Complete Peanuts, 1953-1954, The: by Charles M. Schultz, 325 pages

           Bill Watterson was right not to license his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes for animated specials or merchandise. He feared that the essence of the irreverent six-year-old he created would be lost in the merchandising empire his syndicate proposed. This is what happened to Peanuts, at least until a collection (now in its second volume) of the early strips reminded us of its original spirit.

          I first met the Peanuts gang in 1979, when I arrived at my American cousin’s house from Nicaragua. Peanuts characters lived as patterns on her bed sheet and pillows, and her scruffy Woodstock doll slouched around the house with a limp neck. On Sundays, my grandfather and I would split his Spanish newspaper—he’d take news and sports, and give me the entertainment pages and the comics. I’d bypass the Spanish version of Peanuts, which lost considerable charm in its translation as Rabanitos, literally, “the little radishes.” With the exception of the Christmas special with the pitiful holiday tree, the animated Peanuts didn’t hold my attention either. In short, Snoopy and his friends were little more than a “sno-cone machine” brand.

            Yet long before Peanuts was a brand, it was magic. While much has been written about the pathos and the keenly developed psychology of the characters, I can’t get over how much action Schultz could fit inside a five-inch-by-five-inch panel. Comic strip artists, Watterson among them, have complained that the incredibly shrinking newspaper column inch reduced strips to talking heads. If this was a problem for Schultz, you’d never know it from the amount of movement in his strips. Characters exchange candy while sitting on sidewalk curbs, they lounge on rain drains, they dive for marbles, and share umbrellas in the rain—against backgrounds that complement but don’t overwhelm. In “The Croquet Game,” a particularly inspired Sunday strip, Schulz manipulates perspective and angles to put us in a vibrant playground—where the characters’ comedic business reflect their personalities, and we can hear their squealing, running, and the “klunking” of the croquet ball. Some of the funniest strips are the silent ones, in which there are no speech balloons to distract us from Linus’s resourcefulness or Schroeder’s creativity.

            Sure, we see ourselves in the characters. In this edition, we may identify with Pig Pen, who is introduced, the short-lived character Charlotte Braun, or any of the other regulars. We may even see sides of ourselves we’re not so crazy about: “Lucy,” I’ve been called when I’m at my fussiest. (You have to believe me: a sandwich needs a mustard happy face, with cheese on the mustard side, and must be diagonally cut in fourths or else the flavors vary chaotically from bite to bite.)

            Schultz once wrote that what made Watterson’s cartoons admirable were simply that they were “fun to look at.” So are his. That’s as much a part of what has made both the strip—and the brand (first used by Kodak in 1955)—successful for more than fifty years, whether as Peanuts or Rabanitos. –Karla Pérez-Villalta ($28.95, Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way, Seattle, WA 98115, <www.fantagraphics.com>.)