How Peanuts Became the Defining Comic Strip of Our Time

Today, Snoopy can be found on coffee mugs, greeting cards and blimps, and even has his own amusement park. But Charlie Brown’s lovable black and white spotted dog wasn’t always mainstream. In fact, when the comic strip first appeared in the 1950s, the dog and his Peanut friends were considered, to quote Time Magazine’s David Michaels, “the fault-line of a cultural earthquake” due to the way the comic depicted life, real characters, and sadness. Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, went so far as to call Peanuts “the first Beat strip… everything about it was different…. [it] vibrated with ’50s alienation.”

The story of Peanuts is the story of its creator, Charles Schulz- the man who changed everything about comic strips.

Schulz was born on November 16, 1922. He would later state that a mere two days after his birth, “an uncle came in and looked at me and said, ‘By golly, we’re going to call him Sparkplug.’ So, I’ve been called Sparky since the day after I was born…”

Somewhat fittingly, this nickname was in reference to a horse, Spark Plug, from the Barney Google strip.

Schulz was an only child and often talked later about his feelings of isolation. With the freezing weather in St. Paul, Minnesota, no siblings, and an introverted personality, he could be found most days reading comics by himself, with his life’s ambition even from childhood to be a comic artist.  As to why, Schulz stated,

When I was growing up, the three main forms of entertainment were the Saturday afternoon serials at the movie houses, the late afternoon radio programs and the comic strips. My dad was always a great comic strip reader, and he and I made sure that all four newspapers published in Minneapolis – St. Paul were brought home. I grew up with only one real career desire in life, and that was to someday draw my own comic strip.

Schulz was also quite smart and skipped two grades in elementary school, with the result being even more isolation and inability to make friends among his older classmates.

It was in high school where his artistic skills began to take off. Even late into his life, Schulz would show off the collection of his early works, though the school yearbook rejected printing any of his submissions. Beyond this perceived failure, Schulz also stated in an interview with Johnny Carson that high school didn’t go nearly as well as elementary school academically- “I was a bland, stupid-looking kid who started off badly and failed at everything.”

A few years after finishing high school, now at the age of 20, Schulz nearly simultaneously experienced two abrupt life changes. The first occurred in February of 1943 when his mother died from cancer, with her last words to him reportedly, “Goodbye Sparky, we’ll probably never see each other again.” You see, Schulz had recently been drafted and set off for basic training days before her death.

Unsurprisingly for a young man who just lost his mother and was soon to experience the horrors of WWII, his drawings from that era were ones of depression and isolation. He would later state of his time in the army, “The army taught me all I needed to know about loneliness.”

This all seems to have eventually worked out for the man who once stated, “You can’t create humor out of happiness” and whose first wife, Joyce Halverson, said he told her on their honeymoon, “I don’t think I can ever be happy.” She further claimed, “He said he wouldn’t go to a psychiatrist because it would take away his talent.”

Schulz would further note in an interview in 1997 with Charlie Rose, “I suppose there’s a melancholy feeling in a lot of cartoonists, because cartooning, like all other humor, comes from bad things happening.”

Upon coming back from the war, he devoted himself to becoming a full-time artist, first teaching at Art Instruction Inc., and eventually getting his first real cartooning job at a Catholic publishing company where he lettered a religious comic book called Timeless Topix. Schulz stated of this job,

I eventually would letter the entire comic magazine in English, French and Spanish — and at one time I think I even lettered it in Latin, I’m not sure. And for this [Roman Baltes] gave me $1.50 an hour — I was just to submit my time — and I was always very efficient. He would call me up during the day when I was working at Art Instruction. ‘Sparky, I’ve got some things here and I sure would like to have them by tomorrow morning.’ So I would drive from Minneapolis all the way to downtown St. Paul — sometimes taking the streetcar if I didn’t have my dad’s car — pick up what he wanted, which he left outside the door, and then go over to Art Instruction for the day. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I could letter very fast. One day I had done a special fast job for him, and as a reward he let me draw a four-page story which had something to do with some soldiers or something, and then he actually let me do two pages of humor cartoons, and some of them were little kids. After they printed two of them, for which I think I got $20 a page, he then said that the priest who was running the outfit didn’t care for those, so that was the end of that.

Nevertheless, his work at Timeless Topix got him enough local attention and experience that, in June of 1947, he managed to get hired by the Minneapolis Tribune to draw a strip he called Li’l Folks. Still living in his father’s basement and getting paid ten dollars per comic (about $111 today), Schulz was in heaven.

One can absolutely trace the origin of Peanuts to Li’l Folks- from the well-dressed boy who loves Beethoven to a dog with human traits to a bald-headed kid named Charlie Brown- named after a colleague of Schulz’ at Art Instruction.

The tone was also similar- a mixture of loneliness, sadness, sarcasm, and outward expressions of childlike joy.

Schulz would later say that many of his characters in both Li’l Folks and Peanuts came from real-life inspiration. For example, Schulz noted, “The first dog I ever had was a Boston bull named Snooky. She got run over by a taxicab when she was about ten years old and I was about twelve…about a year later we got a dog named Spike, and he was the inspiration for Snoopy… [Spike] was the brightest dog I ever met. He had a vocabulary of at least 50 words – words he understood, that is.”

Looking to name his comic dog after his real-life one, he was disappointed to find out that another comic at the time already had a dog named Spike. So, he tried Sniffy but that was also already taken. Finally, he settled on “Snoopy.”

As for the character that would eventually take the lead, Charlie Brown, this seems to have been most closely inspired by the man himself, though it’s generally thought that all the characters embodied elements of Schulz’ personality. For instance, Schulz once revealed in an interview that Linus, among other things, represented his spiritual side.

But as for Charlie Brown, said Schulz, “I worry about almost all there is in life to worry about. And because I worry, Charlie Brown has to worry.” Or as Charlie Brown once so succinctly stated, “My anxieties have anxieties.”

Continuing the parallels, his father, Carl Schulz, was also a barber the same as Charlie Brown’s dear old dad.

On top of this, the red-headed girl Charlie Brown always longs for but never attains also mimics Schulz’s real life one time flame- a red-haired woman by the name of Donna Mae Johnson, who Schulz proposed to, but who turned him down and not long after married someone else instead.

Going back to Li’l Folks, Schulz attempted to get it syndicated into newspapers across the country, which was generally necessary for a comic artist of the day to make a career of the job. But for three years, there were no takers. Things finally changed when United Features Syndicate expressed interest in the then 27-year-old Sparky Schulz’ rather unique comic.

But there was a problem- there were already comics out there with similar titles, like Little Folks and Lil’ Abner, so a new name was needed. As for what the name should be, that choice was taken out of Schulz’ hands when it was decided at United that the comic should be called The Peanuts– borrowing from the name the TV show Howdy-Doody had for its on-stage audience of kids- the Peanut Gallery.

To the day he died, Schulz hated the name “Peanuts” calling it “the worst title ever thought of for a comic strip.”  In fact, he himself avoided using the name whenever possible, stating, “If someone asks me what I do, I always say, ‘I draw that comic strip with Snoopy in it, Charlie Brown and his dog.’”

In an attempt to phase out the name, at one point he tried to give the strip a subtitle- “Good Ol’ Charlie Brown”- but that name didn’t catch on. It was forever Peanuts.

On October 2, 1950, the comic debuted in seven newspapers, including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and New York World-Telegram & Sun. Even the first comic strip was slightly off-kilter. It depicts two kids sitting on a curb as a joyous Charlie Brown skips past. “Well! Here comes good ol’ Charlie Brown,” says the sitting child (who would become Linus), “Good ol’ Charlie Brown, yes sir.” The final panel reveals the child’s real feelings with Brown now out of view, “How I hate him!”

At a time when comic strips were dominated by action-adventure, slapstick, marriage humor, and melodrama, Peanuts was different. The comic expressed sadness, anger, depression, isolation, insecurity, and inferiority.

While it was funny, it also did it at the expense of some of the taboos of the time. For example, in the first panel of the March 27, 1959 edition of Peanuts, Lucy sits at her cardboard box with “Psychiatry help 5¢” scribbled on the side. In the second and third panels, Charlie Brown sits down in the chair and tells her “I have deep feelings of depression. What can I do about this?” After considering for a moment, she tells him, “Snap out of it. Five cents please.”

Depression was rarely talked about out in the open in the 1950s, much less in a comic strip. Lucy’s advice – which she always gave and always made Brown feel worse – was a paraphrase of the typical given at the time- as in it’s on you to choose not to be depressed. However, it’s clear that Schulz knew better.

Not only that, but even the artistic style of the comic was different. As the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Waterson, once noted,

Back when the comics were printed large enough that they could accommodate detailed, elaborate drawings, Peanuts was launched with a tiny format, designed so the panels could be stacked vertically if an editor wanted to run it in a single column. Schulz somehow turned this oppressive space restriction to his advantage, and developed a brilliant graphic shorthand and stylistic economy, innovations unrecognizable now that all comics are tiny and Schulz’s solutions have been universally imitated.

Watterson would go on,

Every now and then I hear that Peanuts isn’t as funny as it was or it’s gotten old. I think that what’s really happened is that it changed the entire face of comic strips and everybody has now caught up to him. I don’t think he’s five years ahead of everybody else like he used to be, so that’s taken some of the edge off it. I think it’s still a wonderful strip in terms of solid construction, character development, and the fantasy element. Things that we now take for granted—reading the thoughts of an animal, for example—there’s not a cartoonist who’s done anything since 1960 that doesn’t owe Schulz a tremendous debt.

That said, things started off slow for the strip and at the end of its first year in circulation a reader survey of comics conducted by New York World Telegram put it dead last in popularity.

Schulz kept churning the comic strips out, however, and within a decade Peanuts was in hundreds of newspapers across the country and Schulz was beginning to be recognized as one of the best comic creators in the world.

Never giving in on its ideals or dealing with hard-to-talk about subjects, Peanuts soon found its way on the cover of Time Magazine. It also adapted to the times, bringing in characters that continued to push the envelope in a changing world. For example, in 1966, Schulz introduced Peppermint Patty- a tomboy who wears shorts, open-toed shoes, calls everyone by a nickname, and lives with only her dad.

Peppermint Patty was quickly the strip’s most complex, fully-realized character, who dealt with the political issues of the day without hitting the reader over the head. Yet, she still possessed a similar inferiority complex as almost every other character in the strip- always believing she looked funny and wasn’t quite good enough.

Moving on to 1968, a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Schulz introduced Franklin, Peanuts‘ first black character, who attended the same classes as the white students, became friends with them, and whose father fought in the Vietnam War.

As you might imagine, however, adding Franklin to the mix was not without controversy, even before a strip with him was ever published. As Schulz said,

I finally put Franklin in, and there was one strip where Charlie Brown and Franklin had been playing on the beach, and Franklin said, “Well, it’s been nice being with you, come on over to my house some time.” Again, they didn’t like that. Another editor protested once when Franklin was sitting in the same row of school desks with Peppermint Patty, and said, “We have enough trouble here in the South without you showing the kids together in school.” But I never paid any attention to those things, and I remember telling Larry at the time about Franklin — he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?” So that’s the way that ended.

In the end, Peanuts went on to branch out into TV specials, movies, and best-selling books. According to Forbes, for a time Schulz was one of the highest-paid entertainers in America, during his heyday estimated to have been earning in the realm of $30-$40 million per year, while Peanuts appeared in over two thousands newspapers and was translated into over twenty languages in over 75 countries. On top of that, gross revenues from all sources of revenue related to Peanuts combined saw it bringing in in excess of a whopping $1 billion annually at its peak.

All told, nearly 18,000 editions of Peanuts were published- and, unlike so many other famed comic artists who ultimately resorted to hiring assistants to help out, Schulz drew every single edition of the strip.

However, in the late 1980s, the artist began to develop tremors leaving his lines wobbly. Said Schulz, “It’s just annoying, It slows me down, and I have to letter very carefully. After my heart surgery, it was intolerable, and then I wracked up my knee playing hockey. That was worse than the heart surgery; it just took all the life out of me…I just couldn’t hold that pen still.”

Nevertheless, he still refused to let anyone but himself draw the comic.

Finally, in late 1999, he suffered a series of strokes and would also undergo treatment for colon cancer, with the net result being he was no longer physically capable of making new strips daily. He said of this,

I never dreamed that this was what would happen to me. I always had the feeling that I would probably stay with the strip until I was in my early eighties. But all of a sudden it’s gone. It’s been taken away from me…

And so it was that in December of 1999 he announced his retirement. Mere months later, on February 12, 2000, Schulz died – a day before his last Sunday strip appeared.

In the end, Schulz summed up his comic as something of a primer on disappointment.  After all, as he said, “All the loves are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.”

Despite all this, however, Charlie Brown and all the other characters show an admirable amount of fortitude and resilience when faced with never ending stumbling blocks- they simply never lose hope and never stop trying.

On that note, unlike so many other successful comic artists who contemplated quitting in their early days as the rejection letters piled up, the obsessive worrier Schulz somehow never lost faith that he would eventually achieve his dream. Said Schulz,

To me it was not a matter of how I became a cartoonist but a matter of when. I am quite sure if I had not sold Peanuts at the time I did, then I would have sold something eventually; even if I had not, I would continue to draw because I had to.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • The aforementioned art instructor Schulz named Charlie Brown after, Charlie Francis Brown, once stated in an interview that he got in a little temporary hot water with a police officer when the officer demanded his name. This prompted Mr. Brown to reply, quite honestly, “Charlie Brown.”  The annoyed officer apparently didn’t believe him.
  • Charles Schulz once sagely stated, “A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing every day without repeating himself.” That’s a tall order for someone who created nearly 18,000 strips- and it wasn’t always easy. On this note, Cathy Guisewite, creator of the comic strip Cathy, revealed in an interview that Schulz once called her in something of a panic as he couldn’t think of anything to draw and was doubting whether he’d be able to come up with anything. Exasperated, she stated, “I said, ‘What are you talking about, you’re Charles Schulz!’… What he did for me that day he did for millions of people in zillions of ways. He gave everyone in the world characters who knew exactly how we felt.”
  • One of the most famous Christmas specials of all time- A Charlie Brown Christmas, had its genesis in a conversation TV producer Lee Mendelson had with representatives from Coca-Cola.  They asked if Schulz had ever considered making a Peanuts Christmas special, to which Mendelson stated in the affirmative and a deal was quickly made for the special.  Mendelson then called Schulz, telling him, to quote Mendelson, “I had just sold a Charlie Brown Christmas show. He asked which show and I told him, ‘The one we’re going to make an outline for tomorrow.’ And we literally did the outline in one day.” Unfortunately for the pair, when the program was screened by CBS executives, they were less than thrilled. They didn’t like the jazz soundtrack; they didn’t like the fact that real children did the voices of the characters; they didn’t like that the program lacked a laugh track; they didn’t like A Charlie Brown Christmas – end of story. Their official verdict was, “this is probably going to be the last Peanuts special. But we’ve got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it.” When A Charlie Brown Christmas made its debut on December 9, 1965, it was seen in over 15 million homes, topped only by the wildly popular Bonanza. It amassed glowing reviews, critical acclaim, as well as an Emmy and a Peabody award. Well spotted CBS.
  • When Schulz’ first wife, Joyce Halverson, discovered the then 47 year old Schulz had been having a several month long affair with a 25 year old Tracey Claudius who he first met at a photo shoot, she demanded he end the affair. Not long after, Schulz published an edition of Peanuts in which Snoopy laments, “What do you do when the girl-beagle you love more than anything is taken from you, and you know you’ll never see her again as long as you live?” Snoopy then is shown at his food dish, stating “Back to eating!” Ultimately Schulz and his wife divorced. As for his perspective, he would later state in an interview, “I didn’t think she liked me anymore and I just got up and left one day.” Within a year of that, he married another woman, Jean Forsyth Clyde, who he met at his hockey rink. The couple stayed married for 27 years until his death in 2000.
  • The character of Franklin would help inspire a young Robb Armstrong to go on to become a cartoonist himself, eventually creating the famed Jump Start comic strip. Many years later, Schulz would ask permission to give the character of Franklin the last name “Armstrong” in homage to Robb.
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