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THE BEST OF THE 'PEANUTS' GANG, ACCORDING TO SCHULZ

PEANUTS, A GOLDEN CELEBRATION

The Art of and Story of the World's Best-Loved Comic Strip
By Charles Schultz
HarperCollins
254 pages, $45

"Peanuts" will shut down in January. Charles Schulz is facing the challenge of colon cancer. A little shiver goes through every panel collected in "Peanuts, A Golden Celebration." A little fracture runs through every line of text.

Death never took a child in "Peanuts," though sequences dealt with health problems. In 1979 Charlie Brown fell ill on the pitcher's mound, got woozy and saw little stars. Then he is in the hospital and it is sort of serious. We see that he is getting some kind of fluid from a drip bag.

You may remember that alarming sequence. Linus comes off the phone, saying: "I just talked with Charlie Brown's Mom. He's not any better."

Lucy flips: "HE'S NOT ANY BETTER! THAT'S CRAZY! HE'S GOT TO GET BETTER!! What's wrong with a world where someone like Charlie Brown can get sick, and then not get any better?! I NEED SOMEBODY TO HIT!!"

Of course, Charlie Brown recovers.

"Good grief" is a privileged locution in "Peanuts." It is what Schulz gave us in his strip, sequence by sequence. He played with the work of humor, doing reassurance, consolation, and acceptance.

There is a lot of misery in "Peanuts," a lot of disappointment and failure. Kids are anxious, depressed, already phrasing the great questions. Charlie Brown is insomniac. Peppermint Patty is narcoleptic. School gives her seizures.

Angry self-centered Lucy sits in her booth, the strip's resident psychiatrist. Her sessions are short, her advice tart. "Good grief" simply expostulates. It doesn't address. What is good grief? "Peanuts" was almost immediately deep, espousing a theology and a psychology and doing it humorously in a wise-childish language, passing profundities through the comicality of Snoopy's discourse.

You could look up Robert Short's "The Gospel According to Peanuts" (1964) for the Christian reading -- the good news of that good grief. Others heard Samuel Beckett in Schulz's pumpkin patch where Charlie and Linus continually await the coming of the Great Pumpkin. In the fifties and sixties "Peanuts" had a certain existentialist drollery. It constantly drew its bead on the absurd.

In 1958 Snoopy stood up. Snoopy erect radically changed "Peanuts." In the new Snoopy's discourse -- thought bubbles only -- Shulz had grander latitudes, a wider world of reference. Snoopy brought modern history into "Peanuts," the Red Baron of the First World War, Bill Mauldin of the Second World War. He was a flaneur, an actor, a musician, a dancer, and, most ignominiously and most horribly, a writer transfixed by the anxiety of influence. Snoopy is Schulz's second language in "Peanuts," the language in which he demonstrates his virtuosity as a comic cartoonist.

"It was a dark and stormy night." Snoopy knew the terror of art, the immensity of that first sentence. How did one transform that sentence? How did one trope it, turn it, and get past it to one's actual first sentence? In Snoopy's mentality Schulz was free of pubescent mopery and bitchery, the deadpan innocence of his children that was their limitation. With Snoopy, he could be theatrical and literary. He could fly a Sopwith camel, do some early Hemingway, and entertain the question of beginnings. Snoopy got Schulz past the terror of that first sentence, past the restrictive conventionality of his form that was a comic strip called, against his wishes, "Peanuts."

All the while Snoopy is doing amazing and mature human things like rewriting the first sentence of Thomas Paine's "The Crisis": "These are the times that try men's souls," or playing the violin like Paganini, Schulz refers to the actual nature of beagle dogs. He does beagle thought and speech and has Snoopy bang his bowl on Charlie Brown's door. Indeed Snoopy is, as a creature, contra naturam, the very rogue of a beagle, the most loving and faithful of hounds.

"Peanuts, A Golden Celebration" is, so importantly, Schulz's selection of his best work. There is a brief autobiography. A laid-back anecdotal commentary accompanies the selection.

How did Schulz get the nickname, Sparky, which is what his best friend call him? You learn how Schulz situates himself in his newspaper comic tradition and who his influences were.

On his studio wall there is a "Krazy Kat" page. George Herriman is Schulz's great precursor and peer, achieving in the first half of the twentieth century the same celebrity and critical acceptance Schulz has had in the last half of the century.

"Peanuts, A Golden Celebration" was simply a mellow retrospective when it appeared in November. Now it has something of the valedictory about it. Here are the Browns, the Van Pelts, and the other children, 1950-2000, and this is it.

Here is Snoopy, exuberant, delusional, getting larger and more complex in his meaning, and this is it.

The book has a joyous sunburst of an ending -- Tom Everhart's great red and gold painting of Snoopy, which is a kind of apotheosis, a final transformation, Snoopy as deity, as icon.

In this painting, Schulz tells us, "as usual, Snoopy has the last word," and he means by this Snoopy's escape from the mortal bonds of the newspaper comic section, Snoopy's freedom from Schulz himself.

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