I've been hoping for years that somebody would finally decide to republish a complete edition of "Peanuts". And Fantagraphics have finally done it. This is the first of a series of (roughly) 20 volumes, to be brought out at six-month intervals, comprising every single Peanuts strip that ever made it into print. It's a mountain, but like all good mountains, it contains treasure. Peanuts' reputation has been soiled by the association with greeting cards and general feelgood marketing hoo-hah, and it's gratifying to learn from an interview in this book that this seems to have bothered Schulz himself in later years.
In these first couple of years, he hasn't quite hit his mature style - that flat, side-on, deadpan, almost existential chilliness that characterises the best work. The characters are still being played around with; it takes him a few months to get Lucy's eyes right, and Charlie Brown has a wiseguy quality that seems quite peculiar, if you haven't read these early ones before. But the evidence is there. "Peanuts" (Schulz hated the title, which was imposed by United Features - he thought it undignified) was always the saddest and darkest of comic strips. Charlie Brown's loneliness, Linus' scholarly naivete, Lucy's aggression, Snoopy's indifference are only ever temporarily soothed. These early strips tend to be excessively wordy, and Schulz is a little too fond of showing off what a good draughtsman he is, but from the very first strip ("Good ol' Charlie Brown...How I hate him!") he knows where he's going.
There's an intelligent foreword by Garrison Keillor, and a good afterword by David Michaelis, who is working on a biography. There's also a long and fascinating late 80s interview with Schulz, in which he comes across as modest, self-doubting, a natural worrier and a thoroughly conflicted human being - sound familiar? - but also remarkably opinionated and certain when it comes to his job: he respects Robert Crumb, but not Garry Trudeau, who he regards as "unprofessional". Those who've been put off by books like "The Gospel according to Peanuts" will be surprised to learn that he accepted the term "secular humanist" to describe himself, and if his evident distaste for Trudeau's work can be ascribed to his disapproval of political satire, I'll never forget a wonderfully mordant strip he wrote at the height of the Vietnam war. Marooned at summer camp, Linus gives a campfire speech in which he quotes some stirring Biblical passages on our loved ones overseas - and then throws all his credibility away by inquiring "Incidentally, has anyone here ever heard of the Great Pumpkin?"
It's not just Peanuts fans or comic fans who should buy this book. Schulz was one of the most widely-read and influential artist/writers of the last century. Anyone with an interest in what millions of people read every day should keep up with this edition, which is beautifully produced and admirably discreet in the presentation. Just like the work of its creator, then. Top marks to Fantagraphics and to everyone else involved. I think the author would have been embarrassed but pleased by the whole thing.