The lovable gang of kids and dog came from the imagination of a man who adored children
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
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.
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.
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.
As time passed, Snoopy began to have dreams and thoughts; he “took on a personality that was very different from that of any previous cartoon dog,” Schulz explained. “He was slightly superior to the kids in the strip, although he did suffer a few defeats; you might say, at his own paws. But most of the time he won out over the kids.”
If Charlie Brown was a sort of hapless everyman, representing a core of self-doubt that we each wrestle with, then Snoopy might be called an anyman. He could, through the help of his imagination and the occasional item of clothing, transform into any role, whether that was a fighter pilot, a chariot racer, or a grocery clerk. His aeronautical ambitions even landed him on a commemorative Apollo mission patch, above left. But whatever persona he took on, he was never run-of-the-mill.
Lucy appeared in early 1952 as an oddly goggle-eyed toddler. Her younger brother, Linus, showed up later that year as a baby. By the mid-1950s, they were the centers of the strip’s energy. Lucy played the loud, dominant older sister who sometimes showed her love for her brother by teaching him (usually with misinformation) and otherwise expressed her scorn by bullying him. She was an ardent feminist who clearly believed in no woman more than herself, illustrated in a 1972 mock campaign postcard, right. She was quick to suggest that the world should bend itself to her vision, although her outspokenness hindered attempts to woo the deeply sensitive and artistic Schroeder, below.
Linus, in contrast to his sister Lucy, was introverted, spiritual, and contemplative. In his younger days, he bordered on magical, able to blow up a half balloon and even a cubical balloon. Through the late 1950s and 1960s he was a prodigy, playing outstanding outfield, left, and erecting impressive houses of cards and sand sculptures. His most recognizable quirk was a comforting square of blue flannel that he carefully protected from Lucy, his blanket-hating grandma, and Snoopy (inviting the thrill of the chase).
Breaking New Ground
Peanuts was known as a smart, insightful, but also safe strip. Perhaps that’s why it could tackle some of the more controversial issues of the day so effectively.
In November 1962, two months after Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring documented the environmental devastation caused by pesticides, Peanuts started depicting her as a hero. Lucy mentioned that her baseball bat was signed not by Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays but by Carson. Later Snoopy would act as a spokesdog for the Rachel Carson Council’s campaign against chemical lawn pesticides.
In the late 1960s the strip ruffled some feathers when it introduced the character of Franklin at a time when integration of the public schools was still meeting strong resistance in parts of the United States. Schulz took the advice of schoolteacher Harriet Glickman, who wrote Schulz a letter in April 1968 encouraging him to integrate the strip’s cast.
Seeing African American Franklin playing with Caucasian Charlie Brown, below in a 1968 cartoon, or in class alongside white students in the school district he attended with Peppermint Patty, discomforted some readers, and the move received coverage in Newsweek and elsewhere. Glickman remains proud of the results of her encouragement: “I always refer to Franklin as my fourth child.”
The End, Sort of
When Schulz fell ill in late 1999, his 50-year run of more than 17,000 installments came to an end. The final daily appeared on January 3, 2000; it was a typeset goodbye note from Schulz to readers and his characters. TV networks ran tribute shows saying farewell to Peanuts, with old favorites such as 1966’s It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, right.
After he died in February 2000, fellow cartoonist Steve Kelly best captured the mood with his single-panel cartoon, below right, which ran in the San Diego Union Tribune.
While some comics outlive their original creators, the Peanuts strip and Schulz could not be separated. Readers immediately made it clear to the newspapers that they wanted to see Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the crew every day, even if the installment wasn’t brand-new. Today Peanuts reruns continue to enjoy a prominent place in more than 2,200 newspapers.