example, in 1997, The Comics Journal dedicated an entire issue to appreciations of Peanuts by various artists, many of whom pointed out the emotional depths of the work), but they did seem to represent the general acceptance of it in popular culture.
And, even though the comics, cartoons, and other elements of the franchise were primarily about entertaining children with joy and comedy, Schulz never shied away from that interpretation either, even wondering (in print) if his strip was "cruel".
There have been several books about Schulz and Peanuts (as opposed to collections of the strips) over the years, early examples being 1965's Gospel According to Peanuts, and 1975's Peanuts Jubilee. Published a year before Shultz's death, 1999's A Golden Celebration featured running commentary by the master himself. With its similarly large format, decade-oriented organization sprinkled with trivia, that book could have been an inspiration for the newest addition to the canon of Peanuts appreciation: Celebrating Peanuts.
What can any new book bring to this already crowded subject? Surprisingly, a nostalgic sense of joy. Until the recent spate of books, most "appreciations" took a celebratory and playful tone. It's as if, when the generation of Peanuts readers from the '60s and '70s grew up, the "it was really a sad comic" interpretation caught hold, and became the new standard. While that is an appealing and modern (and, I believe, valuable, instructive and fulfilling) take on Schulz's work, there should also be room for the fun.
An "Absolute" Peanuts
The new book also wants the work taken seriously, but not so much on its "lonely, forlorn" qualities. Instead, it focuses on two key aspects, to which it returns consistently: Schulz as hard-working artist, and Peanuts as pop culture phenomenon. In that respect, it bears some similarities to Kidd's book.
Schulz's wife Jean wrote the introduction to Celebrating Peanuts, and set the tone by emphasizing the craft of the work. Her insights into the visual and storytelling art of Peanuts are fascinating. For example, she describes the "unique pacing" of the strips: "Statement, complication, the denouement, and then the signature Peanuts punch line."
"In Peanuts, character evolution and story evolution went hand in hand. With the Sunday pages leading the way, gradually the strip moved from a gag-a-day to story lines," she writes, adding later: "One of Sparky's quotes is something of a conundrum...'A cartoonist is someone who draws the same thing day after day without repeating himself.'"
Interestingly, there are quotes from Schulz included in the new volume that also support the melancholy interpretation of the work that the Walrus seemed to disagree with. For example, at one point Schulz is quoted as saying, "'maybe I have the cruelest strip going,'" and at another: "'If Peanuts chronicles defeat it is probably because defeat is a lot funnier than victory.'"
In some ways, this new volume could be described as "Absolute Peanuts" in its physical resemblance to DC's Absolute editions. It's a single volume in a large hardcover format, accompanied by a slipcase. It doesn't offer all of the comics, but it offers a heck of a lot. At 500-plus pages, huge and heavy, it isn't something to be propped up on your body and read in bed, not without a spotter. The volumes in Fantagraphics' Complete Peanuts are more portable reads, and obviously, complete ones.
Celebrating Peanuts organizes the strips chronologically, with an introduction at each decade that details how the strip developed during that time period, and interspersed among the comics are quotes from Schulz about his beginnings, his characters, his craft, the style and themes of Peanuts, and much more trivia.
Some examples that are highlighted in the text: Charlie Brown's first attempt to fly a kite (March 21, 1952); Snoopy's first appearance as the WWI Flying Ace (Oct. 10, 1965); the first time Sally called Linus her "Sweet Babboo" (Jan. 27, 1977); the day Charlie Brown finally learns that he is loved (July 13, 1987); Charlie Brown's first home run (March 30, 1993); and Schulz's final Sunday page, on Feb. 13, 2000, published one day after his death.
Comprehensive, Colourful, Heavy
Designed by Michael Reagan, and edited by Alexis E. Fajardo and Paige Braddock, who also worked with Schulz on that final Sunday page, Celebrating Peanuts seems aimed at fans (at all levels of fanaticism) who want comprehensive and colourful overview of the entire run of Peanuts in a single volume.
It bears comparison to the three other recent Peanuts projects. The new book has a bit of the "comprehensive overview" quality of the Complete Peanuts; it has a bit of the "pop culture phenom" quality of Kidd's book; and there's a lot of biographical and interpretive material, as in Michaelis' book. But rather than being imitative of those projects, the new book is irresistible, especially for fans. (Of note to fans: as mentioned earlier, it also resembles the 1999 Golden Celebration in size and format, although that volume featured a tremendous amount of direct insight by Schulz, making it another invaluable edition.)
For Peanuts-philes, there can't be enough of this material: the comics, the insights, the trivia. However, anyone already investing in the Complete Peanuts should take into consideration that this is an expensive and possibly unwieldy addition to the library.
Two aspects of Celebrating Peanuts were unexpectedly notable: each strip has a publication date, and every Sunday comic is in full colour, two qualities missing from the Complete Peanuts project. The colour comics add to the experience in obvious ways, but seeing the dates drew attention to the organization and display of the strips in the Complete Peanuts books.
There, the strips are arranged chronologically, no specific dates are displayed, only the appropriate month at the bottom of each page, which makes it a little more difficult (compared to the new book) to look up specific dates. Admittedly, this is absurdly nit-picky and not so important. If search-by-date is so important, a reader could always go to Snoopy.com and do just that, right off the home page.
My Upside-Down Augury
However, seeing all those dates in one volume inspired a personal Peanuts project for me: using the strips as a sort of astrological tool. Call it the Auuugh-Ching.
I looked up my birth date, to see if the strip on that day (or closest to it) held some special significance. The book had the strip that appeared the day after I was born. It's one of the "pitcher's mound" strips:
In the first panel, Charlie Brown winds up to pitch. In the second panel, he's knocked over by the ball being hit back at him. In the third, he's upside-down on his pitcher's mound. He's balanced perfectly on his head. Lucy hands him his cap. In the final panel, he's in the same position, his cap is right-side up, but on his feet. Lucy must have placed it there, without noticing (or caring) that he's upside-down. He sighs.
Finding the corresponding strip in the Complete Peanuts collection for that year, I (re)discovered that it was a week-long story line, with Charlie Brown upside-down on his mound all week, waiting for someone to notice.
As Schulz said: "If you read the strip, you would know me." Amen.