'Peanuts' Reconsidered

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When three flame emails burned up my mailbox I lost half my readership over a crack about Charlie Brown. In spite of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" being the definition of a mainstream, co-opted comicstrip, it would seem that the cynical, iconoclastic comixcenti hold it as close to their hearts the rest of America. Could I have been wrong to dismiss Charlie Brown's 50 years of antics as a "crudely-drawn dwarf's repetitious bumblings?" As luck would have it a new book, "Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz," addresses just such doubts about the most popular comicstrip in the history of the world.

As edited and designed by Chip Kidd, " The Art of Charles M. Schulz" ($29.95; Pantheon Books; 336 pp.) goes way beyond another collection of "Peanuts" strips. The title really means what it says, presenting Schulz' work as a fine-art monograph might. The pages are slick and in full color, even for black and white strips, bringing out a texture and clarity of line you never get with standard reproductions. Source materials vary from original art with the (rare) corrections clearly visible, to yellowing clips of the newspapers they appeared in.

Arranged in a general chronological order, the book traces the evolution of Schulz's style, beginning with an unpublished G.I. sketchbook he created during World War II. Other rarities include his pre-Peanuts gag strips and developmental sketches for strips and books. Preserving the tone of a monograph Kidd adds some minimal commentary, pointing out stylistic changes or historically important strips. Of the more than five hundred strips reproduced, most come the 1950s and sixties, which connoisseurs consider "Peanuts"' heyday for its level of literary wit and shocking acerbity. Normally an example would be provided here but none translate well enough into just words — a sign of great cartooning.

Preservation of the "gag" sometimes takes a backseat to an in-depth examination of Schulz's line, both as he originally drew it and as it reproduced in newspaper print. One page has just Charlie Brown's head in extreme close-up, the better to see the attack and fade of Schulz's elegantly simple penwork. So here's my mea culpa for the "crudely drawn" comment. The book makes it clear that Schulz was a cartoonist's cartoonist. His dedication and natural talent for the daily gag strip format has no equal.

The portraits of "Peanuts" dolls and other licensed properties scattered throughout the book testify to the massive, pop-culture success of "Peanuts." What the book does not get into are the larger artistic ramifications of "Peanuts"' popularity. A quick glance at any newspaper comics page will reveal one of them. The art of American strip comics has died a painful death since "Peanuts" first appeared — suffocated by the weed-like proliferation of cutely-drawn, smart-alec kids and animals who always deliver some dull "payoff" in the last panel. Is "Peanuts" to blame, or just the first in a trend of dwindling comics expectations?

Greater minds than mine see Charlie Brown's follies (pining for the red-haired girl, getting the football yanked away from him, having his kite eaten by a tree) as profound metaphors for man's struggle against the universe, among other things. Sort of a cartoon "Waiting for Godot," I guess. Something about the ease with which the characters got adopted by commercial interests gives me doubts about this. After so many years "Peanuts" began to feel more like comfort-art than anything challenging. But really, just entertaining the idea of Schulz's work as more than doodles means that it has artistic merit.

It certainly deserves as fine a book as "Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz." Kidd has done a wonderful job of presenting this important artist's work in a prestige format. Even non-"Peanuts" fans can marvel at the dazzling layouts and attention to detail. Books like this elevate not just the subject but the medium as a whole. Oh yeah, and it's pretty funny too.

"Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz" can be found at any regular bookstore and smarter comicbook stores.