The Complete Peanuts is an ambitious project: starting with his very first strips in 1950, the plan is to reissue the entire body of Charles Schulz iconic strip over a 12-year period, with a new book every six months covering two years worth of strips.
It goes without saying that the books themselves are beautiful: hardbound, lavishly illustrated, with interesting tidbits and interviews with current pop culture figures. They are obviously designed to look good sitting on your shelf. But that’s not what makes them so great. What makes them so great is watching the evolution of something that fully permeated our culture.
The series started a couple of years ago, and the most recent volume covers 1959-1960, and so far, it’s been a bit of a revelation, even for someone like me, who read many of these in various compilations as I was growing up. Those compilations were usually “greatest hits,” and, of course, I was reading them in a world where Peanuts was at the very height of its cultural relevance. To me, Woodstock was a bird before it was a concert.
Fast-forward a few decades, and reading the strips from the very beginning, and I see something totally different: those early strips were pretty weird.
Think about it: these preternaturally smart little kids, running around in an adultless world (in the midst of a decade famous for the cultural superiority of the nuclear family), with most of the characters full of melancholia and self-doubt. Lucy is the “villan” of the strip not because she is in any way evil, but because she’s the most self-assured.
And it’s fun to watch how the characters evolve over that decade: Schroeder, Linus and Sally all start as babies; Snoopy as a puppy and isn’t necessarily anybody’s dog; Shermy, Violet and Patty are still major characters. However, Schulz soon figured out what he was good at, and by 1960, most of the character traits that sustained Schulz for the rest of his life have been established: Charlie Brown’s continual failures; Linus’ need for his blanket; Snoopy’s imagination; Schroeder’s fixation on Beethoven.
You know the drill, even if you disdain it. And if you disdain it, you’ve probably never read these early strips. I personally plan on buying the next 10 or so, which will take the series into the 1980s, where it became painfully obvious even to me that Schulz was pretty much recycling gags — formally introduced by, um, the character of “Rerun.”
By that time, of course, the Peanuts characters had pretty much made appearances on every conceivable product, and Schulz was just doing it because he didn’t know how to stop.
Quite literally: he died the day before his last published strip, a fitting end to a man who poured his life into a half-century of work.