By Charles M. Schulz
340 pages, black and white
Published by Fantagraphics Books
No one ever seems to agree for certain when Peanuts went from its glory years to the moment where it just wasn’t quite as good. And while I’m far behind on my Complete Peanuts reading, I decided to try jumping ahead a bit in the sequence and to give the brand-new Complete Peanuts Vol. 18: 1985-1986 to try and get a feel for what the mid-’80s era of the strip was like in comparison to the greatness of the ’70s.
By this point in time, Charles M. Schulz had turned out a lot of new running gags. Peppermint Patty and Marcie are regularly going to Tiny Tots Concerts, Sally is forever trying to sue people (with Snoopy as her lawyer), and Spike is living in the desert and regularly writing Snoopy with updates. At the same time, tried and true gags involving baseball games and school are still play, a mixture of old and new.
Some of the new strips are just as fun as I remembered the run in the ’70s. Snoopy as lawyer always brings a smile to my face, and the ever-losing baseball team never gets old. Snoopy writing valentines for Charlie Brown serves as such a great contrast to his other love letter strips in this volume that I actually started howling when I got to the line, “Angel food cake with seven-minute frosting is sweet, and so are you.” And when a cannonball fired by Snoopy as part of the French Foreign Legion rips through and smashes three familiar Peanuts settings, long-time fans will feel like they’ve hit the jackpot. On the other hand, I don’t think there was a single strip starring Spike that made me even crack a smile; he’s a character that never quite works and whose presence I began to actively hate over time. Every gag falls flat, with Schulz seeming to feel that jokes involving a cactus need no further embellishment.
The most notable shift in the strip by jumping into the mid-’80s was seeing how much strip time Peppermint Patty and Marcie are receiving. The two were the last real break-out characters in the strip, and the number of strips just starring the pair of them is quite high. It makes sense, too; Peppermint Patty’s out-there comments on the world with Marcie being the voice of reason is fun, and Peppermint Patty makes a surprisingly strong lead character. At the same time, I found myself loving when Schulz occasionally gives Marcie a more whimsical side. Having her interact as a willing participant in Snoopy’s flights of fantasy is a great addition to both characters; her cheering him on or nursing him (as a World War I flying ace) back to health makes Snoopy’s play actions that much funnier.
By way of comparison, some short-lived characters feel like they’re on their way out of the rotation; Eudora appears on occasion for someone to Sally to talk to (as a fellow camper, or someone with whom to refer to Linus as her sweet baboo), but her appearances over these two years are infrequent enough that you feel like she’s not going to be around for much longer on any sort of regular basis. Some long-term characters are also in their decline; ones like Pig Pen and Schroeder show up less and less frequently, and by this point original mainstays like Shermy, Patty and Violet are entirely gone. Lucy and Linus’s little brother Rerun makes a handful of appearances here, a minor character now that will come to dominate stretches of the strips in the following decade.
Schulz has some topical stories in the strip from time to time. There’s a little story about how computer bugs are clashing with Charlie Brown and Sally riding the bus to school, and the rise in home answering machines means we get a particularly funny strip involving them. There’s an extended sequence involving the arrival of Halley’s Comet as well, with attempts to spot the elusive heavenly body. With these stories, though, it feels like Schulz loses interest in them before wrapping them up; the computer/bus story in particular never quite resolves itself, just vanishing as quickly as it appeared without any sort of final punch line.
By this point Peanuts definitely isn’t as fun as it was a decade earlier, but is it still worth reading? I think so. There’s still enough newness in the strips that even when moments don’t work (like the Tiny Tots Concerts which have less impact with each appearance), they’re balanced out with something different like sequences with Snoopy in the Brown family car while they’re running errands, or the occasionally especially strong zinger between Lucy and Linus (whose position in the strip feels slightly usurped by Peppermint Patty and Marcie). I’m glad I read it; now I’ve just got to backtrack for half a dozen volumes to catch up with the strips I’ve missed.