A Mixed Bag: Peanuts in the Late ’80s

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)

Like Peanuts with Adults: Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac

Were I to attempt to describe Richard Thompson‘s comic strip Cul de Sac, I could do little better than to describe it as Peanuts with adults. The children in the strip behave like children, yet have a delightful tendency to speak wisdom beyond their years in a way that still seems utterly age-appropriate:

Comic from Shapes & Colors by Richard Thompson

The similarly preternaturally insightful children in Peanuts lived, for the most part, in a world where adults were shadows, figures whose voices and presences only revealed themselves in the children’s reactions. Cul de Sac brings the adults into the panel with the children, to excellent effect, reminding the reader that despite the children’s knowing speech, they are still at heart children, a distinction that was occasionally lost in Peanuts. And, of course, it helps that the adults get good lines as well:

Comic from Shapes & Colors by Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson’s drawing line has an agreeable looseness that belies the depth of detail in many panels—and those panels will often be in quite non-standard configurations. Some of his finest strips feature tables that stretch over multiple panels, with each panel hosting a different person. He also knows when to omit background detail all together and focus on the character alone. And what characters they are.

Alice Otterloop is undeniably the star of the strip, ruling over her pre-school chums with a certainty born of being four, but I’m partial to her excessively introspective brother, Petey, and her unibrowed friend Beni. Throw in Dill (a combination of Linus, if Linus loved grocery carts, and Pig-Pen, if Pig-Pen ever washed, to stretch the Peanuts analogy), Nara, bucket-head Kevin, and over-mothered Marcus and you have a strip that never fails to amuse and, frankly awe.

And never forget: You can’t tie down a banjo man! Eternal words of wisdom . . .

(Images from Shapes & Colors by Richard Thompson. Buy it!)

Still More Pop Peanuts

Pop culture, broadly speaking, refers to the trends, the names, the events that define a particular time and place for the people who live then and there—the zeitgeist, if you will, though focused on particulars rather than the abstract. So it’s no surprise that Charles Schulz’s Peanuts captures much of the culture of its time, even as it transcends its time and becomes “classic” in every sense of the word.

The most recent entry in Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts series, 1975 to 1976, ratchets up the popular culture quotient, with references to once-current events and figures appearing with greater frequency than in our earlier examinations of the series. Billie Jean King extends her reign as the most frequent referent (playing, in Sally’s imagination, mixed doubles alongside Harry Truman against George Washington and Betsy Ross, on December 26, 1975), while Elton John, Olivia Newton John, Uri Geller, and the wacky Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes also make cameos (the latter on a television set watched by Snoopy’s brother, Spike, who shows up for the first time in 1975).

The first appearance of a soccer ball in Peanuts occurs in this collection (March 23, 1975, hitting Linus in the head), accompanied by an explanation of just what soccer is, needed for an America that was just getting used to the beautiful game. Towards the end of 1976 (a year with surprisingly few Bicentennial references), Marcie and Peppermint Patty have a nice riff on authors with long names (Katherine Anne Porter, Joyce Carol Oates, and Pamela Hansford Johnson, on December 29, 1976). And when Spike is rebuffed in his quest to hitchhike back to his desert home, he hopes that the family that wouldn’t pick him up gets reduced gas milage from their smog control device. That’s vintage ’70s right there.

But our focus here is to examine the references that haven’t aged quite so well, starting with Spike’s putative job at a Harvey House (August 11, 1975):

The Man From Needles

A Harvey House is a railroad station dining establishment associated primarily with the Santa Fe Railroad (and hence, the American West, whence Spike hails). Noted for their efficiency in feeding diners in strict adherence to the railroad timetable, the Harvey Houses (and associated Fred Harvey Hotels) would have been well known to most adults in 1975, particularly given their spread to interstate rest stops and airports as rail passenger numbers dwindled, leaving a Harvey House as shorthand for any restaurant dedicated to serving travelers.

Of note, Spike’s Needles, California, Harvey House is on the National Register of Historic Places and, as of 2008, was undergoing renovations.

And who, pray tell, is Mr. Frick?

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More Pop Peanuts

The newest entry in Fantagraphics’ superb Complete Peanuts project, covering 1973 to 1974, arrived in the mail recently. The last volume, 1971 to 1972, saw an increase in specific cultural references that belie the strip’s reputation as being “outside of time”; it’s certainly timeless, but when you have characters mooning over government-sponsored environmental mascots, you’ve dated yourself.

This new volume sees Charles Schultz cranking up the popular culture references: Billie Jean King (who also wrote the introduction to this volume), Bobby Riggs, Olga Korbut, Comet Kohoutek…and, um, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Today, he'd be Judge K and have his own show on TV

The context of the strip makes clear that Landis was involved with baseball—Charlie Brown and Linus have been summoned to the Little League commissioner’s office—but Landis was the Major League Baseball commissioner some thirty years before the strip was published. Probably not a household name even in 1973 and certainly not now.

It’s possible that Landis’ role in Phillip Roth’s 1973 novel, The Great American Novel, helped bring Landis back to public awareness, but the strip in question ran on April 16th, 1973, and Schultz certainly knew of Landis without Roth’s assistance. So this seems more a case of Schultz playing with his knowledge of baseball and planting a name that has enough comic value to make children smile and with enough resonance to evoke knowing smiles from adult readers with a passing interest in baseball.

1974 saw a much more time-bound cultural reference.

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Who Got Pop Culture in My Peanuts?

If your only exposure to Charles Schultz’s comic masterpiece, Peanuts, is via the “Classic” Peanuts feature in most newspapers that endlessly repeats the strip’s greatest hits, as it were, then you can be excused for thinking that Peanuts floated, unsullied, above the pop culture storms during its multi-decade run.

Thanks to Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts project, which is reprinting the entire series in chronological order, we’re able to see that Schultz did, on occasion, make reference to current events that, to modern eyes, seem quite outdated, like these panels from March 8, 1972 (in The Complete Peanuts: 1971 to 1972):

Johnny Who?

Talk about a time-bound joke! Though the context makes it clear that Johnny Horizon is somehow associated with the environmental movement, he’s hardly a household name some thirty-seven years later.

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