When it debuted in 1950, the world of "Peanuts," was a bit different than the one most of us are familiar with. Shermy and Violet were integral characters, Charlie Brown pulled one over on his pals once in a while, and Snoopy actually looked and walked like a dog.
Some things were more true to the strip we know today. The kids had perfectly spherical heads, zero adult supervision and spoke the truth, however cruel. The very first strip ended with the words "How I hate him."
Fans of the strip can now see the earliest panels and eventually appreciate the full 50 years of Charles Schulz's work, thanks to Seattle's Fantagraphics Books, which will release "The Complete Peanuts" in 25 volumes over the next 121/2 years. The first book, 1950 through 1952, will be published April 1.
Co-publisher Gary Groth first suggested the idea of publishing a collection to Schulz in 1997.
"Initially he pooh-poohed the idea. He just didn't see any reason why anybody would be interested in doing that — publishing it or reading it," Groth recalls. "He was always a little self-conscious about the early strips. I guess he didn't think the style had really coalesced."
Groth managed to persuade Schulz, but dealing with the syndicate that owned the strips was more daunting.
"To be honest," Groth admitted, "the red tape looked so intimidating that I just sort of put it aside for a while."
It wasn't until after Schulz's death at 77 from colon cancer, in February 2000, that Groth contacted the cartoonist's widow, Jeannie Schulz, about the project.
Jeannie's chief concern was maintaining the integrity of the strip. Though Charlie Brown and his pals are no strangers to marketing, selling everything from lunch boxes to life insurance, the original strips themselves are more sacred. Jeannie, who turns 65 this month, plays an active role in "Peanuts" product licensing at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates.
"The beauty of the strip is that it's very simple, and it speaks to each individual personally," Jeannie said by phone from her office in Santa Rosa, Calif. "When he (Groth) came down with (the) art concepts I just thought it was brilliant. And it retained the simplicity."
"I had the clear impression that our goals were the same," Groth says, "which was to preserve (Schulz's) legacy and just sort of reclaim the work from the vast merchandising machine."
To achieve this, Groth hired Toronto cartoonist Seth ("Palookaville," "It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken") to design the series. Seth, whose own work was heavily influenced by "Peanuts," formatted the books to reflect the very basic nature of Schulz's work. Three black-and-white strips per page, page after page, year after year. No glitz, no glamour.
Jeannie had also been concerned about the daunting task of collecting the strips. There was no complete collection to draw from. Many strips, especially from the early years, were missing.
"It really just seemed like an impossible chore," she said. "How do you get those strips back?"
When Groth found out that The Seattle Times was one of the seven original papers to run the strip when it debuted, he thought things would be easy. Unfortunately, the Times temporarily dropped the strip during the early years, forcing Groth to search through reels of other newspapers' microfilm and call on private collectors until he had all the dates he needed.
Meanwhile Jeannie dealt with the syndicate.
"She cut a swath through the red tape," Groth said. "And we got the agreement to publish 25 volumes, collecting the entire 50 years of the strip."
Jeannie, for one, claims to be thrilled with the results.
"It is just a book of cartoon reprints on one level," she said. "But on the other level it's a mammoth thing to collect. In five years, they will have collected 25 years' (worth); then people will realize how magnificent it is."
A singular achievement
Though she might appear biased, Jeannie is right on the mark about her late husband's life work. Schulz drew his strip every day for over 50 years without a break, and he did it alone, a singular achievement.
"He drew every line of the strip," Groth said. "Other comic-strip artists have assistants, background artists. He never did that. He did every single thing and wrote every strip."
"The Complete Peanuts" reprints a 1987 interview with Schulz by newspaper strip historian Rick Marschall and Groth himself in which Schulz describes his greatest disappointment, the name "Peanuts," forced on the fledgling cartoonist by the syndicate editor when they first agreed to buy his strip.
"It's totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing — and has no dignity. I think my humor has dignity."
Jeannie remembers her husband — known as Sparky to her and others close to him — as being "always on duty." If he wasn't drawing, he was gathering and processing ideas.
"Sparky really was Charlie Brown and Snoopy," she said. "He was a little of everybody, but he definitely had a lot of Snoopy imagining things. Being a very interior person, Snoopy was his way of expressing all those adventures that he'd like to do."
Snoopy doesn't develop his full powers of imagination in the first volume, and the young Lucy is actually pretty nice most of the time (though Patty is a handful, giving Charlie Brown a black eye out of nowhere on the second day of the strip).
"They were cruel," Groth says of the early-days "Peanuts" gang. "Even Charlie Brown was mean."
"One of the things I really love about it is how Charlie Brown evolves from a mischief-maker into this kind of melancholy figure. There's a bunch of strips where he actually gets the better of the other kids. That goes away later on in the strip."
The "Complete Peanuts' " first volume also includes an article by Schulz biographer David Michaelis which originally appeared in Time magazine. Michaelis underscores the impact Schulz's strip had on an America still giddy from postwar celebrations, where children were happy or at least kept their problems to themselves.
"Charlie Brown was something new in comics, a real person with a real psyche and real problems," Michaelis writes, adding "Charlie Brown reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be human."
Heather McKinnon: email@example.com