Peanuts: A Golden Celebration

by Charles M. Schulz, edited by David Larkin

Published by HarperCollins

256 pages, 1999

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The Peanuts Principle

Reviewed by Emru Townsend


When I heard about Peanuts: A Golden Celebration, a collection of Charles M. Schulz' work over the years, I jumped. For one thing, it promised to encapsulate the entire 49-year span of his career (Peanuts got its start on October 2, 1950 -- the "golden" celebration is actually a little early). Second, there hadn't been a new Peanuts compilation in some time.

If you're old enough, you might remember that there was a time when collected Peanuts strips were not only easy to find, but offered in a wide variety of formats. From the early to mid-1970s, you could find, in order of size, the ever-ubiquitous Fawcett Crest pocket books; the Holt, Rinehart and Winston paperbacks; the Peanuts Parade books (we'd call them trade paperbacks now); and a small handful of deluxe-sized (8.5"x11.25") hardcovers.

About a decade later, all that was left were a few pocket books and the newer Topper and Andrews and McMeel compilations, which started with strips from 1985. By the early 1990s, there were no more being produced.

I suspect that without the constant reminder of the books, many people forgot just how clever Schulz' work was. I can hardly blame them: like many long-lived artists, Schulz spent the first half of his career adding ever greater detail and complexity to his stories, characters and artwork -- and then spent the last half stripping them down to their barest essentials.

Until now, I always considered the gold standard of Peanuts compilations -- actually, any comic-strip compilation -- to be Peanuts Treasury, a deluxe hardcover collection of strips from 1959 to 1967. Peanuts Treasury, which stayed in print for about ten years, reproduced the strips beautifully with five dailies to a page and of course full-page Sunday strips (though in black and white, which is just fine).

Most important, Peanuts Treasury captured the strip at just the right moment. Schulz had finally locked down his characters' designs in a way that would remain mostly unchanged for three decades. Patty and Shermy (who, along with Charlie Brown, were Peanuts' first three characters) were slowly being phased out; new characters, like Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Franklin, who would ultimately take the strip in a subtly new direction, were about to be introduced; and more short-lived but nonetheless interesting characters like 5 and Frieda were making their debuts. Furthermore, Schulz had hit his stride, effortlessly balancing continuing stories and one-shot gags, the gang's freedom as children and the adult anxieties and responsibilities they bore and the crushing reality and liberating fantasy they experienced.

In short, Peanuts: A Golden Celebration had a lot to live up to.

At a little larger than 10 x 12-inches, the book is, appropriately enough, a gold mine for us lifelong aficionados. Thanks to the larger page size, a little less white space and slightly smaller images, A Golden Celebration fits seven dailies to a page, with Sundays -- occasionally color -- taking up the space of three dailies. (In the mid-1970s, comic strips were given more vertical space, which is why your local newspaper's Peanuts reprints may have been stretched to fit. Here, the larger strips lead to more varied layouts and one or two less strips per page.) At 250-plus pages, that means a lot more strips than any of the deluxe hardcovers. The smaller reproduction doesn't hurt the images in the least; in fact, side-by-side comparisons between A Golden Celebration and Peanuts Treasury revealed that the former's images were crisper and yielded more detail than the latter. Furthermore, by including the dates in the panels (which had been deleted in the pre-Topper books), there's a greater sense of context, of seeing how strips related to each other. In fact, the only problem with the reproduction has to be the addition of a light gray background to the black and white strips. It reminds me of an anti-copying tactic I've seen before; whatever the reason, the slightly diminished contrast bothered me at times.

The book's best feature is its presentation. The strips are mostly in chronological order and it's always interesting to watch the gradual evolution of the characters' appearances and characters -- and, of course, to see how their places in the hierarchy shift. Violet, "Pig-Pen," 5 and Frieda (how many people remember them?) are long gone; "Rerun" has largely taken Linus' place. Also, there's the evolution of Schulz's stories. Purists and older readers might decry Schulz' going easier on Charlie Brown; in later years, after all, he managed to find love and hit a home run to win a game without the other shoe dropping. Younger readers might be surprised to learn just how much meaner Peanuts used to be: characters got more than their share of wallops, humiliation and verbal abuse (the final sentence of the very first Peanuts strip is Sherman's "How I hate [Charlie Brown]!") But at the same time, it was also more tender, though guardedly so: when Linus first gets glasses, Lucy makes a confession to Charlie Brown that the first time she saw him come home with them, "he looked like a little owl! It almost broke my heart." (Of course, she then immediately threatens to pound Charlie Brown if he ever tells anyone what she said.)

Also appreciated are the occasional breaks where the focus shifts to other aspects of Peanuts, like the animated specials, stage adaptations, or behind-the-scenes stuff like how the Sunday strips are colored. I particularly liked the six-page "Compliments and Comments," which reprints letters received in response to particular strips -- and only one of them is a compliment! One in particular, written in 1969, takes exception to depicting "Negro and white children... portrayed together in school." As it happens, that's also the only one without the strip that prompted the comment, which is unfortunate; it's actually even more innocuous than the one shown with it. Interwoven among all this are comments from Schulz himself and the book's editor. By my estimate, half the pages have some kind of commentary, which range from the very general (for instance, a comment on why there are no adults seen in the strip) to the specific (often, the inspiration for a particular strip). Schulz' comments are candid, often funny and sometimes surprisingly acidic. In light of the fact that he announced his retirement a few months after the book's release and died a few months later, some of his words are unintentionally sad.

Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell selected most of the strips for the book, and I imagine he had a hard time doing it: condensing almost 18,000 strips into a capsule like this must have been a daunting task. Overall it's a fine selection and there were some surprises even for me: there were some strips I had never seen in print before, which suddenly added new dimensions to strips I already knew well. Still, Peanuts: A Golden Celebration feels incomplete. This is hardly an indictment of McDonnell's selection, but more of a testament to the breadth of Schulz' work. There's just so much missing: Snoopy's mission for the Head Beagle and his own stint as top dog; the introduction of 5 and everyone's thoughts on having numbers instead of names; the hilarious melodrama of "The Mad Punter"; Linus and Snoopy's vying for the same girl. For people who don't know, there's so much to learn; for those of us who do, there's so much we want to revisit. To truly celebrate Peanuts, this should be the first step in reproducing every single strip featuring Charlie Brown and the gang. Charles Schulz did so much for us; can we do any less for him? | March 2000


Longtime Schulz acolyte Emru Townsend is a freelance writer living in Montreal. His interests in animation, writing, and black history are combined on his Web site. Steeped in Peanuts lore as he is, it still would have taken him much longer to get dates and publishers right without the help of Jym Dyer's Peanuts bibliography.