On February 27th, 1963 Linus Van Pelt told Charlie Brown "No problem is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from." Luckily, Fantagraphics did not heed this advice when taking on the Herculaen project of compiling one of the longest running comics in history. Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," one of the most influential newspaper comic strips ever produced, spanned a generation. It began small, a mere blip, in 1950 and grew to a literal empire that encompassed television, musical theater, books, movies, and advertising. While many derided its rampant commercialism and "cheesy feel good" aura, many others embraced it as an artistic masterpiece that spelunked the human psyche in unique ways. The strip didn't end until 2000 when Schulz retired from his lifelong passion. That leaves some fifty years of daily and Sunday strips to compile. Approximately three hundred and sixty-five strips a year for fifty years multiplies out to one dang big number. If ever a problem to run away from existed, it's this one. Undeterred, Fantagraphics has taken on this twelve and a half year twenty-five volume behemoth. The series so far has spanned fourteen years and seven volumes. In that time "Peanuts" went through considerable changes. "The Complete Peanuts" allows those who weren't there to experience the development and evolution of this masterwork.
When the strip began it focused on Charlie Brown. The artwork was less sophisticated and the characters' personalities were subject to fluctuation. Overall, it more resembled the single-panel strip Schulz drew for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1947 to 1950, called "Lil' Folks," than the strip we know today. Schulz returned to single panel cartooning between 1957 and 1959 with "It's Only a Game." But the success of "Peanuts" led him to focus all of his efforts on Charlie Brown, the gang, and that morphing beagle. By 1963, Snoopy dominated the strip. He had become more human than dog. As Snoopy changed from a "real" dog that barked into a surrealistic dynamo with language capabilities, the strip followed him. The physical jokes became more exaggerated (a line drive unclothes Charlie Brown on 3/27/64, Schroeder muffles Lucy with a musical staff on 8/6/64, and Linus's wastebasket towers with rubbish on 7/22/64) and the strip lost some of the cruel hard edge it had in the 1950s (contrast the first two volumes in the series with this one). Lucy in particular was toned down and Charlie Brown's ubiquitous failings became more and more comical and less outright depressing. Schulz also experimented with some new characters. Many didn't last long, such as "3," "4," and "5," who appear in this volume. But some, like Peppermint Patty, who finally appears in the next volume, had staying power. And Snoopy would continue to develop in some interesting new directions. The 1960s were underway, John F. Kennedy was President for half of this volume, the Beatles had landed in America, and the Vietnam war was just beginning to escalate. Some signs of the times appear late in this volume as prototype woodstocks picket with grammatical symbols such as "!," "?" and ";" (from 9/1/64 to 9/12/64). Confrontations and violence occur between the "!" birds and the "?" birds. Snoopy even calls some of them "fanatics" (9/7/64) and decries "it's hard to know what to believe" (9/4/64). These particular strips provide brilliant abstractions of the trouble brewing in the larger world in 1964. Lastly, the 12/6/64 Sunday strip could provide oodles of intellectual fodder for analytic types. Freda wants Snoopy to hunt his natural enemies, rabbits. Instead, he dances and frolics with them. The strip's third panel includes an insert that proclaims "Happiness is loving your enemies." On the last panel, Charlie Brown asks "Now what was that all about?" as if we're supposed to ask ourselves that same question. Brilliant strips like this transcend the funny pages and "Peanuts" included many such moments.
Other highlights include: a spider on the flyball (8/8/64); Snoopy ends a game of catch with his slobber (11/1/64); Snoopy guards the house with a machine gun (4/21/63); Charlie Brown's run-ins with his baseball anti-hero Joe Shlabotnik; "The seat is jammed" (6/22/63); the "we prayed in school today" Sunday strip (10/20/63); Linus's speech to the snowmen (12/29/63); Lucy creates a slideshow of Charlie Brown's faults and bills him for it (1/24/64 - 2/8/64); the parody on "Happiness is a warm puppy" (6/20/64); Snoopy's doghouse gets a full cleaning (6/22/64 - 6/30/64); Linus's reaction to Lucy's "think of the power" (10/5/64); Snoopy's sarcastic jumping up and down (11/27/64). Some strips will look familiar to long time readers, but many will not. Also, some names from the past emerge. The only complaint remains the lack of color on the Sunday strips. But such an immense project probably necessitated some corner-cutting. In the end, we're far better off with black and white Sundays than without this outstanding series. With each volume the "Peanuts" legacy becomes clearer.