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Review: ‘Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron’

SNOOPY-VS-RED-BARON-coverSnoopy Vs. The Red Baron
Writer/Artist: Charles M. Schulz
Fantagraphics; $24.99

Fantagraphics Boooks, publishers of The Complete Peanuts series, has assembled and released a new collection of strips on the eve of The Peanuts Movie, the most expensive and ambitious animated outting to feature Charlie Brown and the gang. Among the filmmakers’ attempts to exploit the possibilities of the new venue is what looks like it will be the most spectacular rendering of Snoopy’s imaginary duels with The Red Baron, which explains the organizing principle of this particular collection.

Snoopy Vs.The Red Baron collects all of Schulz’s strips featuring Snoopy playing the World War I Flying Ace. That’s right; all of them, from the entire 50-year run of the strip, which makes this a very healthy sized 200-page book, with as many as three strips per page.

As for what qualifies as a Flying Ace or Red Baron strip, the criteria are pretty broad: Basically, any instance of Snoopy wearing a flight helmet and goggles seems to count.

One might think that selecting a single running gag from the long-lived strip and gathering every example of it in one tome would lead to a tedious read, and while this isn’t the best Peanuts collection, it certainly serves as a testament to what incredible mileage Schulz could get out a particular joke.

A 50-year daily newspaper comic strip is nothing to sneeze at, and Schulz managed it with a relatively small cast and relatively narrow subject matter–a cartoon scholar could probably work their way through The Complete Peanuts and group every gag into one of a dozen or so broad categories. One of the many aspects of Schulz’s comic strip genius was, of course, his ability to wring seemingly endless variations out of a premise.

So here are all the most familiar Snoopy-as-Flying Ace strips, with Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse, pretending it is a Sopwith Camel and pursuing The Red Baron through the skies of the Great War.

But here too is Snoopy suffering a mild form of PTSD, and sneaking into bed with Charlie Brown; here he is imagining himself at a French cafe, drinking root beers; here he is frustrated with his ground crew of Woodstock and other little birds, more concerned with playing bridge than fixing up his plane; here he is visiting his brother Spike, an infantryman, in a No Man’s Land trench; here he is playing commercial pilot to a neighborhood kid trying to catch a flight on his doghouse; here he is praising World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin; here he is imagining various girls, usually Marcie, as French peasant girls and barmaids. And on and on.

While Snoopy atop his doghouse in flight gear has become one of the many indelible images from the strip, the riffs on the subject also performed two core functions within Schulz’s Peanuts mega-narrative, both of which reinforced one another.

On the one hand, it was one more trial for Charlie Brown, who can’t have any of the nice, normal things he thinks he wants, like a typical loyal dog who greets his master and plays with him after school. Rather, he’s burdened with an eccentric like Snoopy. In fact, in the very first strip in the book, a defeated looking Charlie Brown is walking home and saying to himself, “On a day like this, a person really needs his faithful dog to come running out to greet him,” while the punchline panel has Snoopy in costume, thinking “Here’s the World War I Pilot in his fighter plane looking for The Red Baron,” oblivious to the sighing Charlie Brown right next to him.

Meanwhile, it demonstrates Snoopy’s own rich inner life. In the earliest strips, long before those included in this collection, back when Schulz was still drawing Snoopy to resemble a real dog rather than the anthropomorphic cartoon character he would become, readers were privy to Snoopy’s thoughts, and these never matched what the human children around him assumed about him. Gradually, Snoopy’s imaginary world just got bigger, weirder, and wilder: He was a writer, a vulture, The Easter Beagle, Flashbeagle, Joe Cool, and on and on. None of these alter egos were as flamboyant or revisted as often as the World War I Flying Ace, though, which became the ultimate example of Snoopy as the one true child in the world of Peanuts, the spirit of unfettered imagination and play among little kids who are all teased, poked, and occasionally crushed by the anxiety of growing up.

Sure, the book contains so many repetitions of the phrase “Here’s the World War I Flying Ace…” that many strips may blend together, but, at the same time, reading all of the Red Baron strips together like this, unbroken by any other strips focused on any other subjects, proves that Schulz’s Snoopy-as-Flying Ace schtick was more than just a simple running gag–it was a running gag that really flew.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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