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With Gary Groth of Fantagraphics, publisher of The Complete Peanuts

Jimmy: Hey, everybody, welcome back to the show. This is Unpacking Peanuts, and we have a special guest today. Gary Groth is here. Who's Gary Groth? Well, I'll tell you in a second, but first, let me tell you who I am. I'm your host for the proceedings. My name is Jimmy Gownley. I'm also a cartoonist. I did Amelia Rules, The Dumbest Idea Ever. Seven Good Reasons Not to Grow Up, and probably some other things. 


Joining me, as always, are my pals, co hosts, and fellow cartoonists. He's a playwright and a composer, both for the band Complicated People, as well as for this very podcast. He's the original editor of Amelia Rules, the co creator of the very first comic book Price Guide, and the creator of such great strips as Strange Attractors, A Gathering of Spells, and Tangled River. It's Michael Cohen, 


Michael: say hey. 


Jimmy: And he is the executive producer and writer of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a former vice president of Archie comics, and the creator of the Instagram sensation Sweetest Beasts, Harold Buchholz. 


Harold: Hi. 


Jimmy: So guys, very special day today. We have Gary Groth, the publisher of Fantagraphics books, which makes him the publisher of the Complete Peanuts on the show today. We were so lucky to be able to get Gary. He is an icon and a legend of the comics community. Started publishing the Comics Journal in the mid seventies, then went on to publish tons of great cartoonists, notably, the Hernandez brothers with Love and Rockets, Chris Ware with Acme Novelty Library, Joe Sacco. It just goes on and on and on, a list of classic alternative comics, and he's also made huge strides towards reprinting, and making available the classics from comics of the past. So having him here today is absolutely a dream come to you for me. So please welcome to the show Gary Groth. Thank you so much, for taking the time to come here.


Gary: Well, very happy to be here.


Jimmy: Well, you're just a, huge figure, in my life as a comic fan, through your work with Fantagraphics, and I just wanted to kind of start off and ask you, so it was, 1979, late 1970s, I guess, when you bought the Nostalgia journal and turned it into the Comics Journal?

Gary: 1976, right, 76.


Jimmy: Okay, so what was your relationship with Peanuts then, when you were just starting out? I'm certain you could have never foreseen that you'd be publishing the entire thing. but what was Peanuts in your life, then?


Gary: Well, it's interesting that you would ask that because most people probably wouldn't anticipate this answer, which is that, I had a very casual relationship with Peanuts. It was a strip that I liked, I read in the newspapers, but that I didn't have a close affinity with. And the reason for that, I think, is because when we started the Comics Journal, we were focused primarily on narrative comics, primarily comic books, peripherally newspaper strips. And I was militantly an advocate for propelling comics into what I would somewhat arrogantly call a mature art form. And there were, frankly, very few newspaper strips, especially at that time. That was sort of after the heyday of newspaper strips, when newspaper strips were, I think, in decline. And I just wasn't paying that much attention to newspaper strips. Peanuts was always there, and, it was a strip that you respected, but it had already acquired the status, almost, of a legacy strip. I mean, it was just a strip that was always there. It was always good, and it was almost taken for granted.


Jimmy: Right.


Gary: It took me some years to gain a more mature appreciation for it.


Michael: Did you ever go back and read the whole thing?


Gary: Oh, yeah. Well, when I interviewed Sparky in 90, I think that would have been 97, I read every single strip I could find, which was probably not every strip, but I bought every book that was affordable, that had been published. I had a huge stack of Peanuts books that had been published from approximately 1950 until that time. But as you know, there was no systematic reprinting at that time.


Harold: Right.


Gary: So I just had to buy all of these scattershot books and then kind of put it together, put the strip as a whole together. So when I prepared for my interview with Sparky, I read every collection I could find, which was probably 60 or 70% of the newspaper strips that had been published up to then. 


Harold: That's a lot.


Gary: and then I created a fairly substantial notebook of quotations, from interviews, my own observations of the strip, this huge notebook that I brought with me to the interview that I could refer to as I interviewed Sparky and which was, I have to say, incredibly helpful when I was interviewing him, you'll notice that I would pull out a quote, a relevant quote during the interview. That was me paging through my notebook, remembering something he said that pertained to what he was saying in the interview.


Harold: Well, you must be the person who was the most prepared ever to interview Charles Schulz.


Gary: I probably was, although I'm not sure there was much competition, but, yeah, I probably was. I spent months doing that. And, I remember, let me see, 97. My son would have been three years old. I was so preoccupied with fatherhood that I needed a little bit of time by myself to prepare. And I remember actually going to, one of the islands around, off of Seattle for two nights where I did nothing but bring all of my research material and a very primitive laptop and pull together all of my notes because I needed two days of complete quiet to do that.


Jimmy: Sure. Well, it's a great interview. It’s the best. It's like the definitive Schulz interview. So if any of our listeners out there haven't read it, they really should. I know it's reprinted right in that Charles Schulz Conversations book.


Gary: Printed in that. And it's printed in a collection of interviews that we did that included mine and three others.


Jimmy: Oh, okay.


Harold: What's the name of the book that you guys published that has that in there? Do you know?


Gary: You know what? That's a good question.


Harold: I know we got some listeners who are very interested in kind of doing some of the background.


Gary: Yeah.


Jimmy: Because like you say, so many of the interviews with Schulz are just very cursory, or they're about the animation or just, boy, your characters are so beloved. No one got into, the nitty gritty of not just cartooning, but the comics business.


Gary: The name of the book you were referring to that we published, with my interview with Sparky is called What Cartooning Really Is: The major interviews with Charles Schulz, came out about three years ago. It's got, I think, the most significant interviews. Leonard Malton did a very good interview with Schulz. And a novelist by the name of Laurie Colwin interviewed Sparky in the 70s or 80s. And, that was a really remarkable interview that had never previously been published. And she came at it from a very different angle. She wasn't a comics fan per se. She simply knew Sparky.


Jimmy: How well did you know Schulz before you did that interview? Had you met him before?


Gary: Not well at all. I met him once. I visited him in his studio. I think it was in 1986 or 7. I actually tagged along with Rick Marschall.


Jimmy: Okay.


Gary: Who is a, great comics historian. And he had a date interview Charles Schulz. And he just casually asked me if I'd like to come along. And I said, of course. And so we drove up to Sparky’s studio. But I was the second interviewer, if you read that interview, the one that Rick did. I only come in toward the end because I really considered myself there as a guest. But I did meet Sparky then, and we did sit in his studio for a few hours. And I don't know if Sparky remembered me from that time. I mean, he might have. But I finally realized about ten years later that I ought to do a long, thorough, career spanning interview with him.


Harold: So glad you did.


Gary: And that's when I contacted him. I probably contacted him in 95 or 96 and asked him if he'd be willing to be interviewed. And he graciously said he would. And then that's when I dove into Peanuts, really. That's when I really studied it.


Jimmy: When you went and went as an adult, and you had this intention that you're going to talk to him and you're reading those scripts, what was your general impression? Having just been a casual reader for years and now you're reading a huge chunk of it, what were your impressions? What were your thoughts?


Gary: Well, I gained, a much greater understanding and appreciation for it. And again, it was so good, and so routinely good that you tend to forget how good it is.


Jimmy: Right.


Gary: Peanuts became part of the landscape and I also tend to think the strip became overshadowed by the merchandising. I remember in 87 when Rick and I were, in Sparky’s studio, and we spent a couple of hours there talking to him. And then Sparky insisted on showing us his museum. Well, he had a little, I can't say it was museum. It was on the second floor of a building. It might have been over the ice rink. And it was completely filled with Peanuts merchandise.


Gary: And he was really proud of this and he wanted to show us all of this. And so we walked into it and it was just filled.


Jimmy: Right.


Gary: And a little earlier in the interview, I remember him complaining that people didn't take Peanuts seriously as an adult strip. And I remember thinking somewhat cynically, well, there's a reason for that because, the images are on beach balls and underwear and everything else.


Jimmy: I'm wearing Charlie Brown socks at the moment.


Gary: There you go. You know, I had a kind of Bill Watterson-esque sense of purity about these things. That affects, I think that probably affected the public's perception of Peanuts. And it might have militated against seeing Peanuts as the summit of the cartooning art form that it actually was.


Jimmy: Right.


Harold: That makes sense. How do you feel about that now? Has that altered or shifted in any way over time?


Gary: You mean merchandising?


Jimmy: Yeah.


Gary: Well, probably not. I mean, I obviously understand the reality of merchandising and that probably 95% of the money comes from merchandising.


Harold: Right.


Gary: And I think in a way that's unfortunate, but I'm not sure not having the merchandising would probably, necessarily alter people's perception.


Harold: But I so appreciate that your approach really was to, when you entered into that world and into publishing, and you said, look, let's systematically make the art itself, the core of this, available to people in a way that if another publisher had approached or never did. I mean, the way people are interacting with Peanuts now through your volumes that take you all the way through, and it's black and white line art, I'm just super grateful for that because that hasn't been the general approach to Peanuts. And I think when you did that, it felt kind of revolutionary that it was getting that due and was getting that focus back on the strip itself.


Michael: Same for me. I, grew up reading the books, the Ballantines that came out once a year, assuming I was reading everything. And it wasn't until the Fantagraphics books came out and I realized there was 10-20 percent never seen. Because I'd read those books 50 times. So seeing new Peanuts from that period was like, great.


Jimmy: Can you talk a little bit about that? Like what it was like trying to assemble this. I mean, obviously we would not be able to do this podcast if you hadn't put together this publishing plan. How on earth were you able to find the ones that were missing, that had never been reproduced.


Gary: Let me skip back for a second. I'll address that. Let me skip back. But it was my intent, as arrogant as it sounds, because who am I to do this but to kind of reinvigorate Peanuts and to introduce Peanuts to the public? Because the public had been. The public knows Peanuts mostly from either the tv shows or from merchandising. And far fewer people actually know the strip than know the merchandise. And I thought that was, you know, one of my crazy ideas was that we would reintroduce Peanuts, the source of all of this and Schulz's real art, to the public in a way that would make an impression.


Harold: And it did.


Gary: funny thing is that Sparky, he was not enthusiastic about the Idea, okay, he wasn't hostile to it, but he wasn't enthusiastic. And I finally persuaded him that it was a reasonable Idea. His first reaction was, oh, nobody cares about the strip enough to buy every series of books, collecting every strip, and nobody's going to care about this. Nobody's going to be that interested in it. And I kept saying, well, no, that's not true. People are going to care about it and it's worth doing.


Michael: Well, did you intend to publish a few volumes and then see how it goes, or were you determined to do the whole thing?


Gary: The latter. It was always my intention to publish every single one. That was my pitch to Sparky. We would publish every single strip in a series of volumes.


Jimmy: It's incredible. Can you talk a little bit about those? Mean. I think one of the things that really makes it stand out from all the other Peanuts books is the decision to use Seth as the designer. Imean, I cannot picture, a more perfect person to do that. Can you talk about what that process was like? And was the family or the estate or whoever involved?


Gary: Absolutely. I mean, Seth was. Seth, was a friend at that point, and I respected him as a cartoonist, and I respected him as something of a scholar of the history of cartooning. And I know we must have talked about Peanuts and Charles Schulz, and I knew he was a huge fan. And I don't remember what I knew of Seth's design skills or inclinations, but it just seemed like a good Idea to recruit him to design the books. And now the family didn't know who Seth was, right? So I approached. I mean, I think once we got the green light, and this was after Sparky passed, and then I started dealing with jeannie, who I should also talk about. But Jeannie is the one who really pushed this through.


Jimmy: That's amazing.


Harold: That's great.

Gary: without her, I'm not sure it would have happened.


Jimmy: Oh, yeah, we just got to talk with her a couple of weeks ago, and she's so delightful and so sharp and funny and smart, and she clearly know Schulz and gets Peanuts and gets the significance of it to others.


Gary: Yeah, she is terrific. I can't underestimate how much she was instrumental in making the complete Peanuts happen. 


Harold: that's great to know.


Gary: The syndicate was sort of indifferent to the Idea.


Jimmy: Really put their finger on the pulse, as always.


Gary: Yeah, exactly. I approached them. Sparky said, drop the syndicate a note and tell them I'm okay with it. and that's as far as he would go. So I did. And the only response that they gave me was they sent me this envelope that had something like two pounds of forms to fill out as a potential licensee. And I remember being so depressed and intimidated by this that I just set it aside.


Harold: Yeah, and that's crazy, given your background in publishing, that you're intimidated by a contract. That must have been some crazy contract to have to. Well, what you're getting yourself into.


Gary: It wasn't even the contract. It was all these forms. I hate paperwork, and I hate that whole labyrinthine protocol. And it was so corporate that it really demoralized me. And I kind of set it aside and I said, okay, I'm going to have to really just gird myself and fill out all these forms and explain what the project is in detail and blah, blah, blah. And then Sparky unexpectedly died.


Michael: I'd like to hear more about how you tracked down the missing strips. That must have been a real challenge.


Gary: You know, it wasn't that much of a challenge. We had-- the museum had most of the strips, and then we found a network of-- I think we got some of them from Ohio, from what became the Billy Ireland museum. So finding the strips was arduous, but not overwhelming.  It was a matter of listing all of the strips we didn't have. And as I recall, Seth might have actually had some, because he collected


Harold: So you had a network of people that support you and come up alongside you and fill the gaps.


Gary: And we kept finding them. You might remember that in one of the books, we literally could not find one of the scripts, like the top tier. Yeah. And Seth actually had to finish one because we only had a fragment of one.


Harold: Wow.


Gary: And we got Jeannie's permission, and Seth actually finished one. Now, we later found that, and we put that into the reprinted version of that volume.


Harold: So was he having to interpolate some things? How close was he?


Gary: Yeah. That's a charitable word. He just made it up.


Michael: Wow.


Harold: I'd love to see those side by side.


Gary: I don't know. We just got this fragmented, like a panel and a half, and we came up with the idea that maybe Seth could finish it. I called up Jeannie and asked her if that would be permissible, and she said, go forit, know. And Seth used his vast knowledge of Peanuts and Schulz's sensibility, and he filled it in. And the funny thing is, I can't now remember what the original was versus what Seth did. That'd be an interesting.


Jimmy: Oh, wow. Now, those covers and stuff, he recreated those images for the covers. Right? Those aren't just blow up?


Gary: No, those are blow up.


Jimmy: Oh, they are. All right. So, my apologies to all our listeners.


Gary: I can explain the design process. I called up Seth, and I asked him if he'd be interested in designing the series, and he jumped at it. So I thought, ok, we have an editorial plan. We have a great designer. And so we put together a presentation for Creative Associates. And that was primarily Jeannie and Paige Braddock. Paige, you probably know, is also an incredibly important, person at Creative Associates. She's been there for ever since I've been working with them in the late nineties. And I don't know how long before that. but she's incredibly devoted to Schulz and Peanuts. And so it was at least those two and maybe one or two others. And Seth and I actually flew down there and gave them an in person presentation of what we wanted to do. And Seth did all of his design work on paper. He never uses a computer and never used a computer throughout the 30 volumes of Peanuts. He would create all of the design on paper, send it to us, and then we would convert that into computer graphics and then send that to Seth for his approval.


Harold: That's great.


Jimmy: Well, they're absolutely gorgeous.


Gary: It was, it was almost instantaneously a kind of classic design.


Harold: Yeah. I have a question. I don't know if you have an answer for this, Gary, off the top of your head, but I'm kind of intrigued. You had to release these, obviously over a period of time because there was a lot for the public to absorb. What was the arc of the sales over the 50 years? Did you notice that certain things, like in the Barnes and Nobles of the world, it would reorder them. Did you see a certain sweet spot where people tended to congregate and say, we want these strips?


Gary: Yeah. The sweet spot was volume one. That's always the sweet spot. No matter what the series is. the first volume always sells the best.


Harold: Any surprises along the way where there'd be a long tale for sixties or seventies?

Gary: I could be wrong about this because I haven't actually sat down and analyzed the sales of every volume.


Harold: Right.


Gary: So there could be a volume in the outsells, other volumes surrounding it. But the first volume has been the best selling book. Most series books will decline in sales with every volume, and that's just because fewer and fewer people are willing to stick it out. If someone buys ten volumes, they've had their fill of whatever it is. But the Peanuts books peaked around volume five or six and then plateaued. And they've stayed pretty steady ever since then, which is pretty amazing.


Harold: That is amazing. Yeah, because that is super rare.


Gary: You expect a decline going much farther into the series. But it did peak around five or six, something like that.


Jimmy: Well, I have a question for you. Going back to 1976 and, you have that casual, relationship with Peanuts and you said it's just something that's so great. And it's always good, and it just becomes part of the furniture, essentially. As the, publisher of Love and Rockets, do you have any similar feelings about that, that book? To me, and I know to Michael as well. Those are like, I mean, I can't imagine my life without Love and Rockets.


Michael: Yeah, never would have self published without having read that.


Jimmy: I don't know what _____ without Love and Rockets. So what is that that people can't-- Oh, yep. It's just brilliant again.


Gary: Well, that's true. I mean, Love and Rockets has become like Peanuts was. You can sometimes forget how good Jaime and Gilbert are because they've been doing it for so long and they make it look effortless, and they are so consistently good. Their work has not dropped off, as some cartoonists do over the course of 40 years or so. Their work has just remained consistently as good as it was from the beginning.


Michael: Yeah, it's genius. So, my first exposure was actually the color Mechanics Number one when it came out, was that a tough decision to go color because Jaime probably…


Gary: That was not a hard decision because we were always desperately trying to find a bigger readership for our obscure alternative comics and turning it into a color comics format. That was a three issue series that would possibly double or triple the readership of Love and Rockets. And our strategy was that the people who read the color Mechanics would then gravitate over to the black and white series.


Michael: It happened to me.


Gary: Yeah.


Michael: I don't know if I would have taken it seriously without having seen it in color.


Gary: Yeah, that was well good. You fell right into our trap then. Oh, yeah, that was our, was, I think he was okay with mean. I'm not sure. I don't remember having to do much to talk him into, mean, I think he had a slight aversion to color because he drew for black and white. I don't think he saw it quite in color, but he went with it because he had the same goal we did, which is to find as big a readership as possible. and it was a pretty obvious and logical decision to make. But it's interesting you would bring up Love and Rockets because that was what my focus was in the early eighties. calling it avant garde, I think, is a little glib, but it was broadening the aesthetic horizons of comics and Love and Rockets.


Michael: Storytelling horizons, too. Yeah, it just changed everything as far as I’m concerned.

Gary: Peanuts was the establishment, and so I was paying more attention, you know, Love and Rockets and then Peter Bagge and Dan Clowes and Jim Woodring and Joe Sacco and all of the alternative comics, than I was to even masterful, established cartooning.


Jimmy: Right.


Harold: And that was your venue to make a difference. Right. That was where you really saw you could expand.


Gary: Yeah. Even though we were publishing in the early 1980s, we started publishing Popeye, Segar’s Popeye and Hal Foster's Prince Valiant. So we were aware of, and we respected previous masterful work, but our main focus was, I think, on creating this new generation of cartoonists.


Jimmy: Well done. it was absolutely seismic.


Michael: Yeah, I mean, these are life changing strips. I mean, for me, Peanuts really shaped my entire life, my personality. And then when Love and Rockets came along, I was already in my 40s. I've got to do this. I don't care if I ever make a penny, I've got to do this. So wouldn't have me these guys if that hadn’t happened.


Jimmy: you have changed people's lives, Gary.


Michael: You definitely have.


Jimmy: Okay, so let's get started. We got your strips.


Michael: I have one more question, because I'm dying to ask my one question.


Jimmy: Michael, by the way, has never asked another guest a single question, not one.


Gary: You're joking.


Jimmy: … something special.


Gary: Okay.


Michael: So I was a Journal subscriber, and when the issue with the top 100 comics of all time came out, that was a big deal for me. And I read it starting at 100, and the suspense was building and building and building. I knew Peanuts was going to be number one, and then boom, it was number two. And I went, oh, my God. My question is, how proactive were you in that decision making, especially when it came down to the final two?


Gary: I don't remember being, we had a group of critics who submitted their list, and it was a numbered list. And so I think it was reasonably scientifically created. So I don't think any of us put our thumb on the scales. I don't think I was involved.


Michael: So it's just points. Krazy Kat got more points.


Gary: We kept pretty strictly to the rating system. It was a numbered scale, so we would tally up everybody's entries. and it was just the Krazy Kat came in first, in Peanuts second. I think Sparky would have approved of that. I don't think I ever talked to him about that.


Jimmy: Oh, it's the most Charlie Brown thing that could happen.


Gary: Perfect.


Jimmy: Couldn't be better.


Gary: There you go. There you go.


Jimmy: So close. All right, so, we're going to take a quick break, out there, for you listeners, come on back in a couple and we'll get to Gary's strips he's picked for us.


BREAK


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Jimmy: All right, here we go. 


September 14, 1957. A very scowling and annoyed Snoopy is sitting in the grass, and he thinks to himself, “of all the things I could have been born, I had to be born a dog.” He continues in panel two, only now it's starting to drizzle. “What chance does a dog have? None.” And in panel three, it's really starting to come down. And Snoopy looks up to the sky to see what's going on. And then he just yells to the heavens, or at least in his own mind, yells to the heavens, “go ahead, rain all over me.” 


Jimmy: So, okay, so that's the first one you picked. Gary, what made you pick not just this, but the selection we're going through? what was your process of picking these?


Gary: Well, the ones I picked, you'll notice, were all in the 1950s. that was in a section that I chose, called on loneliness. And one of the things Peanuts introduced to newspaper strips was existentialism, and that is being alone in the world and recognizing that you're alone in the world. That's that's something that Schulz conveyed exquisitely in the strip. And I guess one of the reasons I picked that strip is it just so perfectly captures that sense of being at the mercy of the world, which I think was a big part of Schulz.


Jimmy: Right. One of the things I'm looking at now, and I know that if we did this or if a cartoonist did this today, the temptation would be to just copy paste the first panel and the second panel. But there's such subtle variations in just the eyebrow gets raised just a little bit. The whites of the eyes are just a little bit more pronounced, and it makes such a difference. Just that level of hand done craft is just so beautiful to see.


Gary: And now that I'm looking at the strip, another thing I like about it is that it's completely without self pity. If you look at the last panel, there's a kind of defiance on Snoopy's face, even though he's saying, go ahead, rain all over me. Even though he's resigned to standing out in the rain. you can see through Schulz's subtle ability to express, to render this expression on Snoopy's face, on a dog's face, this kind of resentment and defiance in the face of this, He's, like, in effect, he's saying, do your best.  I'm still here.


Jimmy: right.


Michael: Yeah, he's talking to Schulz. Apparently.


Jimmy: This is my theory. My favorite character, in Peanuts is Charles Schulz. I like the moments where it feels as if he's interacting with the world and he feels really present in it.


Michael: When we were reading this strip, back in the 50s, I was developing a theory about Snoopy, which might be, kind of crazy, but since Schulz wasn't really doing topical material like Pogo was. But I felt that Snoopy feeling that he was not being treated fairly, know he's clearly the equal of all of them. Or better, that he was somehow dealing with segregation as somebody who was. And they're all exactly the same as the other characters. Just as smart, just as, emotional, but somehow resentful because he was treated like a dog. It was especially this year, 57. It seemed like it was really prominent. He was angry.


Gary: That's interesting.


Michael: I don't know if that's true, but, it seemed to fit that this was an angrier period of Snoopy. He was running around trying to spoil everything.


Jimmy: Yeah, well, I think it's a solid theory. I think we can stick with it until someone tells us different. All right. 


January 31, 1956. Shermy and good old Charlie Brown are sitting on the curb. Shermy says to Charlie Brown, “big people are always asking me what I'm going to be when I grow up.” Shermy, frustrated, stretches his arms out and says, “how do they expect us to know?” Charlie Brown at this point has stood up and is looking off into the distance contemplatively. Then in panel three, they're both at the thinking wall, and Shermy says, “do you know what you're going to be when you grow up, Charlie Brown?” Charlie Brown says, “sure.” And then he walks away with his head slightly tilted down and says, “lonesome.” 


Jimmy: Now, this was actually a pair of strips you picked. I'll read the other one, too, since we're here, which is, 


February 11, 1954. And it's Violet and Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown sitting on the curb. And Violet says, “when I grow up, I want to be a nurse.” Charlie Brown says, “that's fine.” Then Violet joins him on the curb, and she says, “what do you want to be when you grow up, Charlie Brown.” Charlie Brown says “perfect.” 


Jimmy: That's a really interesting juxtaposition of two strips. Can you talk about that for us?.

Gary: Yeah, you know, I labeled these two strips the two sides of Charles Schulz. Because he's known for being a great mystagogue of loneliness and alienation. But there's also a lot of joy and optimism in the strip.


Jimmy: Yeah.


Harold: Oh, definitely.


Gary: And I chose those two strips because they represented the two sides of Sparky. I think there were genuinely two sides. And so in the one, you have Charlie Brown in a kind of striving mode that his goal is to be perfect.


Jimmy: Right.


Gary: And then the second one is he accepts the idea that he's going to be lonely.


Jimmy: Right.


Gary: And they're not in opposition. Right.


Jimmy: Well, right.


Michael: I think the time span between the two strips is a factor, though, because it took Schulz a while to get a handle on his personality. And I think the first one might be remnant of his wise guy period where he didn't not consider himself a loser. He was running around cracking jokes. And it seems like three years makes a big difference on these early ones.


Gary: Yeah, it does. the first strip where he says perfect, that's very early. So it might also have been that, he revealed something about himself that he revealed less of as the script congealed.


Jimmy: That's very true.


Harold: That's an interesting way to look at it.


Gary: There was that part of him and.


Harold: That competitive nature that's in him. That perfect thing, I kind of think, is somebody who's really striving. But we know he's a very competitive person that is often belied by how he comes across.


Gary: Yeah. Now it just indicates that he put all of himself into the strip. Even those incongruous elements and the contradictory elements that we all embody.


Jimmy: Absolutely.


Gary: Elements that are hard to reconcile.


Jimmy: Which Is just not something that was done in newspaper comics, really at all. People had a trait. Wimpy was the moocher 


Gary: and rarely to this day. 


Jimmy: Right. True. 


May 17, 1955. Charlie Brown and Lucy are standing outside conversing, and Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “can you take a little friendly criticism Charlie Brown?” Charlie Brown with no guile and arms wide open, says, “why, of course. I'm not above that sort of thing at all.” He continues, “a little friendly criticism can always be helpful to a person. What is it you wanted to say?”  In the final panel  Lucy says, “you're kind of stupid.”


Michael: That was very friendly. She said in a friendly way, I love this strip. This is one of my all time faves.


Jimmy: Why'd you pick that one, Gary.


Gary: Well, that was to illustrate that there was this brutal side, especially in the 50s, especially early in the 50s, that Sparky more or less renounced later on.


Jimmy: Right.


Gary: And I preface this with a couple of quotes. One was by Al Capp, 


Jimmy: I know this one, 


Gary: who said, quote, “the Peanuts characters are good, mean little bastards eager to hurt each other. That's why they're so delicious. They wound each other with the greatest enthusiasm.” And then Umberto Eco, the Italian intellectual who wrote an essay about Peanuts said, quote, “these children affect us because in a certain sense they are monstrous. They are the monstrous, infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen, of the industrial civilization.” So in a way, I was illustrating that point.


Jimmy: Very well illustrated in those days.


Gary: Yeah. Which is sort of lesser known, a lesser known side of Peanuts and a lesser known side of Sparky.


Harold: Yet, you know, it seems like. I think there was a quote from. Was it Lee Mendelson who said he was with Schulz really close to his death and he said what the strip was all about. And I think he said it was about bullying, where that seemed a little editorial in him saying it that way. Right. That he was, he was really kind of against this. But he's not judgmental toward his characters. He lets Lucy be Lucy.


Gary: That’s right And I think Sparky hated bullying. I mean, he himself was bullied as a child. You know, this was a very transparent depiction of that side.


Harold: Definitely.


Gary: And even though Lucy was obviously very aggressive and very-- could be very bossy, she became much more likable.


Jimmy: Right.


Gary: This was Sparky, I think, figuring out Lucy's personality and making her pretty nakedly offensive.


Jimmy: Right.


Michael: But not as offensive as Patty and Violet. 


Gary: Right


Michael:  They were the queens.


March 6, 1956. Shermy and Charlie Brown are outside among the weeds. Shermy is showing Charlie Brown something on his head and he says, “see that tiny scar?” Then they walk away as they're talking. “I got that last summer when I fell off my tricycle,” continues Shermy. Now Charlie Brown is at the thinking wall. He looks very upset. And Shermy from behind asks him, “do you have any scars, Charlie Brown?” Charlie Brown says, “lots of them.” And then the final panel he says, “but they're all mental.”


Michael: Shermy has lot happening here. He's got a lot of lines in these strips.


Jimmy: Well, that is one of the all time great punchlines too. I think all the mental scars,


Gary: I mean, you can't get much more transparent than.


Jimmy: Do you feel that that was a part of Schulz right up until the end, that he was still sort of nursing some of those wounds from his younger days.


Gary: I absolutely think so. Yeah.


Jimmy: It's wild, because you would think, I mean, with one thing that he wanted to accomplish, and he accomplished it on a level that no one could even imagine. But it doesn't take away those human, know, like the little red haired girl, for know, refusing his proposal or whatever.


Gary: Yeah. My impression is that Sparky wrestled with these things all of his life, and he could very well have gone to reconciling. You know, they still resonate within you. Yeah, man, that know is just such a clear example of where Schulz's head was. Right, and he obviously was Charlie Brown in that panel.


Jimmy: Oh, for sure. 100%. The way he draws the facial expression of him at the wall and everything. I mean, it's amazing that he's really just putting some parentheses underneath two polka dots, but it just conveys absolute existential despair. It's astounding as the art of cartooning.


Gary: And a self awareness.


Jimmy: Yeah.


Gary: and a kind of sense of humor about it that he would just say, it's a funny line.


Jimmy: Yeah, well, that's the brilliance, too, is that he is processing these things that are dark sometimes and melancholy and philosophical, but no matter what he's processing, he turns it into a funny joke. That's like magic. That's a magic trick. I don't know how someone could do that almost 18,000 times.


Gary: And the look on his face in the penultimate panel where Shermy says, do you have any scars, Charlie Brown? And Charlie Brown says, lots of them. It's a funny look of resignation on his face. And then, of course, the last panel is funny and is telling, and that's kind of the beauty of Peanuts and of Schulz and of his, you know, we haven't talked about how perfectly he mastered the comics form, how perfect his timing was and his rhythms.


Jimmy: Yeah, well, can you talk a little bit about that? The four panel thing that was assigned to him? He was stuck doing those four panels for 30 some years or whatever, but, boy, no one has ever made better use out of.


Gary: No, he was able to somehow just choose the most perfect moment in every sequence.


Jimmy: Yeah, well, it's interesting going back to Love and Rockets. I see Jaime doing that these days, too, where he know, really, for the last several years, focused on, it's the same layout or very similar layouts throughout, but the liveliness and the life in the panels is what it's all about. I totally admire that.


Gary: Yeah. No, he's also a master of that-- those same exact form.


Michael: but also, both of them really know their characters. And we've often talked about the fact that these punchlines would not make sense if they came from any of the other characters.


Gary: Yeah.


Michael: So if somebody coming in and reading these, never having seen Peanuts, might not think they're funny because they don't know who these people are.


Gary: Yeah. No, it's I mean for both Gilbert and Jaime, they know and understand the interior lives of their characters, and I think they know them.


Michael: Yeah.


Harold: Right. Yeah. It's not the list of characteristics that they're playing off of. It's the fullness of that character in their minds and their hearts.


Michael: Yeah, but those characters came in fully formed, though. That's the amazing thing. It wasn't like Maggie was one dimensional and two dimensional. It's like he knew her from the beginning.


Gary: Yeah. And they mean. I see the same thing in, I think they started off. I mean, they might have started off with certain schematic characteristics, and then they became these three dimensional characters. And they did that pretty quickly.


Jimmy: Yeah.


Gary: If you start reading Peanuts from the very first strip, you can see Sparky finding his voice, figuring it out. But he figured it out very quickly. Yeah.


Michael: It took, like, three years. Especially Snoopy. The development is the most obvious because he changed physically so much. But, yeah, one day he must have thought, why don't I have this dog think things? It just popped out of nowhere. Just changed everything.

Gary: Yeah. And, he became, and I don't know if you chose one of those strips, which probably would be difficult to convey in a podcast without the visuals, but Sparky really let loose graphically with Snoopy.


Jimmy: Yes. Two of the strips that you selected. One is, March 2 strip from, like, I guess, around 57, where Snoopy, who's doing his classic, stealing the blanket from Linus thing, and just the sheer beauty and fun he is having drawing this comic is absolutely evident.

Gary: Yeah. I wanted to convey how vivacious his line was drawing.


Jimmy: Yes, absolutely. I mean, just look at those birch trees in panel one. You can't get. That's the best birch trees anyone's ever drawn, for God's sakes. That's gorgeous. All right, let's finish off with this one, because I just think this is absolutely hilarious. 


February 22, 1959  It's a Sunday. Patty and Lucy are hanging out, outside, and Lucy is holding some piece of fabric in her hands. And Patty says, “where did you find it?” Lucy looks down at the fabric and says, “he left it at our house one day last summer when we were all playing under the sprinkler.” Now, Violet comes up and gets involved in this conversation, and we see that Lucy is, in fact, holding one of Charlie Brown's famous striped shirts. Patty says, “can you get it over your head?” And Lucy says, “if he can, I can.” Brilliant. So we see Lucy putting the shirt on in the next panel. Patty to Violet. “Lucy's putting on one of Charlie Brown's t shirts,” and she has done just that. We see Lucy in the famous striped shirt in the next panel, saying, “look, I'm Charlie Brown.” And now she's doing a full on impersonation. “Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. Poor, poor me.” This is cracking, up Patty and Violet. She continues to even more peals of laughter from Patty and Violet, as she says, “I wish I had a friend. Everybody hates me. Nobody likes me.” As she's doing this, though, Violet, and Patty notice someone coming. Violet says, “hey, here comes Charlie Brown himself. Oh, boy, just wait till he sees Lucy.” Patty says, “this ought to be good.” Charlie Brown walks right up to Lucy, who looks smug and content as possible in her Charlie Brown t shirt. And Charlie Brown says to her, “well, hello there, Charlie Brown, you blockhead.” Then he walks away, leaving Patty and Violet in absolute stitches on the ground. And Lucy just sighs.


Michael: Wow, a rare Charlie Brown zinger.


Gary: That is one of my favorite strips. I put that under the headline screwball Peanuts, under which I had about five, about. I think when most people think about Peanuts, they think of a kind of a staid strip. Charlie Brown is lonely. he's standing in the outfield with the rain pouring down on him. He's alone. And you forget that Sparky could indulge this just wild, surreal, slapstick screwball.


Harold: Yeah.


Gary: And this was just a bizarre example of that. I mean, it's just amazingly inspired and inventive.


Jimmy: Yes.


Gary: And it's just perfectly exquisitely done. I mean, every panel is just wonderful.

Jimmy: The girls laughing. And I think that's a really hard thing to do when you're showing someone else laughing, because if the whole thing isn't funny and you're just forcing that laugh track on in the background, it's not going to register. But because Lucy is that funny doing this, you're on their side, you're laughing along with her. It's amazing.


Michael: And he's got this cast. I mean, he's got Patty and Violet, who we know, and this is exactly how they’d react.


Gary: you know, the exuberance and the joy that Sparky is expressing in this strip is just so delightful.


Jimmy: It's great. Absolutely great. Well, you know what else was delightful, Gary? Having you on this podcast. It's been a real goal of ours since we started to get you on here and have you talk about it. So thank you for doing that. Everybody should go out and just buy everything from Fantagraphics because it made my life so much better. And, Gary, you've made comics in general so much better.


Gary: Well, thank you so much. That was just such a delightful segue.


Jimmy: Well, I mean, every word. It's very true.


Gary: That's great. Well, thanks very much and take care.


Michael: Thank you, Gary.


Jimmy: Well, that was fantastic. I'm so happy that we got to do that. We got to talk with Gary, and I'm happy we got to, give him a little praise for all he's done, because he's truly been one of the people that's worked hard to make comics what they are today. 


So if you guys want to continue the conversation, and let's face it, why wouldn't you? We're delightful. You can find us on social media, on Threads and Instagram. We're at unpack Peanuts and on blue sky, Facebook and YouTube, we're unpacking Peanuts, and you can always either text or call us on our hotline. And that number is 717-219-4162 so we would love to hear from you, because remember, when I don't hear, I worry. Otherwise, that's it for this week. Come back next week, when we'll be talking more Peanuts until then, from Michael, Harold, and Liz. This is Jimmy saying, be of good cheer.


MH&L: Yes. Be of good cheer


Liz: Unpacking Peanuts is copyright Jimmy Gownley, Michael Cohen, and Harold Buchholz. Produced and edited by Liz Sumner Music by Michael Cohen additional voiceover by Aziza Shukralla Clark. For more from the show, follow unpack Peanuts on Instagram and Twitter. Unpacking Peanuts on Facebook, YouTube. For more about Jimmy, Michael, and Harold, visit unpackingpeanuts.com. Have a wonderful day, and thanks for listening.


Gary: Wonderful.

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