December 21, 2017
(+++++) THOSE WONDERFUL DOGGY DECADES
Celebrating Snoopy. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $75.
There are very, very few publishers that accord comics the respect they deserve as an art form and a communications medium unlike any other. Among them, Andrews McMeel is pre-eminent, with its outstanding hardcover “tribute” books that display and pay homage to some of the great and enduring examples of the form: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert 2.0, A Doonesbury Retrospective, Epic Big Nate and others.
Equally to the point, there are very, very few cartoonists who are able to create mini-universes with their strips and then sustain them at a uniformly high level for decade after decade. These do not include famous names such as Bill Watterson, whose Calvin and Hobbes ran for only 10 years, or Gary Larson, whose The Far Side ran for 15, for example – but they do include George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (1913-1944), Walt Kelly’s Pogo (1948-1975), and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (1950-2000). And now Andrews McMeel has once again outdone itself with a marvelous slipcased hardcover volume devoted to one of the truly great comics and cartoonists – focusing this time not on the strip as a whole (the publisher’s Celebrating Peanuts already did that in 2009) but on one of the most unusual, endearing and downright strange characters in it: Snoopy.
The fact that Snoopy does not seem particularly strange these days is testimony to how deeply and effectively Schulz developed this little beagle (not originally conceived as a beagle, except that he thought the word sounded funny – one of many revelations in this book). Snoopy’s personality, like that of any other human or animal character, changed in many ways through the years, but his basic conception was a simple and brilliant one that made all the later changes flow in ways that seemed natural. Celebrating Snoopy offers a perfect way to see Snoopy’s early days and trace his development, while not incidentally following the changes in the Peanuts strip itself. Readers will learn that Snoopy was based on a dog Schulz once had named Spike – and Spike eventually appears in Peanuts as Snoopy’s brother. Readers who know Snoopy’s famous impersonations and flights of fancy, ranging from the World War I Flying Ace to “Joe Cool” and many others, will here find Snoopy’s very first, very limited attempts to be something else: a wolf, a vampire bat, a vulture and more. Readers who cannot imagine Snoopy lying anywhere except atop his doghouse will here find the first time he did that (December 12, 1958) and be able to trace how that one new element of the strip led to many, many others as Snoopy’s personality flowered.
At the same time, readers will here see Snoopy’s first eight years, before the first on-the-doghouse panel – years in which Snoopy understands what the human characters say but reacts to them in more traditionally doglike ways, as when he hears that refined people speak softly and changes his loud bark to a quiet one. Snoopy’s relationship with Charlie Brown (whom he later just calls “the round-headed kid”) is seen developing here, too: Charlie Brown fails to catch a baseball, the ball hits Snoopy, and after a series of “arf!” remarks, Charlie Brown comments that he hates to “get bawled out by a dog”; but in contrast, a Sunday strip shows Charlie Brown brought to tears by Snoopy’s enthusiastic greeting – and then somewhat spoiling the moment by wiping his tears on Snoopy’s floppy ear. On and on Snoopy’s development goes, with remarks by Schulz (made in various venues at various times) adding to the step-by-step progress seen in the strips (all beautifully reproduced and carefully shown with their original dates). Schulz was well aware of the more and more surrealistic world he was building for and around Snoopy, explaining at one point why the inside of the doghouse is never seen and why there is never any background behind it (“it would become too real”). For example, Snoopy is first shown ice-skating wearing four skates on his four paws, but it is not long before he is skating while standing on his hind legs and without actually wearing skates – sometimes even in his frozen water dish (February 23, 1964). And while Snoopy is seen dancing almost from the start of the strip, his original four-legged dances seem stiff (although he is always happy doing them) when compared with the now-more-familiar “happy dance” for which Snoopy is justifiably renowned.
In fact, there are many reasons Snoopy is renowned, and many more for which Schulz is celebrated, and Celebrating Snoopy offers a prodigious number of them through 550 superb oversized pages. There are more levels of joy here than can easily be enumerated: the joy of discovering or rediscovering one of the greatest comic strips of all; the joy of seeing the inner life of a comic-strip dog brilliantly displayed in ways that make absolute sense in context while seeming to touch on what real-world dogs might be thinking; the joy of nostalgia for the ways in which Peanuts developed over the years; the bittersweet joy of finding or re-finding especially beloved strips in the knowledge that there can be no more; and the unalloyed joy of the whole beautifully produced assemblage of material in a book that deserves pride of place in any comic-strip lover’s library. If Celebrating Snoopy, one of the very best comic-strip collections of recent years, does not make you feel like doing your very own “happy dance,” there is something missing not only in your sense of humor but also in your basic humanity and your capacity for wonder and delight.