by Andy Wolverton
“Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! Good ol’ Charlie Brown… yes, sir! Good ol’ Charlie Brown… How I hate him!”
Longtime fans of the newspaper strip Peanuts (which ran from October 1950 to February 2000) may not remember that this very first entry — all spoken by Shermy to Patty as they sit on a street curb, watching Charlie Brown pass by — is humorously brutal. In the afterword of the first volume of Fantagraphics’ The Complete Peanuts, cartoonist legend Al Capp is quoted calling Charlie Brown and his friends “mean little bastards, eager to hurt each other.” If it’s been awhile since you’ve read Peanuts, you probably have warm memories of the newspaper strips (and maybe even the television specials and movies), feelings of sweetness and kindness, a lovable, carefree cartoon series of cute, fun-loving children.
As can be found in the series’ first volume, The Complete Peanuts 1950-1952, Charles Schulz gives readers cute-looking characters and plenty of humor, but behind the cute faces and laughs you’ll find cruelty, hurt, vulnerability, and disappointment. In short, the stuff of life. Charlie Brown doesn’t lose all the time, but he loses more than he wins. His friends can be brutally honest about how they feel about him, but in these early strips, Charlie Brown often gives as much as he takes, mostly through various digs and jibes at Patty. Regardless of our age, we see ourselves in these strips, our hopes, fears, hang-ups, anxieties and more. For adult readers, reading Peanuts is sort of like seeing a former schoolmate at a class reunion: she may be an adult now, but you can still see the kid in her, warts and all.
Peanuts was unusual in that it portrayed children expressing themselves to themselves without any adult supervision. It’s interesting that Schulz chose not to include any adults in his strip, unlike other newspaper comics of the era such as Dennis the Menace and Miss Peach. Peanuts allows us to imagine a world without adults, even though the idea of an adult presence is never very far away. For the most part, Charlie Brown and his friends solve (or attempt to solve) their own problems, find their own way, and make their own mistakes. Schulz seems to be saying, “You’re on your own. Toughen up and get used to it.”
Readers may be surprised at how some of their favorite characters evolved over the first two years, those strips contained in the first Fantagraphics volume. Initially, Schulz worked with only four characters: Charlie Brown, Patty, Shermy, and Snoopy. In the early strips, Charlie Brown’s head is shaped almost like a watermelon, while the other characters’ heads are more balloon-like. In 1951, Schulz introduces Violet and Schroeder (initially as a baby). Charlie Brown’s head becomes more rounded, and with that change comes another: the first appearance of Charlie Brown’s famous zig-zag shirt. The year 1952 introduces Lucy and Linus (also as a baby), bringing the cast of characters to eight.
We also see the beginnings of much familiar territory including Schroeder’s piano, Lucy’s many shenanigans, and Charlie Brown’s failures at football, kite-flying, baseball, golf, marbles, and more. Reading through The Collected Peanuts, it’s fun to watch these treasured themes develop, knowing that they’re going to age well.
Schulz isn’t very concerned early on with explanations. We don’t know, for instance, who Snoopy belongs to. He doesn’t seem to be Charlie Brown’s dog (at least not in the strip’s early years); he’s just around. We also see a good bit of Shermy early in the book, but for long stretches, he’s absent. Yet none of this really matters at this point. Schulz is more concerned with these characters interacting with one another, and these interactions are what the strip is all about.
When I was a kid, I never really thought much about the creators behind the comics and comic strips I read, but you can’t read very far into Peanuts without wanting to know more about Charles Schulz. We learn several things about him in the afterword of the first volume by his biographer David Michaelis — his early years, how he thought about the strip, etc. — but I think the best way to learn about the creator of Peanuts is simply to read the collections. We know from the afterword that Schulz was a very private, somewhat isolated man, but I can’t help but think that much of the truth of the man’s life comes across in the strips.
Like most young kids, the characters in Peanuts are often selfish, hurtful, and cruel, but they’re also very funny and blisteringly smart. Although children, these characters are sharp, savvy to the way the world works and how they fit into it. Yes, there are moments of sweetness, glimmers of true friendship, and the celebration of the wonders of the world around us, but the humor of Peanuts is most potent when it reminds us that, while we might keep it well-hidden, there’s some of these characters — and their flaws — in all of us.
Fantagraphics has been publishing The Complete Peanuts in hardcover editions for years and is currently nearing the end of strip. (The Complete Peanuts 1995-1996, Vol. 23 will be released in April, 2015.) Last year, they began releasing the first two volumes in individual softcover editions as well as a two-volume slipcased gift box set.
Get your copies of the latest Complete Peanuts volumes as well as other books mentioned in this essay: