This past August, I went back home to Israel to visit my parents. Since they were in the process of moving from their apartment to a newer, smaller place, they asked me to sift through some of my old books that they now wouldn’t have room to store. Looking over these, I wasn’t really too upset about letting go of some of the stuff that, let’s face it, I’d basically only pretended to like even when I was fifteen or sixteen (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, a volume of poetry by – koff – “James Douglas Morrison,” etc.). What I was more concerned about, though, was the cache of about two-dozen Fawcett Crest Peanuts paperbacks, all so well thumbed-through they were practically falling apart.
These books mostly dated from my early childhood years, which is to say, the late seventies to mid-eighties – not generally considered Peanuts’ best era. David Michaelis, in his definitive Charles M. Schulz biography, partly imputes what he deems the blander, less biting tone of this period in the cartoonist’s work to his more agreeable second marriage to Jeannie Schulz, in 1973. On a broader scale, these were also the years in which Peanuts, and specifically, the more-cuddly-by-the-second figure of Snoopy, cemented its role as an ever growing, mega-million branding industry. Along with the November 1980 landslide election of the twinkly, chuckly “Great Communicator” (and Peanuts fan) Ronald Reagan and the indelible mark that disaster left on the zeitgeist, it seems clear why this moment in Schulz’ oeuvre isn’t necessarily remembered as either game changing or envelope pushing.
Leafing through The Complete Peanuts: 1979-1980, such a reading in some ways rings true. The strips here occasionally veer into grasping-at-plot-straws territory (Peppermint Patty dating Pig-Pen?! Snoopy trying to pick up Eudora, Marcie AND Sally as the World War I flying ace?!); it’s true that Lucy isn’t as feistily crabby as she’d been in the '60s strips; and the editorial decision to have Today’s Al Roker (Today’s Al Roker!) write this volume’s celebrity introduction in itself reinforces the link between Peanuts and middle-of-the-road culture, as do Roker’s own words. By finishing his intro with that standardized assessment, “you’re a good man, Charlie Brown,” Roker implicitly emphasizes a Peanuts production extrinsic to the strip itself – a surefire sign of a non-purist, laggard sensibility.
And yet! These are all mere quibbles. This is still a genius volume, and looking at it now, I understand not only why I read and reread those Fawcett Crest paperbacks when I was eight, but also why I was still obsessed with them at thirty-four. Some of the pieces here – especially the longer storylines – are absolute classics. Who can forget the gang’s sojourn to a semi-cultish Christian sleepover camp? (terrified after she’s told by a speaker that “we’re in the last days,” Patty calms down only when she sees the fundraising plans for the building of new camp facilities – “Maybe the world will end tomorrow, but I wasn’t born yesterday!”); Charlie Brown’s hospitalization and its awesome existential implications is another favorite (“I have the awful feeling that I may be an emergency”), capped off perfectly by Lucy’s promise not to pull the football away if he gets well, and that promise’s extremely crabby denouement (“Next time you go to the hospital, stay there!”); not to mention the jailing of Harriet, the new girl member of Snoopy’s bird-scout troop, and the search and rescue saga that is spun from it (“It may be a long trip… bring an extra comic book!”).
Plus, there’s just the sheer kookiness of some of Schulz’s pop-cultural references and inventions, which continues to astound here: Snoopy’s trainspotter’s obsession with Beau Geste (“In the 1926 version… Ronald Colman played Beau… Who played Digby and who played John?”); Peppermint Patty’s cornrow makeover (“It’s the ‘Bo look,’ Marcie”); or Lucy’s latest tactic on the baseball field (“The ol’ Schmuckle ball”). Schulz is at the height of his powers as a cartoonist here, as well. Looking at the way he draws, say, his characters’ eggplant-like forearms as they broodingly rest their rounded heads on their hands kills me to this day. Such graphic flair! Such economy of line!
A Peanuts nut couldn’t ask for more, really. Especially a guilt-ridden Peanuts nut, who’d convinced herself that her upcoming 35th birthday meant that she should finally grow up and leave those Fawcett Crest paperbacks behind in Tel Aviv. Seriously, now, what could I have been thinking? Sigh.