Charles Schulz and the Legacy of the Peanuts Comic

posted by CST member and volunteer Tonia Hoyle

Charles Schulz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 26, 1922, he was affectionately called “Sparky” by his uncle, and the nickname would stick as it was derived from a comic strip featuring a horse Spark Plug in the Barney Google comic strip. Just this week would have marked Sparky’s 92nd birthday. Schulz's family was European his father Carl was German and his mother Dena was Norwegian, in time the family would make St. Paul Minnesota their home. While in his younger year Charles and his father would spend time in the Barber shop where his father worked. With this time together they both would sit together and read the funnies or Sunday comics. It was this experience that inspired Charles to become a cartoonist. He had developed a love for the Sunday tradition he shared with his father reading strips like Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Skippy. The Charles Schulz Museum shares an experience of the great talent Schulz possessed as a future cartoonist, “In his deepest desires, he always knew he wanted to be a cartoonist, and seeing the 1937 publication of his drawing of Spike, the family dog, in the nationally-syndicated Ripley’s Believe it or Not newspaper feature was a proud moment in the young teen’s life.  He took his artistic studies to a new level when, as a senior in high school and with the encouragement of his mother, he completed a correspondence cartoon course with the Federal School of Applied Cartooning (now Art Instruction Schools).”

Schulz would continued his studies, through the 1920’s and 30’s editors with the newspapers allowed artists such as Schulz to hone in on their skills allowing them to draw and write about happenings of that time but as time had pasted like many instances war came into the picture and the comics had turned a new page. Newspaper editors of the 1940’s and 50’s now were requiring cartoonist to push toward a post war minimalist model of writing and drawing as described in the Charles Schulz Museum, “Editors were pushing their cartoonists to shrink strip size, minimize pen strokes, and sharpen their humor with daily gags and cerebral humor for an ever-increasingly educated audience.  Schulz’s dry, intellectual, and self-effacing humor was a natural fit for the evolving cultural standards of the mid-20th century comics.” Finding that he was a perfect fit for the new ways of cartooning Schulz would become successful.

However tragedy would strike, his mother died of cervical cancer at the age of 50. He and his mother had a close loving relationship. Another event within days of his mothers passing in 1943 would affect him as well. He would start his military career barding a troop train on his way to Camp Campbell Kentucky. While he found value and lifelong lessons learned by serving in the army he would always carry both events with him forever, the death of his mother and the harsh realities of war with him.

In 1945 Schulz would return from the war and reside with his father in St. Paul, from there he would find work with his alma mater the Art Instruction selling comic pieces to the Saturday Evening posts. The one line comic pieces would pave the way for his Peanuts comic. He had his comics called Li’l Folks, in the local St. Paul Pioneer Press; these child like charters would have large heads and were advanced in their way of talking and interacting with each other as a comic, thus, paving the way for his future and most successful Comic Strip, Peanuts.   

At 27 years old Schulz had created a four panel comic called Peanuts.  Little did he know that the four panel comic would generate a legacy and the longest running comic strip in history. The Museum honoring Charles Schulz give a great description of the Peanuts comic and the idea behind it as described, “The continuing popular appeal of Peanuts stems, in large part, from Schulz’s ability to portray his observations and connect to his audience in ways that many other strips cannot.  As each character’s personality has been fleshed out over the years, readers came to intimately understand Linus’ attachment to his Security Blanket, Charlie Brown’s heartache over the Little Red-Haired Girl, Schroeder’s devotion to Beethoven, Peppermint Patty’s prowess in sports and failure in the classroom, and Lucy’s  knowledge of … well … everything.  The rise in Snoopy’s popularity in the 1960s had a direct correlation to his evolution from a four-legged pet to a two-legged, highly-imaginative and equal character in the strip, which allowed Schulz to take his storylines in increasingly new directions.” (Charles Schulz Museum) With this comic Schulz was able to connect with his audience old and young with the ever changing times. I truly believe that part of the success of Schulz and the Peanuts strip is that the cartoonist was able to allow the characters to grow with the changing times and find ways that the audience can relate to some of the scenarios presented by both the artist and the characters thus, bringing back his readers for more while drawing in new readers. Schulz success with the comic can be attributed to his own characteristics as described by the museum as “His humor was at times observational, wry, sarcastic, nostalgic, bittersweet, silly, and melancholy, with occasional flights of fancy and suspension of reality thrown in from time to time.” (Charles Schulz Museum) Schulz was a cartoonist and a man that will continue to entertain generations to come.

I know as a little girl growing up anytime we had the paper the first section I would turn to as most children would was the comics. I would go first to Peanuts. I loved the witty humor in each strip and the love hate relationship between Snoopy and Lucy. The Sunday paper with the Peanuts comic strip is still my favorite part of the paper and Schulz has been able to capture my attention as well as millions of others who turn the pages of the Sunday paper straight to the comics skipping over the sports and headlines sections in search of the Peanuts characters.

Meagan Friedman of Time writes about the new success the comic had taken in just a decade of publication; “The first strip was printed on Oct. 2, 1950, and appeared in seven newspapers. In the strip, Charlie Brown walks by two friends, one of whom remarks, "Well! Here comes 'ol Charlie Brown! Good 'ol Charlie Brown ... yes, sir! Good 'ol Charlie Brown ... how I hate him!" By the end of the decade, Peanuts had been picked up by hundreds of newspapers and had won Schulz a Reuben award, the highest honor given by the National Cartoonists Society.” (Freidman) The Peanuts comic strip was an instant success and it continued its success in decades to come. As the changing times had affected everyone with the civil rights movement this was reflected in Schulz Peanuts strip as well as Freidman writes, “Charlie Brown and the gang even graced the cover of TIME in 1965. The influence didn't go just one way, though — Peanuts evolved with the turbulent decade. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, fans pressed Schulz to include a black character; Franklin first appeared on July 31 of that year. Peppermint Patty, a multidimensional, sports-loving girl living in a single-parent household, made her debut in 1966. And Woodstock, Snoopy's yellow, feathered companion, finally got his name in 1970. When asked why he named the bird after the music festival, Schulz simply replied, “Why not?”’ Schulz's ability to remain flexible with the changing times allowed for the comic to continue growing in popularity. He was not in the least bit closed minded to change and realized that with the comic allowing the Peanuts characters to evolve with the ever changing world around it.

 His work with the Peanuts comic strip has earned him recognition in different aspects such as:

  • December 1999, the Peanuts comic strip was syndicated in over 2,600 newspapers worldwide, with book collections translated in over 25 languages.
  • He has been awarded with the highest honors from his fellow cartoonists, received Emmy Awards for his animated specials.
  • Schulz has been recognized and lauded by the U.S. and foreign governments.
  • Had a NASA spacecraft named after his characters
  • Inspired a concert performance and work decorated at Carnegie Hall. (Charles Schulz Museum)
  • By 1984, Peanuts had made the Guinness World Records after being syndicated to its 2,000th newspaper.
  • Peanuts, which was read by 355 million people, raked in cash through newspaper licensing, book compilations, merchandising and endorsements. (Friedman) 

With much recognition Schulz received he decided to retired in 1999. In less than a year after retirement the world would feel a great loss in learning of the death of Charles Schulz on Sunday February 13, 2000. The man who had been a part of his audience lives for nearly fifty years would die in his sleep from complications of colon cancer. This event is described by the Schulz museum “On the morning of Sunday, February 13, 2000, newspaper readers opened their comic pages as they had for nearly fifty years to read the latest adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts Gang.  This Sunday was different, though; mere hours before newspapers hit doorsteps with the final original Peanuts comic strip, its creator Charles M. Schulz, who once described his life as being ‘’one of rejection”’ passed away peacefully in his sleep the night before, succumbing to complications from colon cancer.  It was a poetic ending to the life of a devoted cartoonist who, from his earliest memories, knew that all he wanted to do was “draw funny pictures.”’ (Charles SchulzMuseum) The world lost a wonderful and talented man who brought laughter to everyone through his child characters, clever little beagle, and many other little friends each Sunday Paper.

This holiday season it is with great honor and appreciation that we at the Chicago Street Theater have to take part in the production of Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Let us all walk down memory lane as we are reminded of the true meaning of Christmas and what Sparky would want us to learn through his little friends of the Peanuts comic.  

Works Cited

Charles Schulz Museum. Charles Schulz Biography. Web. 27, November 2014

Freidman, Meagan. “A Brief History of Peanuts”. Time. 01, Oct. 2010. Web. 27, Nov. 2014