Charles Schulz's famed comic strip, Peanuts, had rather modest beginnings. Originally marketed for its flexible size and format (four squares that allowed it to be run horizontally, vertically, or in two rows), it premiered on October 2, 1950, in only seven United States newspapers. United Features Syndicate chose the title; a title, Schulz says in Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Me, he has never liked. Sales of the strip climbed slowly at first, worrying United Features Syndicate management. But, by 1960, the strip appeared in over 400 newspapers worldwide. In 1984, The Guinness Book of Records listed Peanuts as the world's most widely syndicated comic strip, and by its fortieth anniversary in 1990, Peanuts was running in over 2,000 newspapers in dozens of countries. Through the years, the Peanuts characters have appeared in print, animation, and even on stage, making them some of the most popular cartoon characters of the twentieth century.
Charlie Brown, Schulz's main character, first appeared in a panel cartoon called L'il Folks that Schulz sold to a St. Paul, Minnesota, newspaper in 1947. Charlie Brown was not named until the first Peanuts strip, where he quickly took the lead role. Charlie Brown is insecurity itself. He cannot fly a kite, his baseball team never wins, he receives no valentines on Valentine's Day, and he gets rocks instead of candy on Halloween. The things we fear will happen to us are the types of things that do happen to Charlie Brown. Even so, Charlie Brown displays a plucky spirit. He keeps trying to fly kites, keeps managing the baseball team, keeps sending valentines to his friends, and keeps going out for tricks-or-treats. Faced with continual depression and the torment of his peers, he tends to be friendly and kind. Charlie Brown is a character people identify with because, as Schulz says in Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Me, "Who hasn't felt like Charlie Brown after a bad day?" Evidence of the empathy people feel for Charlie Brown came after the first airing of the Peanuts animated Halloween and Valentine's Day television specials, when hundreds of people sent Schulz candy and valentines to give to Charlie Brown.
Snoopy, Charlie Brown's exuberant beagle, acts as Charlie Brown's foil. Snoopy is one beagle who does not let being a dog get in the way of his ambitions. He often imagines himself as a writer, a World War I flying ace, an attorney, or the impressive Joe Cool. He plays hockey and baseball. He likes eating and sleeping and picking on the neighbor's cat, his truly dog-like traits, and he particularly likes chocolate chip cookies. He is confident and has an overactive imagination. He is a strange, quirky character who may embody childlike qualities more than the actual children do in this strip. Snoopy is everything Charlie Brown is not, and Snoopy may even exceed his owner's popularity.
The neighborhood children are not quite as depressed as Charlie Brown, but they all have their own insecurities and vulnerabilities. Lucy Van Pelt, Charlie Brown's next door neighbor, is a bossy fussbudget. Generally she is loud and mean-spirited, and is best known for annually coaxing Charlie Brown into kicking the football she has every intention of pulling away at the last minute. Seemingly invulnerable, she has a crush on the musical Schroeder and continually suffers his insults just to be around him. Linus Van Pelt, Lucy's brother, carries a security blanket in spite of the rather loud protests of his sister and grandmother. Sally, Charlie Brown's little sister, worries constantly about her school work. The other neighborhood children are much the same, worrying about school, unrequited crushes, and sports—typical childhood worries. Children and adults see themselves and their own insecurities in these characters.
The Peanuts characters, however, are not typical children. They do torment each other (making them some of the first realistic children in comics) and play games, much as other children do, but the Peanuts characters are somewhat more serious and intelligent than the average child. Lucy says she would like real estate for Christmas, Linus can philosophize about life's problems while sucking his thumb, and Schroeder's hero is Beethoven. They quote the Bible and have incredible vocabularies. Not only are these children intelligent, they are independent. Adults only appear "off stage," and rarely at that. The Peanuts characters seem to go through most of their activities with little adult supervision or interference, and they manage just fine. The characters tend to be a bit less fun-loving than the children we know. They are all somewhat depressed, and when they laugh, they tend to be laughing at each other rather than something innocent that simply strikes them as funny. As Schulz says in CharlieBrown, Snoopy and Me, "Strangely enough, pleasant things are not really funny. You can't create humor out of happiness." Charlie Brown himself is the apex of this philosophy. The Peanuts characters have enough childlike qualities to keep children interested, but much of this is adult humor.
The successful transition of Peanuts into animation and stage productions has helped maintain and expand the strip's popularity. The first animated television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, premiered on December 9, 1965, and drew 50 percent of the United States viewing audience. It won an Emmy Award and a Peabody Award and has been rerun annually into the 1990s. Other Peanuts animated specials have received Emmys, including A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown. On December 11, 1969, the first of several Peanuts animated feature films premiered at Radio City Music Hall. The shows and movies continue to be popular, and many have been released on home video. A musical, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, opened off-Broadway on March 7, 1967, becoming a long-running show especially favored by schools and regional theater groups. Through the animated specials and the musical, the Peanuts characters have reached an audience who might never have picked up the funny pages to read the strip.
Through the years, Peanuts has stayed in the news and the public eye. In the late 1960s, Snoopy was adopted as the official emblem of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) for outstanding achievement within the organization. In 1969, the Apollo 10 Lunar Expedition nicknamed their command module "Charlie Brown" and the lunar module "Snoopy." Astronaut John Young transmitted a picture of Snoopy back to earth during the mission's fourth telecast. In 1974, when Hank Aaron was approaching Babe Ruth's home run record, Schulz read about people sending Aaron hate mail, angry that a black man was challenging the record. Schulz addressed this in a series of cartoons recounting Snoopy's trials and tribulations as he approaches the home run record. Schulz even commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in his strip. Peanuts characters have appeared on the covers of Time, Life, Newsweek, Woman's Day, The Saturday Review, and TV Guide. Additionally, other authors have used Peanuts comics to illustrate their books. Therapist Abraham J. Twerski chose Peanuts comics to illustrate various psychological concepts in his book, When Do the Good Things Start. In The Gospel According to Peanuts and Short Meditations on the Bible and Peanuts, Robert L. Short uses the cartoons to highlight various lessons in Christian living. The characters have also been spokespeople for Metropolitan Life Insurance, Chex Party Mix, and the United States National Park Foundation. They were some of the first heavily merchandized cartoon characters, starting with calendars and moving on to everything from coffee mugs to tee shirts to shower curtains. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the other characters are easily recognized by most Americans and certainly by many people throughout the world.
Charles Schulz himself is highly regarded as a comic artist and has received numerous awards and honors for his work. In 1955, the National Cartoonist's Society awarded Schulz their prestigious Reuben Award; he won it again in 1964. In 1962, Schulz won the National Cartoonist Society's "Best Humor Strip of the Year" award. In 1978, he received the "Cartoonist of the Year" award from the International Pavilion of Humor of Montreal. In 1990, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History presented "This Is Your Childhood Charlie Brown—Children in American Culture, 1945-1970." And in 1996, he received a star next to Walt Disney on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Clearly, Schulz has been repeatedly recognized for his professionalism, intelligence, and for the quality of his output and has experienced a popularity not enjoyed by many cartoonists.
In his book, When Do the Good Things Start, Abraham J. Twerski says, "The lovable characters created by Charles Schulz do more than amuse; they depict important psychological principles in a manner so deceptively simple that it masks the force of their impact." Indeed, Peanuts raised a new standard of what could be done in comic art. The intelligence displayed in such comics as Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes and Gary Larson's The Far Side comes from this tradition—the belief that comics and humor can have more meaning than a simple laugh. The Peanuts characters are some of the most popular in the genre. Peanuts is intelligent and funny, a combination that has kept it in the public eye for nearly half a century and which should fuel its popularity into the new millennium.
Schulz, Charles M. Around the World in 45 Years: Charlie Brown's Anniversary Celebration. Kansas City, Andrews and McMeel, 1994.
Schulz, Charles M., and R. Smith Kiliper. Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Me. Garden City, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980.
Short, Robert L. The Gospel According to Peanuts. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1965.
——. Short Meditations on the Bible and Peanuts. Louisville, John Knox Press, 1990.
Twerski, Abraham J. When Do the Good Things Start. New York, Topper Books, 1988.
An unlucky little boy and his daydreaming beagle form the core of Peanuts, the beloved comic strip of Charles Schulz (1922–2000). The comic strip has entertained newspaper readers daily since 1950. Despite creator Schulz's death in 2000, Peanuts lives on in the form of its timeless humor and instantly recognizable characters.
Originally titled Li'l Folks, Peanuts debuted on October 2, 1950. Within a decade, the four-panel strip was appearing in over four hundred newspapers nationwide. Readers quickly took to Schulz's gentle humor and likable characters. Charlie Brown was the "hero" of the strip, a lovable loser who was repeatedly blocked in his attempts to kick a football by his overbearing neighbor, Lucy Van Pelt. Snoopy, Charlie Brown's pet beagle, became something of a national sensation. The adorable pooch loafed atop his doghouse and imagined himself as a flying ace during World War I (1914–18). Snoopy was joined later by a bird sidekick named Woodstock, who also developed a fan following. Other characters included Linus, a smart but insecure child who carried a security blanket; Peppermint Patty, a freckle-faced girl who had a crush on Charlie Brown; and Schroeder, a piano prodigy who idolized German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Adults were rarely seen.
Comic-strip readers related to the troubles the Peanuts gang experienced solving life's problems. The strip's unique blend of animals, children, and homespun philosophy made it unique among comic strips of the 1950s. Popular comic strips of later years, like Calvin and Hobbes, and Bloom County, showed the influence of Schulz's work.
Another way in which Peanuts revolutionized the American comic strip was in the area of merchandising. The strip became so popular (in 1984, it was named the world's most widely syndicated comic strip by the Guinness Book of World Records) that its characters began appearing on calendars, mugs, T-shirts (see entry under 1910s—Fashion in volume 1), and plush toys from coast to coast. Snoopy became the "spokesbeagle" for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, as he and the rest of the gang turned up in a popular series of television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) commercials starting in the 1980s. Spin-offs of the Peanuts daily strip also became quite popular. A series of animated TV specials, many centered around major holidays, was launched in the 1960s and is still rerun in the twenty-first century.
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
For More Information
Schulz, Charles M. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Me. Garden City: Doubleday, 1980.
Schulz, Charles M. Peanuts: A Golden Celebration: The Art and the Story of the World's Best-Loved Comic Strip. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Schulz, Charles M. Peanuts 2000. New York: Ballantine, 2000.
United Feature Syndicate, Inc. The Official Peanuts Website: Snoopy,Charlie Brown and Friends.http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/peanuts/ (accessed March 7, 2002).
pea·nut / ˈpēnət/ • n. 1. the oval seed of a South American plant, widely roasted and salted and eaten as a snack. ∎ (peanuts) inf. a paltry thing or amount, esp. a very small amount of money. ∎ a small person (often used as a term of endearment). ∎ (peanuts) small pieces of Styrofoam used for packing material. 2. the plant (Arachis hypogaea) of the pea family that bears these seeds, which develop in pods that ripen underground. It is widely cultivated, esp. in the southern US, and large quantities are used to make oil or animal feed.