Mostly clear

BOOK REVIEW From the start, 'Peanuts' was an edgy look at children's lives

Charles "Sparky" Schulz - the man who made millions of dollars from "Peanuts" - lived and worked in Sonoma County for more than 40 years. In 1958, when he first arrived here, he was just 36. Forty-two years later, and with thousands of comic strips to his credit, he died of cancer. All around the world it was front-page news.

No contemporary artist - and make no mistake about it, Schulz was an artist of the first order - is linked more thoroughly with Sonoma County. And yet Schulz could hardly be described as a product of Sonoma County. If any one place deserves credit as the seedbed for his brand of humor, it's surely St. Paul, Minn., where he was raised and where he began to draw comic strips as a talented and ambitious young man.

Not surprisingly, Garrison Keillor - who hails from Minnesota - writes at length about Schulz's connection to St. Paul in the whimsical introduction to "The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952." Fantagraphics Books - the premier Seattle-based comic book company - is the publisher, and more books are on their way. All 50 years of "Peanuts" will soon be available.

Keillor - who is heard weekly on NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion" - insists that Schulz's strip is "more about St. Paul than it is about Santa Rosa." And perhaps it is. After all, there's snow on the roof of Snoopy's doghouse, and there's something harsh and cold, too, about "Peanuts" that doesn't seem to fit the image of sunny, mellow California. There's irony, too, and irony hardly seems compatible with the buoyant state of mind that's often associated with the Golden State. No one says, "Have a nice day" and really means it in "Peanuts."

Schulz's ingrained appreciation for dark comedy had to be formed in Minnesota. It never seems to have deserted him, not even when he became rich and famous in California. Once, when an acquaintance asked him, "How did you sleep last night?" he relied, "Oh, I sleep well enough at night; it's living during the day I find so hard."

Readers of Schulz's strip may not have truly appreciated the depth of the dark side of Charlie Brown - the boy with the bald, round head - and Charlie's friends when they made their initial appearance in print in 1950. But "Peanuts" was never harmless or innocent. It always had bite. In the very first strip a young boy sees Charlie Brown and says, "Good ol' Charlie Brown ... How I hate him!" In the second strip a young girl says, "Little girls are made of sugar and space and everything nice." And then for no apparent reason at all, she punches Charlie Brown, leaving him with a black eye.

Behind the happy, smiling faces of Schulz's characters there was anger, hurt and meanness, too. Charlie himself often had the habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and, more often than not, he had to flee for safety from the company of his neighborhood pals.

Still, there are no diabolical foreign enemies, no dragon ladies and no brutal criminals. There's no real violence in "Peanuts," either, though Charlie Brown does have a cap gun that he likes to fire freely, making the sound of a gun with his own mouth. Moreover, though he occasionally utters the four-letter word, "Rats," that's as bad as it gets. There is no obscenity in "Peanuts," no graffiti, no racial epithets and no swaggering, inner-city gang members.

Everyone looks white and middle class. And, of course, with the exception of Snoopy, all the characters in "Peanuts" are kids. There isn't a single parent anywhere, as though parents had suddenly disappeared, leaving the whole world to children to do as they want. And yet these children often speak with adult voices and adult attitudes. In a curious way, "Peanuts" offered Americans a strange sort of escape from a world anxious about the atom bomb, aging, and juvenile delinquents.

You might enjoy the strip without analysis or reflection, or you might ponder its deeper, underlying meanings. Almost every critic who has written about "Peanuts" has seen it a kind of cultural document - a reflection of the American national character and American identity. Umberto Eco, the world-famous Italian literary critic and the author of "The Name of the Rose," observed, "The world of Peanuts is a microcosm, a little human comedy for the innocent and for the sophisticated."

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