The latest package of Collected Peanuts, the long-standing collaboration between Fantagraphics in the US and Canongate in the UK to collect and republish in sumptuous hardback bindings the collected work of Charlie Brown creator Charles M Schulz’s lifework, finds us at the beginning of the seventies, and the strips contained herein soundtrack a period of tumult and change in Schulz’s own life – the drawn-out disintegration of his first marriage, an intense long-distance flirtation, a house move and a protracted period of renovation, described by Schulz’s biographer David Michaelis as the lowest period of his life since the death of his mother. Schulz also turned 50 and, for a man who was as much of a hypochondriac and so focused on his mortality as Schulz was, this contributed to the malaise. As one of his associates is quoted as saying in Schulz and Peanuts, however: ‘Some of the best work he ever did was when his personal life was [in] turmoil.’
So, yes, careful readers will be able to discern in Charlie Brown’s ruminations on duplicity and in the back and forth between Charlie Brown and his ‘psychiatrist’ Lucy (in which he questions whether or not he is doing the right thing) a sense of what was going on in Schulz’s own life at the time, but the great genius of Peanuts comes from the fact that it had a life of its own and it was a life Schulz was able to escape into, his consummate artistry providing as much of a distraction as a method of analysing what was going on in his head. What’s more, alongside the introduction of Lucy & Linus’ kid brother Rerun, Snoopy trying out Joe Cool for the first time, a greater role for Woodstock and the usual round of shouting and sufferance between Schroeder and Lucy (which curiously I grow to like more and more as I make my way through these books), there is also the inclusion of a set of strips that Schulz rated among his very best.
‘I don’t know which story has been my favourite,’ he wrote in a newspaper article in the mid-70s, ‘but one that worked far beyond my expectations concerned Charlie Brown’s problem when, instead of seeing the sun rise early one morning, he saw a huge baseball come up over the horizon.’ He goes on to admit:
‘I don’t pretend there is any great truth to this story, or any marvellous moral, but it was a neat little tale and one of which I was proud.’
The surrealism that infuses the baseball sun storyline is present elsewhere – in Sally’s short relationship with the school building, for instance, or Snoopy’s long-running career as a failed novelist – and is a neat rejoinder to those people who would dismiss Peanuts as a set of hokey strips about a bunch of kids (anyone who says that obviously hasn’t spent any time reading the strips themselves). That isn’t to say that everything Schulz tried out worked (as I’m sure he would be the first to admit) – for example, the kids responding directly to what Snoopy is ‘thinking’ feels like a mis-step that Schulz quickly corrects (the humour arises from the lack of communication) – but odd blips such as this are an indication of the effort Schulz put in and creativity is as much mis-step as it is attainment.
All told, then, these Complete Peanuts remain a joy, a treasure trove of humour and wisdom, a true pleasure that you can either dip in and out of or, as I did, gluttonously snarf your way through, suspended in an entertainment that is both nostalgia for childhood but also renewed enjoyment for the adult who sees, in the recurrence of themes, in the seemingly casual bestowing of experience, the products of a mind as humane as, say, Kurt Vonnegut. It doesn’t matter what drew you to Peanuts in the first instance (for me, like a lot of people, it was the figure of Charlie Brown, perennially on the sidelines, perpetually wondering why he didn’t get excited about what other people got excited by), they stand, to this day, a testimony to decency, a warm reassuring vat of good hearted humour. If you liked them then, you’ll like them now, quite possibly more than you did.
Any Cop?: Whether you’ve been following the reissue volume by volume or just want to hop on here, massive pleasure is to be had in absorbing, strip by strip, the genius of Charles M Schulz. We’ll even forgive the slightly poopy introductions this time around!