If you’ve never heard of Charles Schulz, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of a little comic strip he created back in the early Fifties, that over the decades since has morphed into several television specials and feature animated films, and changed the world. Of course we’re talking about the Peanuts gang!
When It All Began
Peanuts, the long-running comic strip drawn and authored by Charles Schulz, was first published in 1947 under the name Li’l Folks, and was renamed Peanuts in 1950. It featured a cast of kids led by Charlie Brown, Shulz’ alter ego character. It was similar to other four panel newspaper comics of its day, with Charlie Brown usually being the butt of the joke. What set Peanuts apart, though, was in how well the characters were developed and Shulz’s ability to connect with his readers through them.
Charlie Brown himself was continually faced with setbacks that frequently prevented him from just enjoying being a kid, having to deal with everything from a kite-eating tree (which sometimes sprouted eyes and an evil grin as needed) to Lucy van Pelt pulling the football away at the last minute before he could kick it (a scenerio that Charlie Brown never seemed to learn from) to his unrequited fascination with the Cute Little Red Haired Girl whom we never actually saw.
His dog Snoopy was imaginative to the point of being an occasional problem, and frankly had a better kid’s life than Charlie Brown or any of his friends did, and was constantly showing them how it was done.
At the time of Schulz’s death in 2000, Peanuts was running in more than 2,500 newspapers in 75 countries, with a readership that topped 350 million. In the early 21st century, sales of Peanuts merchandise amounted to a billion-dollar-a-year empire, with products ranging from stuffed animals to clothing to a popular line of greeting cards. Snoopy was perhaps the most visible Peanuts character, appearing as the corporate mascot for American insurance company MetLife and making an appearances as a massive balloon in New York City’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade, and his rivalry with the Red Baron was the subject of a pair of popular novelty songs by the Royal Guardsmen in the mid-1960s.
The Peanuts characters appeared in numerous television specials, including A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), as well as in a short-lived television series, The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show (1983–85). They were the subject of the stage musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (1967; television adaptations 1973 and 1985) and The Peanuts Movie (2015), a 3-D computer-generated adventure. Over the comic strip’s 50-year run, Schulz refused to allow anyone else to draw or write Peanuts, and the collected body of work, amounting to more than 18,000 strips, was thought to be the longest story ever told by a single person.
Charles M. Shulz Himself
Charles M. Shulz is widely regarded as one of the most influential cartoonists in history, and cited by many cartoonists as a major influence, including Jim Davis, Murray Ball, Bill Watterson, Matt Groening, and Dav Pilkey.
“Peanuts pretty much defines the modern comic strip,” states Watterson, “so even now it’s hard to see it with fresh eyes. The clean, minimalist drawings, the sarcastic humor, the unflinching emotional honesty, the inner thoughts of a household pet, the serious treatment of children, the wild fantasies, the merchandising on an enormous scale – in countless ways, Schulz blazed the wide trail that most every cartoonist since has tried to follow.”
Schulz, the son of a barber, studied cartooning in an art correspondence school after graduating in 1940 from high school. He served in the army from 1943 to 1945 and returned first as an instructor with the art school and then as a freelance cartoonist with the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Saturday Evening Post (1948–49).
Schulz’s first group of regular cartoons, a weekly series of one-panel jokes called Li’l Folks, was published from June 1947 to January 1950 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, with Schulz usually doing four one-panel drawings per issue. It was in Li’l Folks that Schulz first used the name Charlie Brown for a character, although he applied the name in four gags to three different boys as well as one buried in sand. The series also had a dog that looked much like Snoopy.
In May 1948, Schulz sold his first one-panel drawing to The Saturday Evening Post; within the next two years, a total of 17 untitled drawings by Schulz were published in the Post, simultaneously with his work for the Pioneer Press. Around the same time, he tried to have Li’l Folks syndicated through the Newspaper Enterprise Association; Schulz would have been an independent contractor for the syndicate, unheard of in the 1940s, but the deal fell through. Li’l Folks was dropped from the Pioneer Press in January 1950.
Later that year, Schulz approached United Feature Syndicate with the one-panel series Li’l Folks, and the syndicate became interested. By that time Schulz had also developed a comic strip, usually using four panels rather than one, and to Schulz’s delight, the syndicate preferred that version. But to his consternation, the syndicate had to change the title for Schulz’s strip for legal reasons and selected a new name Peanuts.
Finally, Peanuts made its first appearance on October 2, 1950, in seven newspapers. The weekly Sunday page debuted on January 6, 1952. After a slow start, Peanuts eventually became one of the most popular comic strips of all time, as well as one of the most influential.
Some people have an affect on their chosen field of endeavor, but few have made such a mark and have changed the world as much as Charles M. Schulz. We can’t imagine the world without Peanuts, and Schulz’ creations live on to brighten the lives of generations to follow.
We don’t know if you can hear us, Mr. Schulz, but Happy Birthday. And, thank you.
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