December 08, 2016
(++++) THE MANY FACES OF COMICS
Charlie Brown: Here We Go Again—A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Heart and Brain: Gut Instincts. By Nick Seluk. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
The Bad Guys #1. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
The 50-year history of Peanuts would seem to provide an inexhaustible reservoir of material that can be recycled into new collections featuring Charles Schulz’s iconic characters, but in fact this is not quite so: the earliest years of the strip looked little like the later, more-familiar ones. Still, at this stage there are plenty of recyclable Peanuts cartoons to go around, and the simple but instantly recognizable faces of the characters are as fresh, funny, and occasionally poignant as always. The latest re-collection (and recollection) of Peanuts features a particularly fine assortment of strips. Many of these focus on Charlie Brown’s hapless baseball team, and one sequence results in Charlie Brown’s decision to “go home and lie in a dark room,” resulting in three strips that are almost completely black and one that is 100% black – a virtuoso performance by Schulz (1922-2000) in the handling of a commonplace cartooning challenge to which few artists rise with this level of skill. There is also a touching and unusually pointed bit of social commentary in a sequence in which Linus starts patting birds on the head (“I think I’ve found my calling”), only to be told by his sister, loud-mouthed Lucy, that he has to stop. Linus asks Charlie Brown what is wrong with patting the birds (“They come depressed, and they go away feeling great”), Charlie Brown explains that it humiliates Lucy, and Linus says he understands that but does not see what is actually wrong with what he is doing – leading Charlie Brown to say, “No one else does it.” That level of commentary on conformity is the sort of thing that pops up periodically and unexpectedly throughout Peanuts and is one reason the strip retained freshness for so many years. Here We Go Again also includes several sequences involving Charlie Brown and the “little red-haired girl” on whom he has an unrequited crush. In the most heartrending of them, Charlie Brown is assigned to be her partner in a science project, but cannot drum up the courage to talk to her – a particularly big problem because Charlie Brown has become a safety monitor at school, and failure to do the project will mean a failing grade that will have him lose his safety-patrol position, which is “the first time I’ve ever really felt like I was somebody.” To make matters worse, Charlie Brown gets bumped by a car while helping students cross the street in the rain – but that, paradoxically, makes him feel happy and proud at being “injured in the line of duty.” To sequences like this, add the ones in which Charlie Brown’s kite gets hopelessly tangled, often in a “kite-eating tree,” and ones in which Snoopy becomes (among other things) a bird sanctuary, and several of the famous ones in which Charlie Brown tries vainly to kick a football held by Lucy and pulled away by her at the last minute, and you have a collection that is packed with smiles and some unanticipated tugs at heartstrings – a pretty good overall description of Peanuts.
Peanuts was always intended for adults as much as for children, but few comics nowadays look for such a broad audience range. Web-based ones, in particular, tend to go decidedly in the “adult” direction – which does not, however, mean that they invariably have the sort of sexual themes that are usually classified as “adult.” In fact, there are plenty of other notions that are adults-only, since kids would simply not understand them. Nick Seluk has fastened on one of them to excellent effect in his Heart and Brain drawings – themselves a spinoff of a series called The Awkward Yeti, a blue-bow-tied, eyeglasses-wearing Bigfoot type named Lars, with self-esteem issues and, apparently, numerous body organs that spend their time arguing among themselves while pursuing their conflicting agendas. Heart and Brain focuses on two of those organs, but Seluk’s new collection, Gut Instincts, brings in quite a few more: tongue, lungs, liver, stomach, bowels, etc. Each gets a shape that is vaguely anatomically correct (perhaps 100% correct if you are a yeti) and a face that is surprisingly expressive considering its simplicity – in this way, and only this way, Seluk’s art is Peanuts-like. The basics of Heart and Brain involve the inevitable conflicts between being emotion-driven and intellect-driven. For instance, Heart – who is almost always accompanied by a nicely symbolic butterfly – makes an emotional decision to “get healthier” by going to the gym so he can “improve my resting me rate,” but within a few panels of stating his intention to Brain, Heart decides, “I don’t care what you think. I’m getting some chocolate.” While shopping, presumably at Costco, Heart reacts emotionally to the chance to buy “mustard by the firkin” (a great adult word), and Brain agrees to the purchase after analyzing the price and deciding that it is good – but once they get the condiment home, with some help from a forklift, Heart never uses it, because it is “gross.” As for the other organs, at one point they try to help with Brain’s anxiety: Stomach contorts, Bowels agree to “move things along REALLY fast or REALLY slow, depending on your preference,” and Eyes promise that only one will “twitch from time to time.” Tongue, a complete hedonist, has his own unique way of expressing things: “It tasstesss SSSO good” and “Replenish the cookiesss or I will ussher in a new era of darkness upon you all!” The theme of Heart and Brain is neatly encapsulated in a single panel showing the two facing in opposite directions as both say, “Just follow me and everything will be fine!” That is about as adult a way of looking at things as any contemporary cartoon offers – and with no “adult language” except the philosophical kind.
The language is intended for kids, and so are the drawings, in a new series called The Bad Guys that is sort of a comic strip, sort of a graphic novel, but not really much of either one. Aaron Blabey makes no attempt to propel his story of traditional animal bad guys who decide to try being good for a change through meticulous graphic-novel art: his renderings are strictly of the crude-but-effective type. But neither does Blabey draw in ordinary comic-strip format: The Bad Guys #1 looks like a book and reads like one, too, with chapters and everything, except that every page is a single large panel, or two half-page panels, or (occasionally) three one-third-page panels, with text held to the minimum needed to keep the story going. And go it does. It starts with Mr. Wolf, the brains of the not-yet-created good-guy gang of bad guys, introducing himself and explaining that he is not the big-toothed, sharp-clawed, granny-imitating character he has been made out to be (although his police department rap sheet says that is exactly what he is). Mr. Wolf is determined to turn over a new leaf and have people stop hating and fearing him. To that end, he has invited some other notable bad guys over to learn about being good. They are Mr. Snake, whose rap sheet is a house-that-Jack-built sequence showing all the things he has eaten (including “the police dog who tried to save the policeman who tried to save the doctor who tried to save” a pet-store owner whose guinea pigs, canaries and mice Mr. Snake had already consumed). There is Mr. Piranha, member of the “Piranha Brothers Gang, 900,543 members,” and Mr. Shark, whose rap sheet is so frightening that Mr. Wolf blocks most of it from readers’ view. Eventually, though, the four bad guys agree to try being good for a change, starting with a hilarious rescue of a treed cat that they have all agreed not to eat – except that the cat does not know that, and reacts with suitable terror and some very intense use of its claws. And then the bad guys head off to free all the imprisoned dogs from the dog pound – a caper that puts Mr. Shark in a dress, Mr. Snake and Mr. Piranha through a window after several bad throws by Mr. Wolf, and the dogs themselves in a frenzy through their fear of the snake and “some kind of weird sardine type thing.” Matters may seem inauspicious in this attempt to go against type and typecasting, but by the end of the book, all the bad guys have decided that it feels nice to do good things for a change, and they are ready to head out on another adventure that they believe, against all the odds facing cartoon characters, will go off without a hitch. “To be continued,” as Blabey writes at the end – three words that the young readers at whom The Bad Guys #1 is aimed will surely take to heart. And maybe to brain.