Beginning in 2007, Fantagraphics Books began an ambitious series: The Complete Peanuts, a 25 volume collection of every Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, from 1950 to 2000. Releasing three volumes a year—each covering a two-year span–it won’t be finished until 2014; currently, they’re at Volume 13 (1975-1976).
It’s an impressive undertaking for Fantagraphics, but nowhere near as impressive as Schulz’s numbers. As their website puts it, “The first Peanuts daily appeared October 2, 1950. Charles Schulz died on February 13, 2000, the day before his last strip was published, having completed 17,897 daily and Sunday strips, each and every one fully written, drawn, and lettered entirely by his own hand.” Sweet Jesus!
A few years back, when the 700 page Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography was published, a couple of friends asked me if I planned to read it, I thought, nah, I’m in the middle of his autobiography. Y’see, I’ve kept up with the Fantagraphics series (those are my books in the photo above), and simply reading all of Schulz’s work is a massive undertaking.
But what an illuminating undertaking it has been. Like most of us over 35, we grew up in a Peanuts-heavy world, what with the TV specials, the product endorsements, the toys, the greeting cards, and so on.1 (I never went anywhere without my trusty Snoopy doll, as you can see to the left.) With all this exposure on so many fronts, Schulz’s daily strip—the aspect of the Peanuts world he cared about the most—went underappreciated. By me at least. One black-and-white strip a day was too meager for my pre-teen hunger, and I turned instead to the paperback collections. What I didn’t know was that many times these collections were incomplete and typically not in chronological order. They were a mess, really, relics of a time when comic strips were considered low-rent distractions. Disposable.
So, when I began reading these volumes of the Complete Peanuts, I was pleasantly shocked to find out how quickly Schulz found his stride, how the characters developed over the years, and how stories were told in a daily form, what I like to call a Peanuts Week.2
(Although those story arcs are the point of this post, here’s some background about the Peanuts daily strip, a fact which makes Schulz’s accomplishments all the more impressive. He and all of his peers at United Feature Syndicate had to keep their strips four panels of equal size, no more, no less, so the newspapers could print them horizontally, vertically, or in a block.3 And even with Peanuts’s popularity, Schulz followed this strict policy for decades before using his clout to construct his daily strip as he liked.)
What’s a Peanuts Week? For starters, it’s Monday through Saturday.4 During a Peanuts week, time is either very real or incredibly not real.
Here’s an example of the former, when Schulz uses a real-time method of storytelling. Linus Van Pelt’s crush on his teacher Miss Othmar had him in a tizzy for years (decades?). Here’s one such week. As you read it, try to put yourself in the shoes of a contemporary reader, with Charlie Brown as our surrogate, witnessing his friend’s anxiety mount with each day…
Before long, Schulz stretched story arcs even longer than a week. For instance, in early 1961, Lucy decided to cure Linus’s attachment to his blanket by stealing it…
…and burying it. Linus’s withdrawal lasted 3 weeks, going through Hell the whole time. Here he is at bedtime…
It must have been equally traumatic for children and adults alike, getting four-panel doses each day, the comic strip having become their own form of security blanket.
And when Schulz used the daily strip to warp time, he becomes a cartoonist version of Sam Peckinpah (10 years before Peckinpah did it!). These typically happen during the baseball games, at a crucial moment in Charlie Brown’s life—a defining moment—when the pressure is on. And Schulz makes the moment last for six days…
If you’ve ever played little league and been in this situation, stealing a base can feel like six days worth of suspense. Its’ worth noting that Charlie Brown was still laying on the ground well into the next week:
Now, reading a Peanuts Week here, in a few minutes, doesn’t do it justice. So, here’s what I’m going to do: beginning next Monday, I’m going to run another one of Schulz’s baseball-themed slo-mo storylines, one a day, in my banner, so we can experience the tension just like Joe Sixpack did in 1958. (In fact, it will be a series that, coincidentally, ran 52 years ago this week. Lest we forget that suspense, insecurity and failure are all timeless!)
BACK TO POST 1 Sadly, the world is no longer Snoopy-dominated. In fact, he’s fading fast, which is commented upon in a recent episode of The Office. 36-year old Andy gives a Peanuts Valentine’s card to Erin, his girlfriend, who’s in her mid-20s:
Erin: [opening card] Aw, a bird and a dog!
Andy: Yeah, well it’s Snoopy and Woodstock.
Erin: You named them?
BACK TO POST 2 DISCLAIMER: I’ve never been an avid comic strip reader and therefore I’m unfamiliar with the tradition of comic strip story arcs found in the classics like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy. The whole notion of unfolding a story in slight increments, day after day, is foreign to me. I do know Schulz was following in that tradition, but doing a humorous strip, he wasn’t bound to that convention.
BACK TO POST 3 Also noteworthy: The Sunday strips were three rows, but the artist had to make the top row “optional,” since some newspapers wouldn’t use it. This is why, for example, The Wizard of Id always has a two-panel joke at the beginning of its Sunday strips.
BACK TO POST 4 The color Sunday strip was not run in connection with the daily strip, so Schulz would make them free-standing entities.