The Bitter and the Sweet: The Complete Peanuts: 1975-1976

Posted by on April 28th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Clough reviews the 13th volume in Charles Schulz’ The Complete Peanuts series, covering 1975 and 1976.

Throughout Peanuts‘ glory years in the ’60s, when it was not only the greatest strip on the comics page, but also the most popular, creator Charles Schulz mined a great deal of humor from the most melancholy or abusive of situations.  All love was unrequited, all baseball games were lost, and the characters drifted from one disappointment to the next.  The tenor of the strip slowly shifted as Snoopy’s fantasy life became a more dominant element, transforming Peanuts into something a bit lighter when he became Joe Cool, the World War I flying ace or an Olympic athlete.  That fantasy life occasionally bled over into the lives of the other characters, but never quite involved them.

Indeed, even as Schulz introduced Peppermint Patty and Marcie, both characters were tinged with a kind of sadness the other kids (especially the earlier characters) never dealt with much.  Schulz still managed to inject achingly biting humor into Patty’s crisis over her appearance or Marcie’s inherent (and self-aware) status as an outsider.  The same was true for the mainstays who continued to be key figures in the strip, like Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Sally.  Everyone had some degree of pathos to deal with when they were the focus of a longer story, though Lucy was relegated more and more to the occasional irritant, with Schulz exploring variations on her unrequited crush on Schroeder.

In this volume, everyone gets in on having a fantasy life that bleeds over into real life.  Peppermint Patty and Marcie “borrow” Snoopy’s Sopwith Camel/doghouse for a cross-country airplane race for women, only to have the World War I flying ace take it back at the last minute.  This was an enormously silly storyline that succeeded because Schulz made the reader fully invested in what was sheer nonsense.  Peppermint Patty later withdraws from her regular school and enters what she thinks is private school — but is in reality dog obedience school.  She obliviously completes the program (with Schulz working very funny variations on the theme) until she has her attorney (Snoopy) talk to the principal of her old school.  Schulz spins Peppermint Patty’s anger into her fighting the nasty cat next door to Snoopy (thinking it was the dog in disguise), only to have Snoopy come to her aid.  Peppermint Patty’s obliviousness to Snoopy’s status as a dog was played to its limit here, and I’ll be curious to see if Schulz backed off of that in later years.

Going back to fantasy lives, even Snoopy’s various organs started to develop personalities of their own.  His stomach, ears and feet all started grumbling.  The sentient school figured prominently as well, which I’ll get to in a bit.  Snoopy also spent a great deal of time as a tennis pro, a routine that included his attempt to journey to Wimbledon.  Sally Brown kvetched amusingly (her attempts at humor in the classroom were especially funny), baseball games went about as expected, and Lucy pulled away the football from Charlie Brown once a year.  Schulz always dabbled a bit in pop culture, and that was especially prominent here with references and jokes about Elton John, Olivia Newton-John and assorted famous athletes.

What was different in this volume was that when things got heavy, they got surprisingly heavy.  A storyline from early in 1975 found a terrified Peppermint Patty listening to her house get burglarized while her “guard dog” (Snoopy) was sleeping on the job.  The sentient school was so despondent at being hated by faculty, staff and students that it committed suicide (by collapsing in on itself), something that only Sally picked up on.  Snoopy’s Wimbledon trip was derailed by him wanting to find his long-lost sister Belle (and her disappointing teenage son).  That was a bit of pathos to contrast with the introduction of another Snoopy sibling, the desert-dwelling Spike.

Schulz also added a bit of melodrama by introducing a couple of romances that never quite worked out.  While going truffling with Snoopy, Linus meets a girl named Truffles that he falls in love with—but gets some unexpected competition from Snoopy (who only loves her for her baked goods).  At summer camp, Marcie meets a boy who at first appears to be a bully, though she deals with him violently every time he calls her “a name.”  In reality, it’s a boy who has a crush on her (calling her “lambchop”), which Marcie takes to be sarcasm as a way of deflecting the terrifying notion of having a potential boyfriend.  These strips are funny, but deviated widely from the usual Peanuts formula of a character suffering from unrequited love.  Instead, Linus meets the perfect girl but can’t quite win her away from a rival, and Marcie was the one doing the rejecting.

Visually, the classic characters appear as they were best known for modern readers.  That made the new characters all the more striking, because Schulz started employing a lot of funny-looking drawings.  That was especially true for Truffles, a character with a long face, huge eyes and a gigantic nose.  She looked like a character from another strip in how oddly distinctive she appeared.  Spike and Belle were also funny-looking characters, as Schulz was clearly having a ball drawing variations on Snoopy.  Spike in particular was fun to look at, as Schulz drew him as both ultra-skinny and ultra-plump and threw in a moustache that made him a uniquely ’70s character.  Belle was basically Snoopy with eyelashes and a flowery collar, but that gave Schulz an excuse to draw her beanpole son.

The other notable aspect from this volume was the outstanding introduction from Robert Smigel, best known for his acidic humor in performing as Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog as well as his animated features.  He’s a full-fledged Peanuts fanatic, fully understanding the nuances between years and some of the odder features of these strips.  Unlike some of the introductions in this series, which have felt somewhat perfunctory (“I sure do like Peanuts!”), I finished his essay wanting to hear more about what he had to say.  The covergirl of this collection, Frieda, appears in just a handful of strips.  Never much of a character beyond her boasting of her naturally curly hair, she was as fitting a character as anyone in a volume that didn’t necessarily one character in particular who stood out.

There’s a certain exuberance in this book, a zaniness that Schulz follows with fewer excursions into pure melancholia.  The sheer weirdness of some of the adventures was as big an influence on future cartoonists like Bill Watterson or Berke Breathed (who drew as much from Peanuts as he did from Doonesbury) as the sadder elements were on cartoonists like Chris Ware or Seth.  That’s why reading Schulz’ work in its entirety is so valuable to reader, critic and artist alike, because the depth of its influence can only be truly understood by studying it in chronological order.  Each new volume adds a new layer of complexity to the work as a whole, and certainly puts the lie to the notion that Schulz had run out of ideas by this point.  Indeed, Schulz had nothing left to prove and allowed himself to follow every flight of fancy that struck him, while never completely abandoning the core emotions of his characters.

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