Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $75.
The best gift book of the year for comic-strip lovers – the best gift for yourself if you have been even the slightest bit charmed, enchanted, delighted and/or amused by Peanuts anytime since the strip’s debut on October 2, 1950 – Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years is also Andrews McMeel’s best effort to date in capturing comics within a hardcover coffee-table book for reasons that seem to transcend the purely commercial. Yes, there are now similar Andrews McMeel hardcovers of The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes and Dilbert, but they are, more than anything else, collections – sort of like the publisher’s oversize paperback “Treasury” volumes, several notches up in price. Not so Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years, which is a genuine value-added “Treasury” about one of the most treasurable comic strips of all time.
This book is not a biography of Charles M. (for Monroe) Schulz (1922-2000). It is not a full-fledged study of his art, or even of everything relating to Peanuts – for example, it does not discuss Schulz’s earlier strip, Li’l Folks, which metamorphosed into the far more famous one. Wisely, editors Paige Braddock and Alexis E. Fajardo, and contributors including Pixar Animation’s Pete Docter and Schulz’s widow, Jean, have ceded center stage and the limelight to Sparky – yes, “Sparky,” a nickname that Charles Schulz was given as a child, by his uncle, and that itself comes from a comic strip: Spark Plug was the highly popular racehorse in Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google.
What Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years is, then, is a decade-by-decade look at Peanuts, including many quotations from Schulz himself about his thoughts, his ideas and his characters – and many, many, many of the strips themselves in this handsome volume’s 534 pages. The introductions to each decade cite the strip’s many hallmarks: Schroeder’s first piano (1951); Charlie Brown’s first kite (1952); Snoopy’s first “happy dance” (1956); Lucy’s first appearance as a psychiatrist (1959) and her first booth (1961); Snoopy’s first time as the World War I Flying Ace (1965); Peppermint Patty’s introduction (1966); the naming of Woodstock (1970); the first appearance of Snoopy’s brother, Spike (1975); and many more elements. “The only way you can stay ahead of your imitators is to search out new territories,” Schulz says in one of the quotations here, and Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years shows the innumerable ways he did just that. But it shows much more – for example, students of comic-strip art can see how much of the strip was made up of characters drawn from the side, a highly unusual approach that makes possible (among other things) the many famous drawings of Snoopy lying atop his doghouse. The wonderful thing about Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years is its cross-generational and cross-expertise appeal: whether you first came to Peanuts decades ago or only through the reprints that many newspapers still run, whether you know nothing about cartooning or a great deal, you will find material in this book to enhance your knowledge, increase your delight and – not at all incidentally – tickle your funnybone.
For one of the things that Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years makes clearest is how wonderfully, gently, delightfully and consistently funny Peanuts was, day after day and decade after decade. The nature of the humor changed over time – again, the book shows this quite clearly – as the strip emerged from a “kids talking like small adults” mode (a common device when Peanuts started) to one in which the characters inhabit their own self-contained world, in which the humor is driven by interactions among fully defined personalities. Some characters themselves changed notably over the years: Sally went from being sweet and naïve to being far more pointed and a touch cynical. Other characters evolved in different ways: Snoopy’s fantasies became more complex and elaborate, and eventually even involved some of the children; but he had indulged in a rich fantasy life as far back as the 1950s. Charlie Brown evolved very slowly and subtly, remaining the glue that held the strip together (as Walt Kelly once described the role of the title character in his Pogo strip). All these changes emerge in the pages of Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years, along with the essential gentleness and underlying humanity of this strip – two things that never changed and that help explain its extraordinary, worldwide, time-spanning success. Schulz’s rare forays into events of the day, such as a 1997 strip about the excesses of political correctness, stand out for their rarity – and, again, that rarity helps explain the timelessness of Peanuts. Indeed, it is the strips themselves that are the most eloquent argument for the amazing success of this truly great comic strip. The huge helping of Schulz’s work in Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years is not all there is to the book, but it is most of what the book contains – and most of what makes the book such an utterly wonderful experience from start to finish.
We miss you, Sparky. And we thank you.