It's one of those small-press projects that seem like folly only until you recognize the treasure before you: The Complete Peanuts will consist of 25 volumes covering all 50 years of Charles Schulz's work, with two books to be issued per year; Volume 1 (Fantagraphics, $28.95), spanning 1950-52, hits stores this May.
When Peanuts debuted in 1950, it looked like nothing else the comic-strip genre had ever produced. The kids had large heads on stocky little bodies and spoke with eerie maturity; background details were minimal (a patch of grass, a scrawny tree). The artist was a shy Midwesterner who knew that children were angry as often as they were innocent, and self-protectively shrewd as frequently as they were silly. This book aptly quotes Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau as saying that Peanuts ''vibrated with '50s alienation.'' Schulz's kids, who would soon include bossy Lucy and fearful Linus, clutching his security blanket (this prop is the source of that pop-psychology phrase), existed in a calm-looking yet emotionally charged world largely devoid of adults -- who were unimportant to these children's anxieties, slights, and fleeting triumphs.
After years of Snoopy dolls and ever-more-banal TV adaptations, it's difficult to appreciate Schulz's original achievement. Like many great popular artists from the Marx Brothers to Chuck Berry, Schulz did his most innovative work early on and spent the rest of his career deepening, repeating, or exploiting his initial themes. Fantagraphics' heroic project (designed with subtle, quiet beauty by the cartoonist called Seth) enables us to glimpse the moment when ''good ol''' Charlie Brown could say with frowning vehemence, ''The rest of this day can't possibly hold any good for me!'' With that, comic strips became a playing field for existentialism. Volume 1: