I read Peanuts my whole life, and I don't know why. It never made me laugh. The gags were lame and predictable. Lucy was always going to pull the ball away right before Charlie Brown could kick it. Snoopy was always going to type "It was a dark and stormy night." The great pumpkin was never going to show up. But in this initial installment of The Complete Peanuts, a series that reprints Charles Schulz's life work, the strip's first two years are on display, and I've finally come to appreciate the man's genius.
In the beginning, Peanuts was surprisingly vital and full of angst. While it may be tame by today's standards, the punch line of the very first cartoon, "How I hate him!" is not exactly reflective of the conformist optimism of 1950s America. In another strip, Charlie Brown, after being asked to play marbles, replies, "That would be fineÉ if I could winÉ but I'd probably loseÉ then I'd get depressedÉ then I'd be real grumpy, and wouldn't talk to anyone, and I'd hate myselfÉ Thanks, anyway." This stuff is a long way removed from Linus' obsession with his security blanket.
Linus was in fact not even introduced until September of 1952, and did not receive his security blanket until years later. Indeed, very few of the characters you and I know so well were present in the early strips. The first time Charlie Brown tries to kick a football, Lucy's not the one holding it. Lucy's character hadn't been introduced yet either. The Peanuts cast is so familiar it seems always to have existed, and it's exciting, perhaps a little creepy, to see these characters appear for the very first time in The Complete Peanuts, often in larval forms.
The Complete Peanuts is an ambitious project. Over the next 12 years, Fantagraphics Books plans to publish an installment every six months until all 18,170 of Schulz's strips have been reprinted. It's hard to imagine that many people will have the patience for, or interest in, the entire collection. Fortunately, the strip's heart and soul can be found in these first few volumes, before Schulz officially switched on to autopilot. AARON BEAM