March 28, 2019
(++++) COMEDIC CLASSICS
“Peanuts” Collection No. 12—Lucy: Speak Out! By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Big Nate: Payback Time! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Half a century. That is how long Charles Schulz created Peanuts and brought the strip to the world – and at this rate, that is at least how long the strip will continue to amuse and delight readers of all ages. The many repackagings of Peanuts and its characters show no signs of getting old: the Peanuts kids are not exactly ageless (some of the strips make reference to events that are now obscure), but their worries, concerns and foibles are so perfectly presented and so beautifully captured by Schulz’s enduring humanism that the strip seems just as timely (which is to say timeless) today as it did in Schulz’s lifetime. The latest reprint of Peanuts strips focuses loosely on loud-mouth Lucy, bane of little brother Linus, inept right-fielder on Charlie Brown’s hopeless baseball team, and operator of the “Psychiatric Help 5¢” booth. Lucy’s unrequited love for Schroeder, who plays Beethoven’s complex music on a toy piano while assiduously avoiding Lucy’s attempts to get him interested in her, is a recurring Peanuts theme, as is Linus’ continuing need for his security blanket – which, in one scene here, Lucy takes away because she is trying to grow vegetables and needs it to cover them at night, leaving Linus to sit outdoors and lament, “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever sat up all night with a parsnip.” That scene, like many others, neatly encapsulates Schulz’s ability to merge humor with melancholy and produce wisdom and worry “out of the mouths of babes,” as it were. There are plenty of other instances of the same thing – plus a great deal of just plain fun, as when Snoopy dresses up in an absurdly overdone clown costume as “The April Fool” while Charlie Brown wonders, not for the first time, “Why can’t I have a normal dog like everyone else?” In fact, Snoopy’s hapless owner is moved to use those identical words when Snoopy refuses to start eating until Charlie Brown bows politely to him and says, “Bon appétit” (Schulz even includes the accent, helping explain why Snoopy’s thought in response to the comment is, “Merci”). This book’s title focuses on Lucy, but there are plenty of strips here about other characters in the large Peanuts cast. Peppermint Patty’s academic difficulties appear in many strips, in some of which she is helped by her perpetual hanger-on, Marcie, who calls her “sir” and who, it turns out, has a crush on Charlie Brown. Snoopy’s bird friend, Woodstock, disguises himself as a raccoon (with Snoopy’s help) to keep blue jays away. Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, submits a two-picture report at school instead of a 2,000-word paper because, after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. And as for Lucy herself, she remains challenged at baseball, using her new glove solely to hold potato chips, but she also assumes the role of sports reporter and takes copious notes showing how odd everyone on the team is – except for herself and Schroeder, of course. There is also an unusually extended sequence in this book in which Charlie Brown is hospitalized while his parents are at a barbers’ picnic – just what is wrong with him is never clear – and we learn that he is 8½ years old, that Sally plans to take over his room, and that when Lucy cries with worry, she wipes her tears on Schroeder’s piano. This sequence ends with a one-time-only event in Peanuts history: Lucy promises that “I’ll never pull the football away again” if Charlie Brown gets better, and she keeps the promise when he comes home; but inept Charlie Brown misses the ball and kicks Lucy instead, injuring her and keeping his 100% football-kicking failure rate intact. Schulz’s record of being entertaining just about 100% of the time remains intact, too.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate has not been around quite as long as Peanuts was under Schulz – a “mere” quarter-century-plus – but this is another strip with a highly recognizable cast of core characters whose antics wear very well indeed. It helps that Nate, who is a bit older than Charlie Brown (11 or 12), is a sixth-grader, and that the strip revolves around Nate’s school or, outside school, his school friends and his home life. Lucy is not the only newspaper reporter around: Nate may live in an era when newspapers are far less important than they used to be, but school newspapers still matter, and of course Nate decides that he will write about the soccer game in which he was the superstar goalie (he says): “As the sun set, Nate lingered on the field, seemingly reluctant to abandon the goal he had so magnificently protected.” All modesty, that Nate. Actually, Nate is anything but modest, but he is so oddly unassuming a braggart, so completely unaware of his own shortcomings, and so talented in some ways (just not the ones he thinks), that he is highly likable despite his tendency to overact in many ways while overstating his sense of self-importance. Nate, after all, is on the cusp of teenagerhood, and seems to be getting in shape for it, even if he has not gotten any closer to it in the last two-plus decades. And so Nate continues being very much Nate in Payback Time! He wants to have arch-enemy Gina infected with a deadly disease so the science class can cure her, or try to; he wants to come up with an angle to make his report on President John Tyler more interesting, so he inserts an alien abduction; he wants to dress up as a super-villain for Halloween, so he turns himself into (who else?) Gina; he wants students to have their own lounge at school, and actually manages to have Principal Nichols agree to the idea – only to have the principal assign Gina to work with Nate in setting the room up. There is much more like this. Nate needs to bake cookies for a bake sale and gets his father to help by finding a “Connie, the Cookie Cutie” video on YouTube, only to have his dad fall for the cookie lady, who turns out to have died “of vanilla overdose”; Nate continues his feckless pursuit of longtime crush Jenny, who continues to ignore him and cling to her boyfriend, Artur; and Nate establishes a “Complaint Department” table in the school’s hallway – not to hear other people’s grievances but to air his own. Along the way, Nate interacts with friends Teddy and Francis; is repeatedly frustrated by having to take social studies with teacher nemesis Mrs. Godfrey (who, of course, student nemesis Gina gets along with famously); and gets “loser” written on his forehead in permanent marker by a school bully – at whom he gets back in a very funny scene that fully justifies the book being called Payback Time! Nate has his flaws, to be sure, but they are endearing flaws, and that has made his personality quirks and foibles fun rather than irritating – for a quarter-century-plus and counting.