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The Complete Peanuts 1981-1982
posted September 20, 2011
Fantagraphics, hardcover, 344 pages, August 2011, $28.99
1606994719 (ISBN10) 9781606994719 (ISBN13)
Into the '80s and no sign of the much-feared and long-rumored decline in quality in Charles Schulz's life's work that was supposed to arrive about 10 years earlier. The strips in this volume of Fantagraphics' series are in most ways that count stronger than ever. If there's a different quality to them it's because Peanuts
is a mature strip now instead of a precocious, sometimes-astonishing one. A long sequence where the gang is kept from playing in their favorite spare lot because of insurance concerns doesn't have that charged quality that an extended sequence in the strip did at one time. Yet it's still funny, generates several quality gags, and provides something new and pathetic for Charlie Brown to do as opposed to his settling into the stand-by routines. Schulz at this point still puts on frequent display his nearly unequaled ability to return to core character elements for a gag without seeming repetitive or didactic. Part of the richness of the characters derives from the fact that their largely unchanging nature is part of the cross each bears.
Particular interest in terms of the strip's eventual development comes via a sequence introducing Snoopy's more rational brother Marbles. The smart one in the family, Marbles visits Snoopy over several days in Fall 1982. Conventional wisdom says that Snoopy's family members somehow diminished Snoopy's unique nature, or, more charitably, that every family member introduced other than Spike reduced the effectiveness of seeing Snoopy as part of a family very different than the Browns. To be frank, there is some of that reaction when you read the two dogs conversing on the roof, that Snoopy (and maybe Spike) should be the only one/ones who does/do such things. At the same time, Schulz does with Marbles what he did nearer the strip's conclusion with Rerun: in a run of strips where Snoopy drags his brother through his Red Baron fantasy, Marbles does little more than say "What now?" over and over and over again, as if he can't believe how deeply weird this is. It's funny and sort of daring, daring because it chips away at the younger reader's certainty -- or at least desire -- that something about what that dog is doing up there happens to be real. It's remarkable to see that strain of commentary enter into Peanuts
this early, and one has to wonder if Marbles being hurried off stage may be that he cut too deep into places Schulz wasn't quite ready to go.
Lynn Johnston's introduction concentrates on two heartbreaking elements of her friendship with Schulz: his fear of growing older -- of being old, really -- and the joy they shared of living with a set of characters and their world, a world that you controlled, for as long as each cartoonist did. She frames this in terms of Schulz's encouragement of the best from her work, and the hard parts of that lesson as well as the rich rewards. It's something that comes out in the strips. Peanuts
becomes more impressive the closer we look, and in that way a bit harder to embrace.