I loved staying with my grandparents in Gloucestershire. They had a massive place filled with fun things for children, a huge garden, and even a treehouse.
One of the “fun things for children” was Screwball Scramble, a dexterity maze game that I always got good fun out of.
Another was the immortal and endless dancing penguins.
One – less toyish thing – that I always looked forward to, was the vast collection of Peanuts books stacked neatly on a chest of drawers in the smaller of the rooms my brother and I alternated between when we stayed.
The house was sold a few years ago, and most of the contents passed down to family members. I ended up receiving a whole lot of these Peanuts books that I had so enjoyed.
At the time I found it incredible I was the one who got them, when there was an entire backstory about these books having been sent monthly to my aunt from her aunt (my great aunt) while she (the great aunt) had been living and working in America.
I suppose I always felt that the intense value I placed on them would have been shared by the true owner, and that she would have wanted to have the collection.
Then again, perhaps my fondness for the books was less of a secret than I thought, and contributed to where they ended up.
Last week I found myself reading Good Ol’ Charlie Brown from the collection.
Having read David Michaelis‘ biography of Schulz when it came out 7ish years ago, I haven’t been able to read Peanuts the same since. Every minor detail of a strip becomes entwined with knowledge about Schulz’s life and interactions (especially with women), and his difficult relationships with “success”, existentialism, anxiety, and paranoia.
But we can talk about that another day. Or you can read the biography.
Let’s instead talk about another aspect of the Peanuts books from this era. A way that they are subtly deceptive.
These unassuming paperbacks don’t seem any more substantial than a similarly-sized collection of comic strips like Garfield. Yet they fit four 4-cell strips on a double spread, compared to just two 3 or 4-cell strips in the same space.
From the get go they’re already more than twice as dense as your average modern comic strip book.
And this is noticeable, when you sit down with one thinking you’ll get through it over one cup of tea.
For this reason I didn’t attempt the book from start to finish, page by page. I just kind of darted around, for fun.
And, doing so, I found it pretty weak.
Many of the jokes seemed obvious, lazy, pandering, …, all the things comic strips produced by solo authors under deadline pressure often simply are. It’s not really the author’s fault; that’s just the nature of having to churn out regular content. It is the life of a syndicated comic strip artist.
…as I increasingly leapt about inside the book, I found my early sample had been misrepresentative.
Not only were most of the strips actually pretty entertaining, but many of them were profound.
The three Linus episodes are all saying something completely different, but from the same place. They could almost be one strip with different text overlaid. None of them are going for “haha funny” per se, but there is something going on there. That first one, in particular, caught me completely off guard.
When I came across the triplet I recalled a strip from later in the book that I had already read in my jumping about the pages. It was another with Linus and a tree. I wondered why Schulz (or whoever compiled the book) had chosen not to include them all on the same pages.
When I found that strip again, I realised it was a different tree, and Linus was wearing dungarees.
There’s something going on here. It’s not just some cartoonist churning out a strip a day.
A subtle echo, not quite a callback…
…and it’s the kind of thing that makes Peanuts special to me, for more than just pleasant associations of weeks spent in treehouses at my grandparents’.