A Mixed Bag: Peanuts in the Late '80s

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I’ve been collecting Fantagraphics’ sumptuous Complete Peanuts series since the beginning of the run way back in 2004—and reading “Peanuts” strips since the early ’70s—so it is with some trepidation that I approach the most recent volume in the series, covering 1987-1988. Charles Schultz’s unsurpassed accomplishment with “Peanuts,” his seventeen thousand plus strips without a break, brooks no creditable criticism, and yet I find that the strip by this point in the run has become, not stale, but somewhat routinized.

We have Snoopy and the “bird” scout troop trekking about, Charlie Brown and the baseball team, Schroeder and Lucy at the Piano, Snoopy and his incessant hunger for dinner, Spike writing letters from the desert, the kite-eating tree, Sally not wanting to do her homework, Peppermint Patty not doing her homework, Snoopy fighting World War I, and then back again to the beginning with only a few deviations. There’s a comfort in the routine, and each passage through the expected sequence brings pleasant nuances (particularly when Spike appears as a WWI Doughboy). Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Sally all feature far more frequently than they did in years past, and Schultz is not afraid to indulge himself in a long sequence of strips with these characters from time to time. Charlie Brown goes weeks without an appearance in this compilation.

Lydia and Linus, January 28, 1987, from The Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988The one major new addition to the rotation Schultz adds in this time period—a girl with multiple names for whom Linus pines—feels forced rather than fresh, emphasizing that the shopworn is better than the new when it comes to “Peanuts,” indeed, even making us long for a strip with Spike or Rerun, Linus’ kid brother who looks pretty much exactly like Linus, just smaller. The attempt to expand Linus’ role in the strip by giving him a counterpart to Charlie Brown’s Little Red Headed Girl is appreciated here, but Lydia (or whatever her name is) comes across as the one-note joke that she is.

When it comes to cultural references, Schultz seems to have been willing to explore his own interests moreso than in the past. Though no stranger to Biblical references, the “Peanuts” strips in this collection abound with them, and for some reason, Sally (putatively in the second or third grade?) is assigned a book report on Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and a long Hardy quotation serves as a set-up for a punch line. One wonders if Schultz himself weren’t working his way through Hardy’s works at this time.

Hardy Quotation Wide Panel, August 9, 1988, from The Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988

That said, the popular culture emphasis is as strong as ever in this collection. We get Joe Garagiola, the Seoul Summer Olympics, Wayne Gretzky, Garfield, Spuds MacKenzie (!?), Kermit the Frog, and plenty of references that a contemporary child would never have understood, like Beau Geste and, for some reason, Norman Manley, a prodigious hole-in-one golfer. There’s even a rather pointed strip on gun control, where Snoopy gets licenses for everything from being a dog to fishing, but doesn’t need one for an assault rifle, which he carries over his shoulder (December 17, 1988).

Of note, the daily strip changes from four panels to three starting with the February 29, 1988, strip. I’m not sure whether or not this was a personal choice or a change requested by the syndicate. Though I have not made an exhaustive search of all the prior strips, seemingly once this change in size happens, he begins to play with panel sizes, putting together two extra-wide panels or one full width panel or some combination of widths for daily strips. In some instances, like May 16, July 1, and August 9, 1988 (see above), the full width panels are quite detailed, giving a scope to the world of the characters that the usually sparse backgrounds seldom convey.

The Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988 feels comfortable if not awe inspiring. Schultz still delivers some memorable strips and story arcs, and the change in panel sizes feels refreshing, but on the whole, the reader gets what she or he expects: familiar (mostly) characters in familiar situations providing that uniquely Schultz-ian outlook on life. If only because the strips represented in this collection are (almost) never re-printed in the daily paper, it’s a worthwhile purchase.

(Images from The Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988)

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