Thursday, October 8, 2009

Graphically Speaking: The Complete Peanuts 1973 to 1974

Words: Christopher Irving

Even though Woodstock casts a large shadow
on the cover of Fantagraphics’ The Complete Peanuts: 1973 to 1974, it’s Peppermint Patty who should get star billing.

Not to take anything away from Snoopy’s yellow-feathered avian sidekick – who does make several appearances through the hardcover tome – it’s just that Patty eventually gets the brunt of character development attention, while Woodstock exists as the perfect foil for Snoopy.

The first sequence follows a spat between Snoopy and Woodstock over something broken at Woodstock’s New Year’s Party, the results of which are poetic in Charles Schulz’s sentimental/borderline sappy way. The brilliance of the bird is in that he gives Snoopy someone who directly communicates with him; while the kids in Peanuts often get served a punch line by Snoopy, Woodstock provides the punch line to many of the Snoopy sequences. It’s as if Bud Abbott had his Lou Costello, and then Costello had his own extra Abbott that he could react to as an aside.

Peppermint Patty is more than the tom girl with a crush on Charlie Brown: Schulz created in her one of the most believable Peanuts cast members. Patty is raised by her father, and has trouble in school; several of the gags in this volume involve her praying to get past a tough spot at school, struggling through tests and homework, and burdened with a grade so bad it warrants a “Z minus”. She has an unbreakable crush on Charlie Brown (whom she calls “Chuck”), and an absentmindedness towards Snoopy, who she doesn’t realize is a dog until Marcie finally points it out in this volume.

Where Charlie Brown is a social outcast and a victim of his persistently bad luck, Peppermint Patty is just as much one: a poor student who can’t keep up in class and a tomboy raised by her father, she is the perfect match for Charlie. Like all love in comics and literature – it is blind, and Charlie’s unable to see the forest for the trees.

Marcie, meanwhile, is more than just Patty’s best friend – but also a surrogate big sister and mother figure. When Patty and Charlie decide to have a baseball game to benefit stomachaches, Marcie goes door to door to collect contributions; when Patty needs a dress sewn for a skating competition, Marcie does her damnedest (and with hilarious results); and even when Patty needs tough love, it comes from Marcie.

There are a few other memorable highlights in this volume: the famous story where Charlie sees baseballs everywhere, and resorts to wearing a paper bag over his head while at camp (becoming a camp hero through his mystery and anonymity); Sally talks to the school building (who “talks” back through thoughts); Snoopy tries his hand at becoming an author, despite repeated rejection slips (apparently book editors are Snoopy’s personal kite-eating trees).

Also of note is Schulz’s repeated use of standard gags (Lucy pulling the football from Charlie) along with a few new ones, including the consoling “Poor, sweet baby”. Because of his tendency to keep running gags contained within a year’s span, it makes a trade collection work better than with most comic strips.

It would be so easy to talk about Schulz’s amazing minimalist approach with Peanuts, his great sense of design in figure and setting placement, or even his kinetic squiqqly contour line…and how, because of Peanuts position in the everyday cultural vernacular of America, it’s often taken for granted.