Thursday, October 27, 2005

Books (Comic Strip): The Compelte Peanuts (1957-1958)

Linus: [Running past Charlie Brown, pointing his finger] BANG BANG

Charlie Brown: [Follows Linus] Cops and Robbers?
Linus: Nope!

Charlie Brown: Cowboys and Indians?
Linus: Nope!

Linus: Liberals and conservatives!!

Two things struck me about this strip from The Complete Peanuts (1957-1958). The first was that, even though it was published in May, 1958, nothing much has changed (you can buy Liberal Hunting Permits online these days). The second is that one doesn't think of Peanuts as a political comic. But going back through the early strips, I can now see that there was more going on than I thought when I read the old paperback collections when I was 10.

In the last years of the strip, Charles Schultz was often criticized for coasting on his success. It didn't really bother me -- I figured he'd earned it, and I didn't really notice it that much. I still enjoyed the strip, after all. I still had all my dog-eared copies of the paperback collections that I'd read growing up, but I rarely went back to them, so I never compared the late strips to the early strips.

Now that Fantagraphics is putting out The Complete Peanuts, I'm going back to the beginning, and catching a lot of stuff I missed when I first read them. Everyone knows Charlie Brown as the lovable loser -- but it's really striking just how seriously depressed he often was (and how unloved he felt!). Consider this strip:

Charlie Brown: Tomorrow is our first game.

Charlie Brown: So far in practice we have a team batting average of .002 and a fielding average of .001.

Charlie Brown: [Throws away his stats sheet, staring off into the distance]

Charlie Brown: [Point of view jumps back until CB is a quarter is usual size, surrounded by an empty field] Suddenly my stomach hurts and I feel all alone.

That's a very depressing strip for a comics page -- especially for a comics page in the 50s! Even now, you'll rarely see any character truely depressed in a comic strip, let alone a child. That sort of thing only happens in the "serious" strips like Doonesbury or For Better or For Worse, and even those wouldn't use the character's depression as a punchline -- Doonesbury would throw in a zinger, and For Better or For Worse would have some words of wisdom or consolation. Calvin and Hobbes is the only other strip I can think of which would come close to doing this, and even then, Calvin's misery would often be the result of his own greed or misbehaviour.

The day after that last strip, Charlie Brown had made himself sick with worry and missed the first game. On the third day, the team comes running up to his sick bed to let them know that they'd won the game, and they didn't even miss him as a manager (this is the very first time the history of the strip that team wins any game). The last panel of this strip is probably the most miserable I've ever seen a comic strip character (Calvin included) look as depressed as Charlie Brown looks as he rolls onto his side, three sets of curvy "worry lines" on either side of his eyes, and says "I'm very happy" in small letters in a large, black word balloon.

Schultz is considered one of -- if not the -- all time greats of the comic strip world, and going back to the beginning really shows just why that is. If he coasted in the last few years of his 50 year run of writing and drawing the strip, I think he earned the right.

One more strip transcription, a Sunday strip:

Shermy: [As Charlie Brown walks by] Hi, Charlie Brown... How's the friend of all mankind?
Pig-Pen: HA HA HA

Charlie Brown: [Walking away] Good grief!
Shermy & Pig-Pen: HA HA HA HA!

Patty: Will, if it isn't Charlie Brown!

Violet: Good ol' wishy-washy Charlie Brown!

Patty & Violet: HA HA HA HA
Charlie Brown: [Clutches his chest]

Lucy: Hi, Charlie Brown... Is that your head or are you hiding behind a balloon?

Charlie Brown: [Grimaces]

Charlie Brown: [Goes home, takes off his coat]

Charlie Brown: [Turns on the radio]

Radio: "...And what in all this world, is more delightful than the gay wonderful laughter of little children?"

Charlie Brown: [Kicks the radio across the room]

You know, back before my teens I used to identify Charlie Brown. Being a proto-nerd, I was on the receiving end of a lot of "gay wonderful laughter". I can point out dozens of strips in this volume that strike home, which is probably why I loved Peanuts so much. But I don't think I ever had it as miserable as good ol' Charlie Brown.


deang said...

Yeah, the misery of Charlie Brown, the outright depression, is striking, especially in the earliest strips. I don't have examples at hand right now but I remember one four-framer in which Charlie Brown decided that on this day he would sit and wait for friends to come to him and play instead of him going to their houses to join them. The first frame stated his intent, the second and third frames were almost identical ones of him just sitting there, and the last was him still sitting in the same position but with a "sigh." And then there were the Halloween/Great Pumpkin strips/shows in which Charlie Brown always got rocks instead of candy.

James said...

There's a strip similar to the one you mention in the 1957-1958 collection: CB looks over the fence at all his friends playing in a pool, then, rather than muster up the courage to ask to join them, he turns his back, walks home, and sits in a small bucket, sighing. I remember that feeling.

The "I got a rock" gag was a good "Charlie Brown's a loser" routine, but in it he still wasn't as outright despondent as he was in some of the other strips.

A year ago this weekend, City of Heroes had an in-game Halloween trick-or-treat event. You could go from door to door in Paragon City and knock; you'd either get a treat (a power up) or a trick (Halloween-themed monsters would attack you) -- and sometimes you'd get a rock (with a big yellow banner that would say, "You got a rock!").

Of course, in the game, that was useful. You could throw the rocks at the monsters.

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