The Complete Peanuts Vol. 1: 1950-1952
By Charles Schulz
Fantagraphics Books; $22.99
Fantagraphics’ ambitious and important Complete Peanuts reprint project—which was just what it sounded like, all of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips, collected—was pretty obviously targeted toward adult fans and students of the comics medium. You could tell by the hard covers, the slipcase editions, and the introductions by the likes of Garrison Keillor and Walter Cronkite.
Fantagraphics is now re-publishing the Complete Peanuts, and the format is still the same, with the volumes containing every single strip, in order, starting with the very first one way back in 1950 (and with the introductions by strange, old adults still present), but now they’ve got softcovers, making them a lot more kid-friendly. They’re lighter and easier to carry, they’re less likely to cause injury with their sharp corners, and, most important of all, the somewhat cheaper price and less-fancy packaging should make grown-ups less resistant to putting a Peanuts collection into the grubby little hands of a child to read and potentially despoil.
Good thing too, because Peanuts comics are great comics for kids, and they always were, right from the beginning, as the comics in this particular volume prove.
What’s most fascinating about this particular volume is how different it is from the Peanuts most people know best. Schulz’s basic character designs are all there (although they would evolve significantly), his lettering and linework are familiar, the names of the characters and the basics of their personalities are familiar, and the sense of humor is already present, but the differences between these Peanuts and those you’ll see on the funny pages of today are vast.
Most strikingly, these Peanuts characters are cute; in fact, they’re darling. Round-headed Charlie Brown is cute, and Snoopy, who looks much more like a real beagle puppy than the bulbous-nosed, anthropomorphic cartoon character he would later evolve into, is so cute I can barely stand looking at him without trying to reach into the panels to pet him.
The strip begins with just four characters: Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the slightly older kids Shermy and Patty (not Peppermint Patty; just Patty). Soon, new girl Violet is introduced. And then, before the end of this volume, a baby named Schroeder (who grows up rather quickly into a toddler), another baby named Lucy (ditto) and, finally, Lucy’s baby brother, Linus.
In addition to the young ages of the characters and their cuter, not-yet-refined designs, the book is fascinating in its early inversions of the later, classic relationships, like Charlie Brown occasionally getting the better of his peers, of Charlie Brown being in a position of authority and responsibility over the much younger Lucy (who talks in caveman-like baby talk for a bit) and Snoopy appearing as a more-or-less free agent, with no definitive master or owner among the neighborhood kids.
In addition to the first appearances of the above-mentioned characters, we see the first appearances of what would later become iconic elements of the strip, like Charlie Brown’s zig-zag shirt (He goes about 60 strips without a zig-zag), or the first time Lucy messes with Charlie Brown as he attempts to kick a football. There are also some violations of what later become laws of the Peanuts universe, like one strip in which Charlie Brown’s mother gets a line of dialogue (she’s not shown, of course, but her dialogue balloon coming from off-panel is).
This may not be the ideal Peanuts comic for kids, not when compared to those digest paperbacks they used to publish, or even Fantagraphics’ more recent little books like Batter Up, Charlie Brown! and Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking, but these are great comics, made more fascinating still by the difference in style details from the more familiar Peanuts of later years, and now finally available in a more kid-friendly package.