Rats, says Tony Fyler.
Well – shows what I know. In the review of Peanuts #3 I told you how things were developing so that some characters would more than likely be fading out soon, given the rise and rise of Lucy and Linus van Pelt in the strips. I also said – for the third time – that it was remarkable how actually funny these still technically early strips were, some fifty years on, especially because sometimes in their on-screen adventures, the humour suffered from its esoteric nature, its lack of overt winks and nods to the audience and its refusal to have any laugh track to, for instance, inform the audience ‘no really, that’s where the gag was.’ Indeed, if you’re going to check out these reprinted collected editions of Peanuts from Titan Comics – and be in no doubt, this is me heartily recommending that you should – you’ll probably laugh a whole lot more even than you expect to when you open them up.
So here we are in issue #4. Are the early characters fading out? In fact…no. If anything, there’s more to do with them in this issue than there was in the previous collection – the original Patty and Violet are both in quite a lot of evidence here. Hence, rats – don’t give up the day-job, Fyler, as a comic-book prophet, you apparently suck.
What’s more, there’s a definite sense throughout this collection of a move towards extended story-arcs, of the kind we’re more used to from the TV Peanuts specials. What that means is that the familiar slight uncertainty about whether there was actually a gag in that particular strip, or that particular sequence at all, is beginning to creep in. There’s the feeling – common to readers of collected comic-strips that run over weeks and months in newspapers, of a theme being carried on over a week, or even two, and there is, along with that, the slightly dangerous feeling that some ‘days’ of the strip are simply re-runs of the previous day’s strip with a slightly different emphasis, or a bridge between yesterday’s and tomorrow’s strip, which probably form a good set-up and punchline, but which need a pause in between – so you’re reading the pause. Later comics like Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, Fred Basset and Wallace and Gromit all did this on a regular basis – but presumably, they only all did this on a regular basis because the ground had been prepared for them, the formula proved to be a winning one for comic-strip writers and artists finding themselves both in need of a great deal of product to meet the needs of more and more outlets, and in the market for expanding their own comic-strip worlds beyond the simple single-gag format into actual storylines that could develop character and narrative in a more free and interesting way.
So here is where we see the beginning of Charles Shulz focusing slightly less on delivering a punchline or a gag in every single four-panel strip, but building the Peanuts world into something where the psychology of his archetype characters could allow for the building of plotlines that would eventually feed the usually themed specials of the TV peanuts. You can’t, for instance, get It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown from a single four-panel strip – you need to build the idea of Linus believing in the Great Pumpkin, of his sister, archly rational about everyone’s failings, pooh-poohing him, everyone else expressing their doubts in their own individual ways, and him going and sitting in the pumpkin patch anyway. You need plotting throughlines, and you need more character reactions than any single strip would give you. If you grew up watching Peanuts on TV, rather than as a daily newspaper strip, this collection is the beginning of why that ever worked.
Now, it would be over-egging it to say that it’s the death of the snappy one-line, one-strip gag. It’s absolutely not. And within those one-strip gags, you still get the trademark Schulz reflections on the human condition – PigPen, the boy who can legendarily ‘raise a cloud of dust just walking down the street,’ suffers an indignity here – spending the whole morning getting just about as dirty as he’s ever been, only to be washed squeaky, annoyingly clean in the space of one panel. So much for being in control of our own destiny. Lucy, bless her, tries to do the subtle ‘lovelorn from afar’ thing with Schroeder, only to end up standing on top of his piano, yelling at him ‘YOU FASCINATE ME!’ Schroeder, of course, doesn’t notice – he only has eyes and ears for Beethoven. Charlie Brown has gorgeously philosophical adventures – when two of the girls (yes, fine, the two I said would be fading out soon) pass the time of day with him and call him ‘Good ol’ Charlie Brown,’ it brightens his day immeasurably, while we as omnipotent observers here them conclude to themselves that he’s ‘Good ol’ wishy-washy Charlie Brown’ – an entirely different reading of the situation. The disappointment of a friend’s unswerving honesty is delivered like a punch in the face when Charlie Brown is on the couch, wishing that everybody liked him. Well, some people. Well, maybe even just one person, he says, continually rounding down in the presence of Schroeder’s unnerving silence. ‘While you’re there, why not wish for a million dollars,’ his friend eventually instructs him. Ouch.
So it’s absolutely not the case that this collection sees a fundamental shift in what Peanuts is or what it does. All the reasons to love it are still intact. It’s just that this is the collection that sees, for instance, Schroeder collecting money to send to the builders of a Beethoven memorial over the course of four or five strips, not all of which have an obvious visual or verbal high-hat to sell the gag – and in fact, not all of which have a gag to sell at all.
This fourth collection of Peanuts stories, originally printed in 1957, still delivers plenty of great, funny Peanuts action. But be aware it’s changing into something bigger and more complex than it’s ever been up to this point. If that means you have to forgive it an occasional strip where you’re left wondering ‘Wait…what was that?’ don’t worry about it. It was simply beginning to experiment with the Peanuts format that informed your childhood.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk