Peanuts Turns 60

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On October 2, 1950, my father signed with United Feature Syndicate, believing that his job was to help editors sell newspapers. He started in seven papers. Fifty years later, with the strip appearing in a record 2,600 newspapers, Dad still went to work motivated by that same belief.As I grew up, I regarded my father not as Snoopy’s dad but mine. I wasn’t quite convinced he had a real job: He didn’t go off to work like other dads, but worked in a studio on our property in Santa Rosa, California. He never worked past 5 p.m., nor on weekends. His children would think nothing of walking into the studio, right past the secretary, and into his office. I can picture him looking up and immediately putting down his pen to talk to me. He never once asked me to wait while he finished a drawing or some lettering. Whenever my brothers asked him to play baseball—even in the middle of the day—he happily complied. As much as he loved the strip, he loved his children even more.  

Life gives birth to pure art, and a true artist pays attention to the details around him—not just the details in his life, but in all life. My dad’s gift for observation was proven by the fact that hundreds of millions of people throughout the world would wake up every morning and turn the newspaper page to his strip—nearly 18,000 strips in all—because they had grown to love the characters as real people.

    —Amy Schulz Johnson

 

Sparky

To the people who read Peanuts, his name was simply “Schulz,” written in a quick, clear hand along the edge of one of the panel borders. But to friends and family he was always “Sparky,” taken from the nickname of the cartoon horse Spark Plug, below in a 1922 cell from the then-popular comic strip Barney Google, published the year that Charles Monroe Schulz was born.

As a shy only child, Schulz pored over the comics pages with his father and learned to copy the characters. His classmates would have him draw Popeye or other characters on their notebooks. He first landed in the funny pages when he was 14 with a drawing of the family dog Spike, below left, which appeared in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not!  feature.

Schulz was drafted into the Army during World War II, serving most of his three-year stint leading a machine gun squad in Europe. After his discharge, he turned to small art jobs, almost accepting one lettering tombstones. Fortunately, his art career grew: he graduated from lettering dialogue for the Catholic comic book Timeless Topix to originating his own single-panel gag cartoons for local newspapers.

In 1947 he hit the big time, landing his first cartoon in the Saturday Evening Post. In the 17 cartoons he drew for the Post, it was clear that he had his own distinctive style, as well as his own themes. In 1950, as a single man in his late 20s, he launched Peanuts.

PEANUTS IN STRIPS

For years prior to the debut of Peanuts, Schulz had been drawing single-panel cartoons, including Li’l Folks (an example of which appears above right), a feature appearing in Minnesota newspapers. Both Li’l Folks and Peanuts were about children—and no adults were ever seen—but that’s where the comparisons end. Li’l Folks featured no recurring characters. While “Charlie Brown” (a name Schulz borrowed from a co-worker) appeared four times, it was for a different character each time.

Schulz’s goal was to sell Li’l Folks into a national market. While United Feature Syndicate liked Schulz’s work, the company was reluctant to distribute single-panel gags. The syndicate wanted strips that would feature continuing characters. By the time that Schulz rejiggered the single-panel work into a strip and changed the title (a legal department requirement), there was little left of Li’l Folks. A strip from Peanuts’s first month appears below.

The format change would prove a tremendous boon not only to Schulz but to comics as a whole. The ongoing strip enabled Schulz to create characters that could grow and evolve, becoming figures that readers would come to recognize and begin to care about. Schulz could tell stories, not just capture moments. Peanuts would inspire most of the great strips of the past half century. 

Charlie Brown

The little boy with the big round head grew up the way Peanuts children did—slowly, unevenly, and eventually hitting a maximum age. Only about four years old at the beginning of the strip—and the shortest of his small group—he soon gained his trademark zigzagged shirt, and single curlycue of hair. 

The character did not start out as the lovable loser he would grow into. The original Charlie Brown was a sometime joker, a bit more confident. In the later years it would have been odd to see him refer to his “happy, carefree school days,” as he did early on. But as the generic characters of the early days (Shermy and Patty) were joined and eventually supplanted by more defined personalities (Schroeder, Linus, Lucy, and others), Charlie became the relatively sane center. He became notable not just for many failures, but also for his determination to keep trying: trying to win that ball game, kick that football, fly that kite, go trick-or-treating for candy not rocks. Whether that’s seen as an admirable stick-to-itiveness or an all but flat learning curve, his ability to let hope outweigh more pragmatic instincts is one that almost everybody can empathize with.

SNOOPY

When Snoopy started out, he was just a dog, not a World-War-I flying ace, skating coach, or Beagle Scout. More than a decade would pass before he was accused of being a beagle, and even then he denied it. Schulz had wanted to name the big-nosed critter Sniffy, but that was taken by another cartoon dog. He fell back on a suggestion his mother once had offered for the family dog.