March 2005

Bill Baker

gutterslut

You're a Good Man, Charles Schulz

While casting about for ideas and themes to pursue for my inaugural review on Bookslut, I considered a number of different options. I could easily discuss how I discovered comics at the ripe age of 3, and the thrill that I felt after discovering that reading allowed me to enter not just that ever-changing two- and four-color landscape, but a multitude of inner worlds made real via words and images, whether combined or deployed singly. I could also wax ecstatic about my eventual rediscovery of the newly-matured comics medium 18 years ago, after encountering my first modern comics shop and the work of revolutionary creators like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean and their compatriots. But I kept finding myself drawn back to the two volumes of Fantagraphic's The Complete Peanuts published to date, and with very good reason.

Quite simply, not only does Charles Schulz's long-running strip represent one of the more impressive bodies of work ever amassed by a comics creator, it has also acted as the introduction into the world of comic strips -- and an easy entry point into the medium generally known as comics or graphic novels -- for generations of readers, be they fans of that much-maligned medium or not. Furthermore, I honestly believe that Schulz's 50-year run on Peanuts stands as one of the most singular and sterling achievements of any artist of the previous century. If you consider the fact that Schulz produced a completed strip every day for that entire period, with the Sunday installments being twice the length and work of the dailies themselves, it's an impressive enough feat. But when you sit down and seriously consider the work itself, and the depth of characterization and sly socio-political commentary therein, the true scale of good old Charles "Sparky" Schulz's accomplishment becomes apparent... and it is a truly monumental legacy.

Ultimately, however, it's not just the sheer amount or fecundity of this shy man's imagination and output that weighs heaviest in my, and most others', estimation. Rather, it's his subtle grace and phenomenal precision at capturing, through the simplest of statements or alterations of his characters' expressions and body language, not only the humor of the moment -- "Hey, kids do say and do the darnedest things!" -- but, more importantly, both the zeitgeist of a nation and the larger idea of our shared humanity. It's an impressive feat to pull off on any single occasion, even when given 22 to 32 pages to accomplish the task; that Sparky was able to do this within the space of four panels on a daily basis, again and again and again over the course of decades, is simply mind-boggling. This is dedication to craft and project that makes for legends, and lies at the heart of Sparky's own personal vision and version of the American Dream. After all, using only his God-given talent and native abilities, Schulz literally built and then manifested not one but two imaginary ideal landscapes, the first being the world of the Peanuts gang, the other his own personal dream of being a truly successful cartoonist.

And what a dream, what body of work it is! Even at the very beginning of the strip, Schulz is busy recreating the universe in black and white miniature, all the while playing with and working out the verbal and visual language of his then ever-shifting cast, all the while delivering the goods with good humor and a simple grace. Still more satisfying is just how deeply amusing and honestly funny these strips are, even bereft of what most would see as the anchoring personalities and concepts made so famous and familiar by television, ads and seemingly-ubiquitous merchandise. Even more significant and telling, most of the material in these first volumes has rarely been seen by the public, or even hard-core fans, in accordance with Schulz's wishes that it not be reprinted because he felt it didn't meet the standards he later set for his own work. As a result, a good portion of the first seven of the planned twenty-five volumes -- each collecting two years worth of strips -- will be but the second time the majority of these strips have seen print since their original syndication in the early 50's.

Schulz's love for his imaginary children is palpable, and his generosity of spirit imbues everything in this universe. It adds real weight and meaning to the fat, supple lines which define the outer edges of his characters as well as the delicate squiggles used to suggest, with a simple and stunning accuracy, the cast's shifting moods. And even though we observe these characters through a lens surprisingly similar to that Godlike point of view used in ancient times--the figures and their environs squashed flat, opened up and fully revealed on the page in two dimensions, just as the figures in Medieval tapestries held nothing back from their omniscient viewers and their God--there is a real tenderness to his handling of these faulted, frail and often frivilous creatures. His is a forgiving nature and perspective, and for all the critical and biographical noise about Schulz's own enduring personal grudges and bitterness arising from slights big and small from earlier in his life and career, there is very little, if any, of that dark aftertaste present in his work as a whole.

In the end, what The Complete Peanuts represents isn't just the sum total of one man's life and work. It is, among other things, an outstanding and important document of our society and the often deeply disturbing and drastic changes that it went through during the latter half of the 20th Century. It is also a tough-yet-tender examination of the fears, foibles and selfish tendencies present in us all, balanced with a true humanitarian's gift for finding light, laughter and love where others might see only the darkness, despair and hopelessness that arises when any individual is faced with a universe and society that often seem hostile at best. As such, The Complete Peanuts project is ultimately a gift from the heart to each and every one of us from Charles Schulz, his heirs, and all the good folks at Fantagraphics. It's a national treasure which we should all accept and celebrate in the spirit in which it was offered by Good Old Charles Schulz -- with real passion, eagerness and joy.

And laughter. Always laughter...