It's a work of artistic genius, Charlie Brown

Charles Schulz's Peanuts' gets a new, more serious look

Pop Culture

March 28, 2004|By Tom Beer | Tom Beer,Newsday

On Oct. 2, 1950, an innocuous-looking cartoon made its debut, unheralded, in seven American newspapers. In the four-panel strip, a little boy with an egg-shaped head is running against an abstract background.

"Well! Here comes ol' Charlie Brown!" says another boy to the girl seated next to him, watching as the smiling figure dashes past. "Good ol' Charlie Brown ... Yes, sir! Good ol' Charlie Brown. ..."

And then with impeccable comic timing -- if a cartoon figure can be said to have timing -- he scowls and quips: "How I hate him!"

Poor Charlie Brown. Unloved (and endearingly clueless) right from the start.

Thus was Charles M. Schulz's "Peanuts" born. Who could have predicted from such a modest beginning that this deceptively simple cartoon would prove so popular -- at its peak, "Peanuts" appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries -- and so influential for a new generation of cartoonists? Not to mention enduring. "Peanuts" ran nearly every day for 50 years, until Schulz's retirement and death in 2000. Four years later, 2,400 newspapers (including this one) still run recycled "Peanuts" comic strips.

Now, as often happens with hugely successful pop culture phenomena, "Peanuts" is getting a second, more serious, look.

Claim to greatness

In 2002, a museum dedicated to Schulz and his artwork opened in his longtime home of Santa Rosa, Calif. The same year, editor and designer Chip Kidd brought out Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz (Pantheon, $16.95, paper), which presented hundreds of strips, many photographed from their creator's own scrapbooks, along with Schulz's rarely seen pre-"Peanuts" cartoons and photographs of vintage "Peanuts" memorabilia. David Michaelis, biographer of painter N.C. Wyeth, is at work on an authorized Schulz biography for HarperCollins. And next month, Fantagraphics -- a publisher generally known for edgy graphic novels and alternative "comix" -- launches The Complete Peanuts, a 25-volume, 12-year project that will bring every single daily and Sunday "Peanuts" strip back into print, between hard covers. (The first volume will cost $28.95.) It's the sort of reverential treatment ordinarily reserved for great artists, but to the single-moniker cartoonist Seth, who is designing the series, Schulz has a definite claim to greatness.

"Schulz managed to infuse so much of his personality into the work," says Seth, author of the graphic novel It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken. "A lot of newspaper strips -- there's been some good ones over the years, but mostly they fall short of being a real artistic expression. Schulz took it to a different level. His style totally suited the content, and he had an eccentric sense of humor and a melancholy personality that were just perfect for what he was doing. He gave Peanuts' real depth and human feeling."

Kidd agrees. "Schulz did for the comic strip what the Bauhaus did for architecture," he says. "I know that sounds really eggheady, but what I mean is this: Visually he pared everything down to its simplest forms. Charlie Brown is a circle with two dots and a squiggle and a line, and all of a sudden it's a person. It's minimal, but Schulz is so in control of the minimalism that the characters almost work like typography -- it's like you're reading them. There's your form. And then for your content: He predated Woody Allen's neuroses by a good 20 years. On the comics page!"

The Complete Peanuts will allow casual readers to judge Schulz's achievements for themselves. Fantagraphics was able to obtain original proofs for nearly every strip, so the reproductions are clean and crisp. And although the Sunday strips originally ran in color, here they appear in stark black and white -- avoiding the printing problems that historically plagued color sections. Introductions to each volume have been commissioned from such high-class Schulz fans as Garrison Keillor and Walter Cronkite -- "though for all I know, they could be getting Snoop Doggy Dog," jokes Seth.

The early years

Volume I, which covers the years 1950 to 1952, will come as a surprise to those familiar only with the strips of recent decades. In the early years, Schulz was still working out exactly who these sophisticated children were, graphically -- the shape of Charlie Brown's head evolves; Snoopy walks on all fours -- as well as characterwise. "Charlie Brown moves from being an impish little child to someone who is a good vehicle for Schulz to pour all his disappointments into," explains Seth. "And Lucy is just a cute little character in the beginning, but probably within two or three years, she started to become quite cruel."

Perhaps because of their work-in-progress quality, Schulz never collected these first strips in book form, and they have rarely been seen since their initial publication half a century ago.

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