Charles Schulz
Schulz’s Youth

The publishing world is doing right by Charles Schulz; virtually everything the man did is making its way back into print. So now, alongside Fantagraphics’ steady reissue of all the Peanuts strips, we also have available a wealth of side-projects. That includes this series of cartoons which Schulz drew in the ‘50s and early ‘60s for Youth, a magazine aimed at religious teens in the Church of God (Anderson) movement, with which Schulz himself was affiliated.

The content of the strips doesn’t seem especially promising — I mean, cartoons about church socials and god-fearing teenagers? That sounds pretty dull even by the unexacting standards of The Lockhorns or Marmaduke. But Schulz is an expert at finding the point where the bland meets the loopy. And besides, he clearly has a real, albeit wry, love for the world of the faithful, in which cosmic themes and mundane concerns wander confusedly about each other until their heads conk together. “The topic before the panel tonight is ‘What do you think it was that was bugging ol’pharoah?’” declares one puzzled-but-earnest-looking youth. “My girl and I have a religious problem, Mom. She says Ah-Men and I say Ay-Men,” explains another. A third tells a young woman, “Last night, just before I went to sleep, I prayed that if I asked you for a date, you’d accept… Sort of puts you on the spot, doesn’t it?” A fourth stands up clutching a notebook and, as the characters around him stare forward with blankly bemused expressions, declares “The minutes of the last meeting were read and accepted. Isn’t that wonderful? That sort of gets me right here!”

That last is a perfect Schulz non-joke — the funny bit isn’t so much a punchline as an aphasiac misfiring of neurons. But for all its genius, the timing feels a bit off. In his Peanuts strips, Schulz was working towards perfecting an idiosyncratic mastery of comic flow — obscure, methodically unfolding in-jokes delayed from panel-to-panel; offhand, mistimed punchlines followed by flat expressions of exasperation; space-slapstick-space-space. Schulz tries to cram this effortlessly wrong-footed approach into a single panel, but it doesn’t quite work. What he ends up with instead are really long captions, which take a moment — or sometimes several moments — too long to detonate. And not in a good way.

Still, there’s no cloud that doesn’t have its pot of silver lining, as Linus might say. At the time he was working on these cartoons in the ‘50s, Schulz had not simplified his drawing as much as he would in later years. The larger format, and the use of full-sized people instead of children gave him a chance to really strut his stuff, and he enjoys it fully. You can almost feel his delight in some of the scenes which feature six year-olds being instructed by teenagers. The adolescent’s whole body is folded at the waist and knees; if the teacher stood up, he’d be (a) about twice times the height of an actual adult human and (b) completely unable to fit in the panel. The kids, of course, all have enormous heads and quizzical expressions. It’s a look at what would have happened if one of those off-camera adults in Peanuts had ever been squashed down to fit in the strip.

As this suggests, many of the best moments here rely on playing with scale in a way that was more or less impossible in Schulz’s regular feature. Everywhere lanky teenagers stretch up to the ceiling or drape out across furniture in a rush of long, fluid pen lines — in one gag a diminutive mother is forced to hurdle her sons’ surreally extended appendages in order to get from one side of the living room to the other. In another panel elegant enough to make Hank Ketcham jealous, a teen lies on his back with his legs extended way, way up in the air. He’s talking on the phone, and the gracefully curving cord contrasts with the slightly wavy motion lines extending from the boy’s shoe, which has fallen off his foot. “Could you hold the line for just a moment?” he asks. “I think I’m about to be hit on the head with my own shoe.” Or there’s the one with the over-sized African mask which seems about to swallow its wearer’s entire torso (as far as I can tell, from the gag, the mask is there entirely because Schulz felt like drawing it.) Or, my absolute favorite, a picture of a teen shouting off into the distance “Okay! All set for the wieners!” Beside him, and dwarfing him, is an illustration of an absurdly gargantuan, semi-stylized fire, set against a quietly spectacular night-time background of slanting brush strokes and blots(.

Toward the back of the book is a separate group of cartoons, again with a church theme, but this time featuring children. It’s from 1965, when Schulz was at the height of his powers, and the problems he had working in single-panel strips have largely evaporated. The art is pared back, and a couple of the captions still drag a bit. But, for the most part, the writing has the whimsical, absurdist economy of Charlie Brown’s best gags. Indeed, the panels are almost indistinguishable from Schulz’s more famous work. You can easily see Linus extending his hand and walking across a room declaring, “Hi! I’ve just been told that I am one of God’s children…who are you?” or Sally furrowing her brow in frustration as she exclaims “Just when I was getting strong enough to be able to defend myself, they start telling me about sharing!” Nobody writes cynical/sweet fuddy-duddy koans like Schulz. Someday, no doubt, we’ll get a book of his margin doodles, and they’ll be great too.

This review first ran in the Comics Journal.

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