Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Complete Peanuts: 1950 To 1952

Charles Schulz wasn't the first cartoonist to draw little kids talking like adults, but he was the first to use a daily comic strip to locate and express the peculiar neuroses of childhood. The cast of Peanuts dreaded school and lost at games, and even in the midst of enjoying the dreamy idleness of kid-dom, Charlie Brown and company had fleeting fears of going through life unnoticed, or of having their interests mocked. On the cover of the first volume of Fantagraphics' ambitious The Complete Peanuts series—scheduled to come out twice a year over the next 12 years—cartoonist Seth conveys the strip's tone through minimalist design, dark colors, and a sketch of Charlie Brown scowling directly at the reader. It's a bold bit of anti-marketing, an overt attempt to reclaim Schulz's work from the admen and merchandisers who made the cartoonist rich by sucking most of the sting out of his art. The material in The Complete Peanuts: 1950 To 1952 (due out April 1) finds the strip in its fledgling stages, when Schulz's linework and gag sense were cleaner, and Charlie Brown was more a mischievous scamp than a lovable loser. But as early as seven weeks into the strip's existence, Schulz had already penned a quintessential Peanuts, with Charlie Brown and Shermy staring forlornly at the ground for three panels before the latter sighs, simply, "Yup … well … that's the way it goes!" in the fourth. By the end of 1952, Schulz has begun to make jokes rooted in the way children sometimes feel burdened by their cutesy clothes and toys, and how they respond to personal frustration by lashing out at each other. (A handy index points the reader to the strips' themes, like "Charlie Brown, insults to, re: size & shape of head.") It's a necessary flaw of archival projects that the first installment of The Complete Peanuts will likely be one of the weakest, though that doesn't make the book any less entertaining. And, for those seeking more immediate gratification, there's a companion volume, Charles M. Schulz: Li'l Beginnings, published by The Charles M. Schulz Museum and available exclusively through the museum's web site. Collecting the three years' worth of single-panel "Li'l Folks" gag cartoons that Schulz sold to his hometown paper before becoming a syndicated comic-strip artist, Li'l Beginnings is at once more awkward and more sophisticated than the first years of Peanuts. The drawing evolves from detailed to exquisitely spare, while from the start Schulz's melancholy little kids sit in classrooms and say things like "My mere presence here indicates I must be out of my mind." Li'l Beginnings editor Derrick Bang even goes The Complete Peanuts' index one better, providing detailed commentary on almost every page, and locating the roots of Schulz's morose personality in his early efforts. Schulz would gradually find the confidence to pour a lifetime of personal pain and embarrassment into Peanuts, and to make this bleak material funny and homey. Many adults grew up reading Peanuts collections, getting lost in the truthful comic rhythms and the way the seasons gradually shift from page to page and year to year. It's a joy those adults will share with their own children, which is one of many reasons why Li'l Beginnings and The Complete Peanuts: 1950 To 1952 are as essential as pop texts get.

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