Fantagraphics Books gets possibly the most-deserved “pick of the week” recognition since I started writing this column for Tales of Wonder. The publisher earns it for The Complete Peanuts: Comics & Stories Volume 26 [$29.99], the culmination of one of the all-time greatest comic-strip reprint projects.
With the launching of Peanuts in 1950, Charles M. Schulz redefined the American comic strip as only a handful of cartoonists have done in the history of that popular art and entertainment form. He and his work were and remain an inspiration to cartoonists all over the world, just as the characters he created – Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and the rest – are loved all over the world. That his cartoon legacy has been preserved in 25 beautifully-made hardcover collections is a blessing to comicdom.
“Wait a minute, Tony! You just wrote that Peanuts was collected in 25 volumes, but you’re reviewing a 26th volume. We know math isn’t your strong point, but what the heck?”
Relax, my Peanuts-loving posse. I can explain.
Besides Schulz’s 50-year-run creating the daily and Sunday Peanuts strips, he produced a figurative ton of other drawings and related items for comic books, storybooks, single-panel gags, advertising campaigns, book illustrations and more. This 344-page finale to The Complete Peanuts presents a great deal of that rare material along with historical information to put it into context.
There are gag cartoons from The Saturday Evening Post, seventeen in all, created and sold before Peanuts hit the newspapers. There are seven Peanuts comic-book stories Schulz did in the 1950s and 1960s. His collaborator Jim Sasseville handled most of the art for these Dell comic books.
The book has advertising art and strips, and even a drawing and a recipe Schulz did for the cover of a 1983 cookbook by the Women’s Sports Foundation. He was on the organization’s Board of Trustees. There are special Christmas stories that appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping and Women’s Day. There are Peanuts storybooks, such as Snoopy and the Red Baron.
There are drawings Schulz did about golf and tennis, two passions of his. There are dozens of other spot drawings.
Most moving of all is a remembrance of Schulz written by his wife Jean. “Sparky” brings the great and humble man to life in a manner that made me wish I had met him…and which explains why his work will always be part of me.
This final volume and this entire series should be in every school and public library. I’m deliriously happy that these books are part of my personal library as well. Thank you, Fantagraphics, and, of course, thank you, Charles Schulz.
It amazes me to say this. Until I read Shaft: A Complicated Man by David F. Walker and artist Bilquis Evely [Dynamite; $19.99], I had no experience with this iconic hero. I had never read one of Ernest Tidyman’s seven Shaft novels. I never saw the four Shaft movies, or any of the made-for-TV movies featuring the character. This despite Tidyman being a legend in my native Cleveland before he created the character. This despite my creations of Black Lightning and Misty Knight and my work on other African-American comics heroes like the Falcon and Luke Cage. This despite my long-held interest in adding more diverse characters to comics. Go figure.
Walker and Evely’s six-issue “origin of Shaft,” collected in this trade paperback, has sparked my interest in Tidyman’s famous hero. It shows how his life and his times shaped the man John Shaft would become. It brings those times to life in all their beautiful hope and ugly bigotry while reminding today’s readers that hope remains a precious commodity and bigotry is always just one racist politico away. It’s a solid thriller involving murderous crime bosses, the corrupt politicians in bed with them, their willing accomplices and the innocents caught up in their violence. It’s a well-written tale with guys and solid visuals. I liked it a lot.
The story collected in this volume won the 2015 Glyph Comics Award for Story of the Year. The book also features samples of the story scripts, concept art, variant covers and more. It gives the reader a solid bang for his twenty bucks. It made this reader start trying to figure out he can make time to read all those novels, including a new one by Walker, and watch all those movies. Can we please have an extra month or two this year?
John Shaft lives in a often-violent world. The Punisher, especially in the comics written by Garth Ennis, is the very personification of violence. That’s my takeaway from Punisher Max: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 [Marvel; $34.99] by Ennis with Darick Robertson, Lewis LaRosa, Tom Palmer and Leandro Fernandez.
This massive 424-page trade paperback reprints Born #1-4 (2003) and Punisher #1-12 (2004) and also includes an introduction by Ennis and dozens of pages of behind-the-scenes bonus material. These are not comic books for delicate sensibility.
Born by Ennis and Robertson with inker Palmer could be considered the “secret origin” of the Punisher before Frank Castle officially took on that identity. It follows Castle through his final tour of duty in Vietnam. Yet even there, he has taken on the attributes of judge, jury and executioner. He is becoming a monster and, though there is an indication, he is the willing host of some never-seen demon, he is as much monster as he is human.
When I say Frank Castle is violence, it’s because that is the one constant in his post-Vietnam world. “In the Beginning” by Ennis and LaRosa with Palmer casts him as a monster in a world of monsters. There are few innocents in this world and, more often than not, he cannot save them. This six-issue arc shows him at war with the mob responsible for the deaths of his wife and children, with those who would use him for his own ends and with a former ally who he will judge harshly. He is violence unrelenting.
Castle’s character is only slightly tempered in “Kitchen Irish” by Ennis and Fernandez, and that only because he allies himself with an old friend. The monsters he faces in this six-issue arc are the heirs of a vicious Irish gangster who hated his family as much as they hated him.
Readers who know of my preference for “white hat heroes” – heroes who hold themselves to a higher ideal and who sacrifice their own happiness to protect others – may be surprised by my praise for the Ennis Punisher. But these are not remotely super-hero stories in intent or execution. They are crime stories and maybe even horror stories. They are apart from the Marvel Universe that is simply not a good fit for Frank Castle. They are their own thing, a brilliant exploration of unending war in a world of monsters.
Frank Castle isn’t a hero, but is a most fascinating protagonist. These stories are intense and honestly told with visuals that suit them exceedingly well. They are not for every comics reader, but I recommend them to adults who enjoy taking a walk on the dark side from time to time.
I’ll be back next week with more reviews.
© 2017 Tony Isabella