Peanuts for peanuts
No one needs to hear me speak of the virtues of Charles Schulz’ s Peanuts, one of the greatest comic strips and one of the greatest long-form narrative works of art of any medium. Plenty of much smarter people who can communicate much more clearly and cleverly than I have already done that in plenty of different places.
And the fact that so many newspapers continue to re-run old strips of Schulz’s so long after his death instead of filling that valuable (to cartoonists) space with something—anything—else is about as eloquent expression of the regard Schulz is held in as anything I could pound out in a few sentences here.
Do note that, when Schulz passed away, no descendant of his or hand-picked assistant/apprentice took over the strip for him—Peanuts not produced by Schulz was apparently judged so wrong it wouldn’t even be attempted, better to just have folks re-read older strips than attempt new ones by someone else.
That was a big part of the reason I was so shocked when Boom Studios announced a new ongoing Peanuts comic book series on their Kaboom kids imprint. They had previously produced an original graphic novel based on a new animated special which itself was pieced together from Schulz strips—last spring’s Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown—but this seemed like something pretty different. It wasn’t a media tie-in or a one-off lark project, it was going to be something rather sustained.
Now, when I say “shocked,” I must admit that I didn’t drop my coffee cup on the kitchen floor, upon which it shattered with a crash. My jaw may have dropped—but only slightly. I did not scream a strangled cry, although I’m pretty sure I thought, “Why?”
As I said, there didn’t seem to be much appetite for a new Peanuts in the newspaper comic strip market, and Fantagraphics has already devoted itself to a remarkable curation and collection process with their Complete Peanuts program, making every Schulz strip ever available in beautifully designed and printed hard covers that look handsome on a shelf and are widely available at libraries. Why make a comic book, featuring new material? Who would have the audacity to publish it, and to tell those stories? And who would it be for? What demand would it meet?
Getting answers to these questions proved remarkably simple: All I had to do was read the first issue.
It’s definitely worth noting that the series is hardly Schulz-free. In addition to bearing his full name above the logo and a drawing of his on the covers, the first issue reprints a few classic Peanuts strips. These are three in number, and each fill-up a whole page, so they are presumably Sunday strips.
The rest of the book is filled with two new stories, one written and penciled by Vicki Scott and the other written by Shane Houghton and drawn by Matt Whitlock. Neither attempts to ape the comic strip format at all, and are in the same style and format of the previous Boom graphic novel.
The panels are big—there are even a few splashes—and the colors are bright. The lay-outs are inventive, and seem to be almost flagrant in their resistance to confining grids, with inset panels of various shapes (square, circle, explosion, light bulb) and implied panels separating action into distinct moments, as in a scene where Charlie Brown sings a song, eleven Charlie Browns all drawn in sequence, standing before bars of music drawn in waves behind him. They are also rather action-packed for Peanuts stories, with a lot of running, yelling, screaming and some chasing—as with Warm Blanket, the comic book reads a lot like a comic book based on a cartoon instead of a comic book based on a comic strip.
This is a distinction that might not mean a whole lot to that many people, but reading it I got the feeling that I was reading a new comic book series based on the Peanuts animated cartoons, not the Peanuts comic strips. Sure, the former is ultimately based on Schulz’s work, but the fact that the comic book had more aesthetically in common with the animation than the strip was comforting. Those were always works of collaboration, after all, whereas the strip was always just Schulz, from increasingly scribbly line to dialogue balloon tail.
Therefore, whereas a new comic strip by anyone other than Schulz would feel wrong, a new comic book in the spirit of the animation? I’m fine with that. Heck, I kind of welcome it.
Those of us who care about such things can quibble over the quality of the endeavor. It’s very much an old-school gag comic, of the sort DC’s Tiny Titans and some of the Archie Comics are the only real practitioners of left. Some of the gags are very short, as in the Schulz reprints, and some are longer, short stories, but they’re gag-oriented ones.
Are they funny, or relevant? They didn’t crack me up or anything, but I thought they were well done, and I could definitely see them appealing to kids. And that, I think, answers the most pressing of my original questions about the comic, the question of why do it at all, and who is it to be for.
It’s probably not for comic book or strip critics or aficionados—although it’s definitely worth checking out just to see how Boom approached a difficult task—nor is it for people like me who tend to think, think and over-think such things.
It is, however, definitely for those who like Charlie Brown and Snoopy, who are familiar with them from cartoons as much as from the funny pages, and can read.
It is, in short, Peanuts for peanuts. And that’s an audience that can always use more high-quality comics addressed to them.