Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What I'm Reading: Complete Peanuts, 1977-78

The Complete Peanuts is a project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  The project is up to the mid-1980s, but I'm a little behind and have only reached 1977-78.

We're deep into the period when Snoopy had superceded Charlie Brown as the main character.  In this volume, I'd say Snoopy appears the most times of any character by far, followed by Peppermint Patty.  Charlie Brown may possibly even be beaten by his sister Sally, who has a longish story arc at summer camp, as well as numerous week-long arcs and daily gags.

Charlie Brown's only long arc is a good one, though.  After the kite-eating tree eats one too many of his kites, Charlie takes a bite out of it, only to be sued by the EPA for dental assault.  He runs away to another neighborhood, where as it happens, a baseball team of little kids is looking for an older kid to be their coach.  He takes the job on, sleeping in a cardboard box at night and coaching by day, but when the time for their first game comes, the opposing team turns out to be his own team from the old neighborhood.  His old team refuses to play on grounds that they would step on the little kids, and Linus informs Charlie that the EPA has dropped its suit.  I think this sequence rivals any of Charlie Brown's long arcs.

As is typical of the later, Snoopy-dominated years, Peanuts has a much more whimsical tone in this volume than in its earlier, neurotic period.  I believe this volume is the first one in which we've seen Snoopy's Beagle Scout troop, composed of Woodstock and other bird friends whom he leads on wordless, fanciful adventures.  His brother Spike comes to visit in a long arc, and there are, I think, three arcs where Snoopy plays doubles with Molly Volley, a hyper-aggressive tennis maniac who is perpetually, loudly disappointed by Snoopy's missed shots and double faults.  There are also numerous strips with Snoopy as a writer, banging out hackwork on his typewriter, one of my favorite of the running gags.

Since we've gotten past the classic volumes covering, say, 1956-1970, each new volume has caused me to question whether I'd get the next.  I suppose I will get the 1979-80 volume.  Beyond that, I expect diminishing returns.  I'm positively dreading the sad, late years when Schulz's hand turned shaky and the art declined, the storylines a morass of recycled annual gags and baroque explorations of Snoopy's extended clan.  But we haven't gotten there yet.

This volume, if not as sharp as the earlier years, still provides a pleasurable re-acquaintance with the beloved characters (including cameo appearances, for the sharp-eyed, of Shermy and Violet!), new characters Molly Volley and the very cute Eudora, and quite a few highly entertaining story arcs.  If you're looking for any of the best-known strips, you should probably stick to an earlier volume, but this is good an example as any of the gentle, later strips.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, tells the story of Bod Owens, a boy who is raised in a graveyard.  His entire family is killed when he's a toddler and he himself escapes only by lucky accident.  When he wanders into the local cemetery later that night, the resident ghosts take pity on the child and grant him the "freedom of the cemetery."  The Owenses, a kindly ghost couple from the 18th century, become his new parents, and a mysterious spectral being named Silas his guardian.

You might think a book about such a situation would be morbid but in it doesn't feel that way at all, largely because Gaiman writes his characters with a lot of warmth and generosity.  The ghosts are regular, pleasant people, for the most part, and treat Bod with more kindness than he ever finds in the world of the living.  For his part, Bod helps the ghosts as well, giving the Owenses the chance to be parents that they never had in real life, finding a proper headstone for a witch burned at the stake in the 1600s, and providing a playmate to children who died young.

The main point of fascination in the book is just how the afterlife works, and Gaiman does not disappoint in either quotidian life or mythology.  We meet an endless succession of graveyard denizens from different eras going about their business, each with his own archaic vocabulary and worldview, who together make up an insular but complete mini-town of the dead.  Then there are ghouls who enter the cemetery through a particular unkempt grave, an ancient demon far beneath the hill who has guarded an ancient king's treasure for 10,000 years, and all sorts of other mystical creatures and spirits operating in the next plane.

Eventually, Bod grows up and must venture out into the world of the living, where he discovers the man who killed his family is still on the hunt for him.  I leave the why, and what Bod does about it, for the reader to find out, but I will mention that the things he learned to do from the dead in the cemetery--fading from the view of the living, entering dreams, and other exotic powers--give him a fighting chance against the sort of ruthless foe who has no qualms about killing a small child.

I would recommend this book to anybody with a taste for fantasy.  The writing is beautiful without being ornate, the subject matter fascinating, the tone dignified.  It is YA and thus aimed at teen-agers, but I see no reason an adult of any age wouldn't enjoy it.  For that matter, I think the material is safe enough for more mature younger readers as well, say an eight-year old who has made it through The Hobbit.  Rather than being scary, the book really demystifies life after death, and may even be a comfort to an older child with a lot of questions about death and what comes after.  I previously knew Gaiman only from his Sandman comics, and am happy to see his talent translate so readily to prose as well.