Charlie Brown tried to kick a football for the first time in November 1951. He ran, his tongue out to show his determination, and then ... disaster. In the final frame, his tormentor stands over his supine form. But it's not Lucy; it's Violet. Where's Lucy? And who, for that matter, is Violet?
Little anomalies like that are among the many pleasures of The Complete Peanuts (Fantagraphics; 343 pages), the initial volume of an extraordinary publishing project that over the next 12 years will reprint the entire run--50 years and 18,170 strips--of Charles Schulz's towering comic-strip masterpiece. The Complete Peanuts will eventually take up 25 gorgeous hardcover books and include hundreds of strips that haven't been seen since the day they appeared in newsprint. The first volume (1950-52) confronts us afresh with what a brilliant, truly modern and totally weird idea it was to create a comic strip about a chronically depressed child.
The name Peanuts was foisted on Schulz by an editor who had never seen the strip, and Schulz always hated it. ("It's totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing, and has no dignity," he fumes in a frank, funny 1987 interview reprinted in the book.) He wasn't wild about The Complete Peanuts either. He thought his early work was crude, and he didn't especially want to see it reprinted. But his wife Jean disagreed, and after his death in 2000 she worked with an editor at Fantagraphics to pull the collection together. "Unlike Sparky, the rest of his family loves those old strips," she says (apparently everybody called Schulz Sparky). "To me, what's happening here is we're getting back to the comic strip--the simplicity, the black and whiteness of it. For some people, the animation is more real than the comic strip, but the comic is what is truly him." She's right. To read The Complete Peanuts is to forget that Snoopy ever did a MetLife commercial.
Of course, Schulz was right too. The early comics are crude, but that's what makes them fascinating. Back then, Lucy is still a toddler, as are Schroeder and Linus, and Snoopy is a puppy. Charlie Brown's best friend is named Shermy, and they spend most of their time with a blond named Patty (not Peppermint) and cruel Violet, a winsome brunet who gets a lot of semifunny gags involving mud pies. Charlie Brown is more into golf than baseball, and he says, "Great Scott!", not "Good Grief!" His personality is different too. He's more of a mischievous prankster; he can often be seen scampering off in the last frame with a punk'd victim in hot pursuit. Once or twice Schulz even breaks one of the cardinal rules of Peanuts: he lets us hear the voice of an adult.