Three hundred and fifty-five million people were reading Charles M. Schulz’s daily newspaper strip Peanuts at the peak of its popularity. Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy, and their friends inhabited the most successful newspaper strip of all time, a publishing and licensing phenomenon that crossed all cultures and languages. It’s astonishing to consider that despite this tremendous success, the majority of the 18,000 comics that Schulz created were never reprinted in any form. Those selections that had been published were mostly long out of print. In 2004, Fantagraphics began the mammoth task of systematically reprinting the entire run in a carefully researched, sensitively designed hardcover format. The Complete Peanuts 1950−1952, the first volume in this series, contains hundreds of the earliest Peanuts strips, most of them unseen for over fifty years.

The production of this volume could not be better. The slipcover is beautifully designed, if a little sombre. The only questionable decision is the title lettering by Seth, perfect for the 1950s but destined to become an anachronistic straightjacket when the strip moves past the 1960s. The cover underneath is a mosaic of drawings of Charlie Brown in different moods and poses. The endpapers and title pages are arranged to bring you gradually into the suburban world of Peanuts. Volume one is introduced by writer Garrison Keillor, himself a native of St. Paul, Minnesota where Schulz grew up. The other end of this volume also features a short essay by David Michaelis, ‘The life and times of Charles M Schulz’, explaing the evolution of the strip and the personal history of the creator behind it. Best of all is an interview with Schulz conducted by Gary Groth and Rick Marschall which provides great insight into the character of a man who achieved the remarkable feat of fifty years of continuous daily comics in such an understated way. A particularly brilliant final touch is an index where you can trace each character’s first appearances, their phrases and foibles, and many of the situations and gags that would go on to be long-running features of the series.

In between these sections of words of course are the comics themselves, laid out three to a page so that you can read a week’s worth of strips over one spread. Each Sunday strip has a page to itself. The look of these initial cartoons is very different from what would evolve into Schulz’s distinctive style. The lines are thicker, smoother, the lettering smaller and tighter, the backgrounds more illustrative, the children rounder and younger than the middle-schoolers they would eventually become. The characterisations are very different too. The influence of James Thurber can be felt both in the drawing and in the humour of this early work. Charlie Brown is a rambunctious, wisecracking, energetic protagonist who gets the better of most exchanges, Snoopy is a cute but ordinary puppy, Violet, Patty and Shermy are funny and occasionally thought-provoking foils to Charlie Brown, Lucy is very much a secondary character and Linus is a toddler.

The episodic rhythms of a daily strip are quite different from a graphic novel, so it’s probably better to dip into this book over a few days rather than to try to absorb 300 pages at once, but this material is so entertaining that it’s very easy to continue reading until you’ve reached the end. This is an absolute gem of a collection and a must-read for anyone interested in understanding one of the defining comic strips of the last century.