Wednesday, December 06, 2006

FROM THE VAULT: The Complete Peanuts

No video game reviews this week -- my big Wii/PS3 critique got bumped to this Sunday. Instead for the rest of the week I'll be posting older reviews and articles, since I'm too lazy to put up anything new or original. Today is a story I did back in '04 on the debut of the "Complete Peanuts" series.

It was back in 1997, during an interview with Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, that Gary Groth -- co-owner of Fantagraphics Books and editor in chief of Comics Journal magazine -- first broached the subject.

Would the famed cartoonist be interested in publishing the entire run of the strip -- every single strip that ran daily and Sunday from 1950 onward -- in a handsome, multivolume format?

Schulz was less than enthusiastic.

"He didn't know if anyone would be interested in it," Groth said.

Nevertheless, the alternative comics publisher -- who had given similar attention to such classic strips as Pogo, Popeye and Krazy Kat -- continued to press Schulz about the project. Eventually, the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Linus gave in.

Fast forward seven years. After Schulz's death in 2000, a bit of legal wrangling and some detective work for more than 250 missing strips, "The Complete Peanuts" has finally become a reality. The first volume, covering 1950-52, arrives in stores this month.

"The Complete Peanuts" will total 25 volumes, spanning all 50 years of the strip, with two books being issued each year. In addition to the strips, the first book features an introduction by Garrison Keilor, a short biography by David Michaelis and a 1992 interview with Schulz.

It's a project that is long overdue, according to Jean Schulz, Charles Schulz's widow.

"Gary's doing us all a favor," she said in a phone interview from Santa Rosa, Calif. "It's a real honor to the man and his art. It's a tribute and testament to a sheer work of genius and dedication."

Peanuts didn't, however, jump out onto the newspaper fully formed. Those who know the strip only from the Sunday funnies and the TV specials will be surprised at how different these early strips are.

For one thing, the characters behave much more like actual children than the sophisticated adults in tiny bodies they later became.

Snoopy doesn't talk and walks on all fours. There's no Woodstock or Peppermint Patty. And Charlie Brown is more of a wiseacre than the put-upon, "wishy-washy," awkward youth as we know him today.

"A lot of the early strips are less 'Peanutsish' and just little kids," Jean Schulz said. "After awhile you begin to see Charlie Brown. It's a little like peeling an onion. It gets more intense as you peel away."

But would Schulz have wanted these long lost strips to see the light of day again?

"I love the old strips, but to Sparky Schulz's nickname they were an embarrassment. Yet I'm sure he was still proud of them," Jean Schulz said. "He didn't like anything except the last strip he drew."After years of merchandising, commercials and overall overexposure, it's easy to forget the impact that Schulz's strip initially had on the public.

"In the 1960s, Peanuts was seen as hip and cutting edge," said the cartoonist known as Seth, who is the designer for the "Complete Peanuts" series.

A lot of this, Groth says, was due to the fact that running underneath the comical situations were strong emotional themes -- alienation, unrequited love, loneliness, rejection and isolation -- that reflected Schulz's own struggles and life experiences.

"There was a real emotional investment in the strip as opposed to cartoon emotions," Jean Schulz said.

"It's certainly one of the great strips of the 20th century; possibly the greatest strip of the last half of the 20th." Groth said. "We want to remind people the phenomenon started with a great work of art ."

To that end, Seth chose low-key, sedate colors when designing the cover and interior pages, opting for a more subtle, sedate and sophisticated approach than past collections had produced.

"I wanted to avoid that bright, happy-kid feel. The strip doesn't reflect any of that at all," he said.

In addition to the first volume, the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa has recently published "Charles M. Schulz: Li'l Beginnings," a collection of one-panel cartoons Schulz did for the St. Paul newspaper in the late '40s, before moving on to the big time. Here, fans can get an even earlier look at the themes that later shaped his most famous work.

"It goes back one layer farther," Jean Schulz said. "It shows there are no overnight successes. This was a man who worked and worked and worked."

"It's an impressive tribute to a cartoonist who Jean Schulz said, "had a good sense of what it felt like to be small."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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