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Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
Happy holidays everybody and welcome to another edition of our monthly Comics College feature. As our holiday gift to you, dear reader, this month we’re examining the career of one of the most beloved and acclaimed cartoonists of the 20th century, Mr. Charles M. Schulz.
At first glance, attempting to cover Schulz’s in a column of this nature seems like a silly venture. After all, his body of work consists mostly of one comic strip, done over five decades and is arguably one of the most famous comics ever known. But for many younger generations, even those who are comics fans, I suspect Peanuts is more of a curiosity than a living work of art; a cute, dinosaur strip that’s a bit too comfortable and familiar, something used to sell life insurance and Dolly Madison cupcakes but has about as much impact on their lives and sensibilities as Beetle Bailey or The Family Circus. It’s a strip for little kids, or for old Gen Xers and baby boomers who grew up watching that Xmas special.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Peanuts remains one of the sharpest, funniest, achingly sorrowful and most moving comic strips ever produced. Time has done little to age its relevance or its emotional power. Those who have balked at delving into the strip because they were forced to watch “It’s Flashbeagle Charlie Brown” at an early age should make the effort at a second look.
Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts series seems like the obvious choice, but if you’re delving into Schulz’s world seriously for the first time, and if you haven’t been a fan up till now, then you may balk at starting a collection of $30 volumes, especially since the early years are very much formative ones, and quite different from where the strip ended up.
A better starting point may be one of the many treasury collections out there, and there are lots of them, that offer a “best of” sampler from the various decades. My own recommendation would be either Peanuts: A Golden Celebration or the more recent Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years. You can also try to track down Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz by Chip Kidd, which was quite seminal in it’s ability to cause people to rethink the stip’s artistic merits, though the emphasis is heavily on the early years, as much of that material had rarely seen print before and thus was new to a lot of fans and casual readers.
The Fantagraphics series is the logical next step of course. Ah, but where to start? Assuming you want to dive into prima-Schulz and not necessarily go in chronological order, (again, the first 2 or 3 volumes, though charming, aren’t indicative of the directions Schulz would take the strip) let me suggest that the period from about the mid-1960s to the early 70s (’till say about ’74) is when Peanuts was at its absolute best. A lot of fans tend to prefer the late ’50s/early ’60s stuff, because it’s a bit more melancholy and nastier (at least as far as the treatment of Charlie Brown is concerned), and Snoopy hasn’t stolen the spotlight away from Charlie Brown quite yet. But I think this slightly later period shows Schulz taking more chances, widening his cast and taking some more absurd and even occasionally surreal directions. Whatever time period you opt to dive into first, feel free to go back from there and start with the early, initial volumes and fill in any gaps as needed.
Edited by Derrick Bang, Charles M. Schulz: Li’l Beginnings collects all of Schulz’s early Li’l Folks gag cartoons that he did for the St. Paul Pioneer Press before starting Peanuts. A little kid strip similar to Peanuts in many ways, it’s worth reading to see the groundwork being laid for what would eventually become his magnum opus, especially with the excellent commentary Bang provides.
Schulz actually attempted to do a separate comic strip while Peanuts was ramping up in popularity. Done with Jim Sasseville (who illustrated the Peanuts comic book stories) It’s Only a Game was a loose collection of gag cartoons centering on sports and recreational games, especially Bridge. It didn’t last long, as Schulz found himself quickly needing to spend more time on his main seller, but it’s a noteworthy strip for anyone who wanted to see how Schulz drew adults.
In a similar vein, Schulz’s Youth collects a number of gag cartoons Schulz did for various religious publications. They mainly consist of teenagers and kids saying witty or cute things about the Bible and spirituality and are utterly charming.
Schulz had a way with the written word as much as he did with pen and ink. Exhibit A in that case is My Life With Charlie Brown, a collection of written essays, stories and other prose pieces Schulz wrote for magazines and other publications, including the autobiography he wrote for the long out-of-print, 25th anniversary book Peanuts Jubilee. In a similar vein, Charles M. Schulz: Conversations collects a series of interviews with the cartoonist done by different people over the years. If you can find it, I’d also recommend tracking down a copy of You Don’t Look 35 Charlie Brown, which finds Schulz riffing on a variety of subjects, most notably the fine art of cartooning.
A number of biographies of Schulz abound, including Good Grief by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, which is as yet unread by me but has won various plaudits from fans. More notable is Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis. The book reveals much about the author and his relationship to his art, and delves deep into his early life in Minnesota, but it was severely criticized by his children for its portrayal of Schulz as an emotionally stunted, withdrawn father, not to mention several factual errors. My recommendation would be to read it, but then immediately follow it up with Monte Schulz’s rebuttal/memoir that appeared in The Comics Journal #290.
Of course, Peanuts was more than just a comic strip, it was a merchandising machine. A bit of that influence can be glimpsed in The Peanuts Collection, which focuses on Peanuts memorabilia as much as it does the making of the actual strip.
I’m avoiding talking about the animated specials and movies here to focus on the comics (short advice: stick to the holiday specials for the most part) but if you want to look beyond the strip, there’s also A Treasury of Happiness, which collects all the little “gift books” that Schulz published over the years like Happiness is a Warm Puppy and Security is a Thumb and a Blanket. You could argue they aided in the “Hallmarkification” of the strip, but .
Common consensus is that the ’80s and ’90s were Schulz’s fallowest periods. I don’t completely agree with that — even when Charlie Brown and Snoopy failed to provide decent material in the mid-80s, Peppermint Patty and Marcie were more than able to pinch-hit (indeed, some of the Marcie/Patty sequences rank among Schulz’s best story runs), and the later strips focusing on Rerun, Linus and Lucy’s little brother, are some of the funniest and most poignant work Schulz ever did. All that being said, those decades may be best approached after having delved deeply in the earlier years and developed an appreciation for the man and his work.