Review: Snoopy: A Beagle of Mars

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This is going to be a bit awkward. Snoopy: A Beagle of Mars is a (mostly) original graphic novel that was released in December… but I somehow failed to properly pre-order it. Then my local comic shop tried to reorder a copy for me, but for some reason, the system wasn’t serving it up. So despite my desire to support my local shop, I cancelled that order and got one from Amazon…. only to find that maybe it hadn’t come out in December as had been announced?? The book claims a publication date of June 2020, the copyright date in the indica is 2020 but on the back cover is 2019, and I can find records of a digital release in December, but not a print one. So maybe there was some problem with the print edition that got it pushed back? The publisher’s website said the book was hitting comic shops December 18, and that’s something that they posted on December 17, when the books would’ve already been out of their hands. I don’t always know what’s going on, folks.

But I have it in hand now, and I promised someone that I’d review it, so I’m going to review it whether or not I’m half a year late. But I regret that promise.

In the comic book business, we have an old saying that we ignore too much these days, and that’s that every issue is somebody’s first. And these days, with growing graphic novel sales contrasting with decreasing sales of comic-strip-carrying newspapers and the slivering of the TV world, there’s an ever-growing chance that a graphic novel will be someone’s first Peanuts. And through that lens, this graphic novel stumbles on a couple of fronts: parts of it will be hard to understand if you’re not reasonably well versed in Peanuts, and parts of it are not very Schulz-y. (There is room in this world for non-Schulzy Peanuts, but I feel that introductory material should feel as Schulz-like as possible.)

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The book actually starts off reprinting Mission Out of Control, a comic book that was exclusively available at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con… which is a fine place for non-Schulzy Peanuts. People who stand in line for an hour to pay $10 for a Peanuts comic book are not doing it because they need a first sample. In this dialog-free tale, a presumed-Woodstock and a number of his bird pals are working at NASA, and it’s built around a spectacles-and-tie-and-shirt-and-pants wearing presumed-Woodstock getting coffee, and his similarly-dressed-but-no-spectacles pals (and one dress-and-a-bow wearing pal) mostly goofing around doing Diet Coke and Mentos explosions (excuse me, “Cola” and “Mint-Os” explosions, no trademark concerns here.) It is fun, but it is using the figures in a clothing-and-employment situation far beyond what was done in the strip, where we might get a stray moment of a bird as the Flying Ace’s mechanic.

After that, we get to the new material. Astronaut Snoopy has apparently crash-landed his doghouse on the surface of Mars, and we know it was a bad wreck because all of his possessions are spilled out on the ground, both things that we’d seen him with – the typewriter, Joe Cool’s sunglasses – but also things that we had only been told were inside his doghouse, such as his Wyeth, his hi-fi system, his pool table. That bothers me. These weren’t things that Schulz accidentally didn’t show, these were things that he let you build your own image of in your brain, even let you decide whether they were real or merely items of shared imagination. (And yes, there was a similar moment in The Peanuts Movie, and I didn’t like it there either.) So on the first page, the new material gets off on a bad foot for me.

But beyond that, there’s a lack of context. For the reader for whom this is the first Peanuts, there is no understanding that this is a tale of a dog with a great imagination, that the things we are seeing may be a flight of fancy. And after a long scene with Snoopy, we get a scene with Spike working at his little stand in the desert, and only after that, more than a third of the way through the book, do we reach any human characters. Again, for the new reader, this may seem more like something set in an all-animal world like Zootopia; the first human is Charlie Brown, who has just finished making a batch of cookies that Snoopy asked for (which opens the question of how long Snoopy has been gone, if he’s so far away), and when he can’t find Snoopy, he goes and asks the birds… who are still clearly part of the Mission Control scene from the opening story, where Snoopy is. Charlie Brown is expecting information from birds? Off the top of my head, I don’t recall that happening in the strip. Involvement of other Peanuts humans is then done in ways that make more sense if you’re familiar with the strip; it has call-back references that I’ve grown to think are not a good idea for Peanuts work aimed at the younger crowd, as much fun as it may be for the hardcore fans (and I will confess to having been guilty of one or two of them during my Peanuts comic book writing days. Mea culpa.)

Things like this put me on a distrust of the work as a whole, and even though it steered into better ground as it went on, having been irritated at the onset, I found enough to keep me irritated. There is repeated focus on Needles as a city of closed businesses, to no advantage of the story. There are little attention-to-detail items like a reference to Spike’s knick-knack shop selling “bobbles and trinkets”; the word they actually want is “baubles”.

One thing that is even more frustrating for personal reasons: remember how I said that in the reprint story, there was one bird in a dress at Mission Control? She’s not in the main story. There are scenes about them doing aerospace planning and calculations, and it’s six male birds, and they go on to play a further part in the story. Now, I understand the idea of wanting to recreate the look of the pocket-protector crowd in NASA mission control in the 1960s… but certainly as of the 2016 release of the Best Picture-nominated film Hidden Figures, it is no secret that there were women involved in the field even then. Me, I’m the son of a woman who was a computer programmer for aerospace company Grumman before I was born. If we’re talking about the Mars mission, I’ve spent time with Donna Shirley while she was manager of Mars exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory decades ago (we were both in a production of Henry V at CalTech), and I’m friends with a woman who to this day drives the Mars rover (remotely, of course.) So maybe I’m especially attuned to this, but this choice hurts, particularly when it’s in a work like Peanuts, which over its years grew quite attentive to feminism. Lucy was talking about not settling for being First Lady but becoming President herself back when Hilary Clinton was still in grade school. Girls were hitting home runs since 1951, women’s sports became a topic during the 1970s, and Harriet joined the previously all-male Beagle Scouts forty years ago now

Naomi and friends

But if I’m going to knock the graphic novel on representation, let me point out a couple things that they did right. In both the reprint and the new story, one of the birds is purple, presumably supposed to be Raymond, the different-colored Beagle Scout. And in a bigger move, they used Naomi, the daughter of the veterinarian in Needles, and gave her brown skin. (Naomi had appeared in the strip in 1998, but never on a Sunday page; while by then they were making colored dailies available and Naomi was pale there, I never considered the daily colors to be canonical. There is no reason not to give her some color; Needles is hardly an all-white town.)

Want some other good stuff about it? I like the cover. I like that they structured it like a Peanuts film should be, with action scenes to break up talky scenes (my working theory in non-strip Peanuts comics: Any story of three pages or fewer should feel like a Sunday strip; six or so pages should feel like a week of strips, but once you get to longer pieces, they need to get away from the single-scene style, and start to feel more like animated Peanuts. This qualifies.) I like the energy that both opening story artist Vicki Scott and new story artist Robert Pope give the birds in particular. After dumping on Needles a fair bit, they do take a page to bring up the history of the town and show a landmark.

The book is officially aimed at 5-8 year olds, and while I think there are a few too many things that rely on implied cause and effect for the younger end of that crowd, it should be an okay read for the existing Peanuts fan on the higher end of it. I still wouldn’t make it their first Peanuts – I’m certainly a firm believer in strip collections for that purpose – but it would make a Peanuts change of pace. And the price is good; $9.99 cover price for a 96 page full color book is reasonable indeed. There’s much more story content here than you’d get in a couple of Peanuts storybooks.

Snoopy: A Beagle of Mars is available for immediate shipping.

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