Good grief, is it 12 years already? Back in 2004, the high-end comics/graphic novel publishing company Fantagraphics announced an epic project: “The Complete Peanuts,” 50 years of Charles Schulz’s iconic comic strip packaged in 25 elegantly designed volumes released over about a dozen years. Every daily strip, every Sunday strip, from the first (Oct. 2, 1950) to the last (Feb. 13, 2000). That’s 17,897 strips in all, each done by Schulz’s hand and no one else’s.
On May 10, Vol. 25, “The Complete Peanuts: 1999-2000” brings the project to a chronological close. A 26th volume containing various Schulz odds and ends will come out in October, but this week’s book marks the end of an unprecedented publishing effort that honors an unprecedented work of 20th-century popular culture. It’s fitting that Vol. 25 comes with an introduction written by President Obama (even if that introduction reads like Oval Office boilerplate).
The thing about a pop artifact this long-lived is that each of us has a different core sample. Depending upon our age, we’re drawn to one “Peanuts” era or another, based on the strips that came out when we were kids or that were available in paperback collections lying around on bedroom bookshelves and summer cabin window seats.
Because I grew up in the 1960s, my memories are of Snoopy in his WWI fighter ace regalia, his doghouse riddled with the imaginary (or were they?) bullet-holes of the Red Baron. Frieda with the naturally curly hair, who dropped out in later years, which was fine because she was obnoxious. Lucy’s psychiatric lemonade stand and “Happiness is a Warm Puppy.” Offshoots like “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” on Broadway and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on TV. By the time Peppermint Patty began to dominate the strip in the early ’70s, I was already aging out.
When the Fantagraphics reprints arrived in 2004, I bought a number of the early volumes hoping to get a nice little nostalgia buzz. Wouldn’t you? Instead, I received two shocks, one minor and one major. The first was that some of my favorite early “Peanuts” strips — miniature farces of frustration and absurdity — turned out to be from the mid-1950s, when Schulz was really starting to hit his stride. I’d known them from all those dog-eared Fawcett Crest collections and assumed they were contemporary to my generation.
The second was a fresh, grown-up appreciation of Charles Schulz’s grand achievement, which was to bring the Age of Anxiety into the funny papers and put the full spectrum of human neuroses into the mouths of babes. Some vintage “Peanuts” strips are flat-out hilarious, but more than you remember are just plain bleak. As early as November 1950, Schulz has Charlie Brown and Shermy (remember Shermy?) sitting on a curbside, staring disconsolately down at the street for three panels, and in the fourth, without moving, Shermy says, “Yup! Well . . . that’s the way it goes!” That’s not boffo, that’s Beckett.
In the thousands of strips that followed, this shy, unprepossessing Minnesotan became our daily poet of disappointment. Charlie Brown never talked to the little red-haired girl. Lucy always pulled the football away. The tree always ate the kite, the Great Pumpkin never came. Only Snoopy seemed immune to the Schulzian laws of gravity, maybe because he was a fantasy of a dog and the rest of the gang were all too human. Over the decades, Snoopy seemed increasingly weighed down with uncertainty, too.
People assume “Peanuts” was universally beloved because the strips were funny and the characters were cute. Not true. This was a comic that said today would go wrong and tomorrow would go wrong and the day after that and we would still be somehow here, surviving. That’s easy to forget when all we have left is the Hallmark cards.
Another upside of the Fantagraphics series: They prompt a renewed admiration for Schulz’s artwork — his sense of line. Somewhere in one of the reprints is a Sunday strip in which Linus tries to untangle a toy telephone set and struggles with increasing frustration in panel after panel, each a lesson in how to draw multi-limbed frenzy. It’s pop art, op art, something close to surrealism, and, true to form, it ends with Linus’s grim acceptance of his fate. Life in “Peanuts” is a tangled web we never figure out how to unweave.
For an old-school fan, the most recent reprints, up to and including the new volume, were a way to acquaint myself with latter-day Schulz. I stopped following the strip on a regular basis after college in the early 1980s; the late 1990s was a black box I opened with some trepidation. For a reason: These strips are weird. Wonderful, often, and laugh-out-loud funny in places. But “Peanuts” had been so successful for so many decades that they read as if Schulz had retreated fully into his imaginary world.
There were characters I never knew about, some of whom worked, others less so. Snoopy has three brothers, one of whom sits in the desert talking to a cactus while the other two wander the world, forever lost. (Like I said, Beckett.) Linus and Lucy had a little brother named Rerun in 1973, but Schulz never knew what to do with him; he lay fallow until the mid-1990s, when, along with Peppermint Patty, he took over the strip. The final years of “Peanuts” often testify to the inevitability of failure and why bother get out of bed? Sometimes this is played for comedy. Sometimes it feels like Schulz is just reflecting the universe back at himself.
The artwork starts getting trembly and simpler around 1995 — the cartoonist was in his early 70s — but Schulz is still experimenting with form. A number of strips dispense with panel lines and stretch the action across a long, uninterrupted flow of daily existentialism.
The final “Peanuts” strip, in which the artist bade farewell to his characters, ran in newspapers mere hours after his death from cancer on Feb. 12, 2000. Toward the end, Schulz was forced to cut back to Sunday strips only, and in the third to last, Rerun sits in art class. The girl next to him says they’re supposed to be painting flowers, but he replies, “I don’t do flowers. I do underground comics. See? Here’s Billie Jean King and Daffy Duck throwing Long John Silver off the pirate ship.” After a wordless conference with the teacher — unseen as always and never heard, even in the mwah-wah-wahs of the TV specials — Rerun returns to his desk with a sigh: “Today we’re drawing flowers.”
To the end, Schulz knew, the wonders of human imagination will get stifled by the grown-up world. But there is no end, really, and we keep imagining, day after day. Such is the karmic promise of a comic strip: The quietest of rebellions are sometimes the longest lived. They kept one quiet man going for half a century.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.