As time passed, the strip's sensibility became subtler -- how could it not? -- but The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952 (Fantagraphics) shows the classic comic strip's rough-and-tumble origins.
Fantagraphics Books' publisher Gary Groth first approached Charles Schulz about reprinting the complete Peanuts in 1997 during an interview at his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif. He got Schulz's blessing, but Groth sensed some ambivalence about the project. "I had the impression he didn't really like a lot of his early work, and when I asked him about it, he said, Who'd want to read all that stuff?'" Groth says. The project didn't get off the ground at that point partially because the licensing contract sent by United Features Syndicate, who handled Peanuts, was massive. "I think they thought we're another company trying to make a beach ball or bath towel," Groth says.
After Schulz's unexpected death on Feb. 12, 2000, Groth approached his widow, Jean, about the project. "She was more enthusiastic about it than Sparky (Schulz's nickname) was," Groth recalls. Not only did she approve but also helped Fantagraphics get the license to reprint the strip from United Features. "She cut through a lot of red tape at the Syndicate and explained this was a pet project she wanted to happen, so it did," Groth says. As a result, for the next 12 and a half years, the company is putting out two books a year, each covering two years of Peanuts, and more than half of the strips will be reprinted in book form for the first time.
Schulz, Groth says, was self-conscious about the early strips, and understandably so. "I remember him telling me he did not like cruelty in the strip," he says, "and if you read the first two years, the strip is a little more cruel than it became. That wasn't what became his vision of the strip."
The characters also weren't as defined yet. Charlie Brown borders on being cool, and he certainly wasn't the round-headed Job he'd soon become. The initial supporting cast -- Shermy, Patty and Violet -- have little personality and drift to the background when Schroeder, Linus and particularly Lucy are introduced and the strip's central relationships emerge. Though a toddler, Lucy repeatedly gets the best of Charlie Brown, particularly at checkers, but he keeps playing her, anyway. Groth says this is the hallmark of the strip and that it's there from the start. "The sense that he fails and comes back and refuses to give up, that's there from damn near the beginning," he says. "Schulz's sense of resignation mixed with endurance was always there."
The look of the strip was evolving in the first two years. The heads in some cases are so disproportionately large that the bodies don't appear capable of supporting them. In an early Linus strip, it seems Schulz recognized this, as the whole joke features Linus tipping over sideways from the weight of his head. Looking at these strips, it's easy to get caught up in the differences -- Snoopy still walking on all fours, for instance -- and miss Schulz's craft.
"Schulz was a really good artist, but what was better is that he was a really good cartoonist," says Canadian comic artist Seth, who is the book designer for the series. "Within five to six years, the strip takes on the best quality of cartooning in that the characters cease to be drawings and become symbols, and after a while they're so clearly delineated as symbols that the strip becomes the perfect use of the cartooning language." In the best cartooning, he explains, the drawing isn't a representation of a boy; it is Charlie Brown. "You don't look at the drawings so much as you read them the way you'd read the symbols that make language," he says.
At this early stage, Schulz already was developing his facility as a cartoonist. The strips aren't as spare as those that would come only a few years later. He spent far more time and energy on backgrounds at this point, adding shading and details he'd eventually forego in favor of the cleaner, more iconic look that defined the strip. It also isn't as focused. There are surreal strips -- "Schulz had a real gift for the absurd, which I think is underappreciated," Groth says -- and gags like those found in Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, driven not by the characters but by the desire to have a punchline in the fourth panel.
"To actually read Peanuts in chronological order allows you to see how his mind worked when he was creating it, to actually see where he takes the characters in a certain direction, decides that doesn't work, then retreats from it," Seth says. "For example, making Charlie Brown the musical character for a while, then moving that over to Schroeder." Peanuts has been around so long that it seems like it has always been there, and that's also part of what interests Seth. "Readers will see the Peanuts world built bit by bit," he says. "It's interesting to see him have these characters appear and not truly know who they are, or what their role is, then to see him try things out with them. Lucy is a sweet character initially. It takes a while for her to become the mean-spirited one."
Peanuts has entered the culture in a way few other comic strips have, and to a great degree it's because the strip was personal in a way few others are or have been. "More than any newspaper comic-strip artist except maybe George Herriman (who created Krazy Kat), he actually used the form in a personal way," Seth says. "He created a very successful pop culture product, but what's unique about it is that it's a very personal expression. The strip becomes so personal that -- I'm not sure where I heard this, but it's been said several times -- it's more like looking at his handwriting than looking at drawings."
Gary Groth agrees. "For me it's like this great, ongoing existential tract," he says. "It's really the first comic strip where the artist poured so much of himself into it. It's all about him, his observations, his pain and his ability to endure, too." "The Peanuts strips are extremely emotional works, really," Seth says. "They're funny, but that's not the key thing I come away with. What's most striking about them is the depth of feeling and how personal they feel. You feel Schulz's personality very strongly in the work. He also gives the work something you don't find a lot of in cartooning, and that's dignity."