To anyone born in any year of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, “Peanuts” was ubiquitous.
Its characters appeared in TV commercials, animated specials, books, toys, and, of course, a daily newspaper strip. “Peanuts” was always there in the same way that air was always there; it began in childhood through either cartoons or the comic strip and stayed throughout adulthood. It penetrated the public consciousness to such a degree that just saying, “Charlie Brown and the football,” was immediately understood. Everyone knew the characters in the same way they knew their relatives.
Better, perhaps, because the “Peanuts” gang was welcomed in.
It seems odd to think that “Peanuts” was discontinued twenty years ago. In an act of poetic artistry that some call coincidence and others suspect as part of a grand plan, the last “Peanuts” strip ran on February 13, 2000, one day after the passing of its creator, Charles M. Schulz. That the two should essentially end together seemed appropriate — one could not exist without the other.
In a break with tradition, Schulz did not employ assistants. Every line, every joke, every brushstroke originated and ended with his hand — all 17,897 of them. When he stopped, so did it. “Peanuts” was not continued by another, as is often the case with comic strips. For half a century, it was pure artistic expression, odd in an industry where many hands often make for light work, especially for something so well known.
Which is not to say that Schulz was against commercialism; he approved of the characters being used in other media, and freely participated in their adaptation. Estimates suggest that at some point his annual income exceeded thirty million dollars, largely due to merchandising. Anyone that grew up with Snoopy as a mascot for Met Life is aware of “Peanuts” as a commercial juggernaut; it could even be argued that those outside appearances are responsible for its popularity, especially today when the influence of newspapers on daily life has lessened.
But before the cartoons, toys, and reprint collections, “Peanuts” was just a comic strip, syndicated in daily newspapers.
How popular was “Peanuts”?
It began in just seven newspapers in 1950; cities that carried it included Boston, Chicago, Washington, Seattle, and Denver. Absent were cities such as New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Detroit. It rose to appear in 2,600 papers, and not just in America, but in seventy-four other countries, too. Its worldwide circulation was 355 million people and it was translated into twenty-one languages.
Like all things extremely popular, “Peanuts” seemed as if it’d always been around. But it did not spring fully formed from the head of Schulz; it was preceded by “Lil’ Folks,” a collection of single panel gags that ran in a St. Paul newspaper. When he tried to get “Lil’ Folks” syndicated, a reworked four panel approach was what United Features liked best. Legal reasons necessitated the name change; Schulz always hated the title “Peanuts,” which was suggested by an employee of the syndicate, either after the size of the characters or as a reference to the children that occupied the Peanut Gallery on The Howdy Doody Show.
How popular was Charles Schulz?
He corresponded with multiple presidents, including Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. In 1988, two men entered his home to kidnap his wife to hold her for ransom (the attempt failed, and the men got away). In 1990, he was honored at the Louvre; today, his original “Peanuts” artwork sells for anywhere from the low thousands for a daily strip to over $100,000 for a Sunday, depending upon the age (the older they are, the more they’re worth).
His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is next to Walt Disney’s. When it was announced that “Peanuts” was ending, Schulz was interviewed about it on The Today Show by Al Roker. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in America. Bill Clinton called him “…an American treasure – an artist, philosopher, and keen observer of human life.” Alistair Cooke said he was “…probably the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain.” There is a museum dedicated to him in Santa Rosa, California, where Schulz worked and lived. He was as well-identified as any cartoonist before or since, and because of “Peanuts'” connection to childhood (children read it; adults recall their bygone days wistfully), Schulz could be said to be held in the same company as Mr. Rogers, although television obviously made the latter more famous (albeit not necessarily more famous than Schulz’s creations).
A daily comic strip is a grind, with more elaborate material necessary for Sundays. And yet, Charles Schulz did it all by himself, every day, for fifty years. From the first strip on October 2, 1950 to the last one on February 13, 2000, Schulz was a one man factory. “Peanuts” represented his singular vision; it was his daily dialogue with readers, sometimes morose, other times hilarious, just like life itself.
Also like daily conversations, it existed without a sense of permanence. Strips would appear and then disappear, sometimes to be reprinted in collections later on, sometimes not. “Peanuts” as a feature was as permanent as any comic strip could hope to be, but the individual jokes were read and then forgotten, not intended to be remembered any more than a casual conversation.
To have a permanent, comprehensive collection of every “Peanuts” strip ever was unimaginable, especially for something as impermanent as a comic strip, especially for one that ran for five decades. It was against the very nature of the beast to attach importance to a product that was designed to be disposable.
But that is exactly what happened.
In 2003, three years after the last original “Peanuts” strip was published, Fantagraphics Books announced The Complete Peanuts, a series of hardcover volumes that would be produced two a year for twelve years.
It was like buying a mortgage for a house in that it was a commitment; there would be people that would purchase the first volume that wouldn’t still be alive when the last one came out.
Each volume contained two years worth of strips; presumably, the frequency was such because at one a year it would require a quarter century to complete.
It seemed ridiculous at the time to plan that far in advance, but now it has been finished for several years.
Unlike many ambitious projects, it was not derailed by editorial issues, legal challenges, or poor sales. It stands as a complete body of work for a daily comic strip written and illustrated by a single man for half a century, originally published in a medium designed to be thrown away every day.
As a complete body of work, “Peanuts” spans the second half of the Twentieth Century. It covers the terms of ten U.S. presidents, from Harry S. Truman through William Jefferson Clinton. When it started, television (if a family had one) was in black and white. WW II was five years in the past; the Korean War had just begun. The sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement, and the space race were all in the future. Elvis Presley had yet to start his career, and “Peanuts” would outlast him by decades. It would also outlast the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, and apartheid in South Africa. It saw the advent of video games, MTV, and the Internet. When it stopped in 2000, the world had changed substantially, as had its longtime readers. But “Peanuts” was a constant throughout it all.
Let us also not forget the in-house achievements of “Peanuts.” It treated boys and girls as equals, each with their own foibles and flaws. In 1968, during the Civil Rights era (albeit with prodding from African-American teacher Harriet Glickman), Schulz introduced Franklin, whose father was a soldier in Vietnam. That might not sound like much today, but it was a different world in 1968 and “Peanuts” was not without its influence. Schulz had the power to make such an addition, and he used it.
Another difference between then and now is that the day of comic strip artist as celebrity seems to be over. Outside of Jim Davis on “Garfield” (a strip that penetrated public consciousness itself forty-some years ago), a reader would be hard-pressed to name a contemporary cartoonist off-hand in the same way they could once mention Charles Schulz. Bill Watterson is out there, but “Calvin & Hobbes,” like “Peanuts,” is in reruns-only. As the significance of the newspaper has declined, so has that of the newspaper strip, and by extension, the cartoonist.
To those born in the Twenty-First Century, “Peanuts” is largely something they know from television or toys.
Some will have read reprint collections, but for the most part it is not the comic strip that they remember. They did not grow up in households where the daily newspaper was an important part of everyday life, and did not have the comics page form an impressionable part of their youth. They did not smell the newsprint and get ink on their hands. They did not see “Peanuts” on a page with other comic strips, one installment, one day at a time. They cannot measure their lives by different “Peanuts” eras; in their entire lifetimes, “Peanuts” as a comic strip has not existed in original form. It ended before they began, the party over before they arrived. They have only known it as existing in the past tense, not the present.
When they read it — if they read it — it is part of a collection of strips, not as a daily companion alongside other daily companions. It is an experience akin to purchasing an album by a single artist instead of listening to the radio where multiple artists play for free every day.
“Peanuts” still exists today, in reruns. It’s as much a statement on the state of the newspaper industry as anything else that it appears in that form. There are new newspaper strips, of course, and older ones that produce new material, but the demographics have spoken: they’re older, and they want their “Peanuts.” It’s a testament to the timelessness of the material that it still holds up today, or perhaps it’s a testament to the eternal nature of the human condition that people haven’t changed, only styles and technology have.
For those that only know the “Peanuts” characters through their appearances in other media, The Complete Peanuts is highly recommended. It is literate, philosophical, spiritual, funny, insightful, and influential. The series contains introductions by journalists (Walter Cronkite, Jake Tapper, Al Roker), cartoonists (Matt Groening, Lynn Johnston, Garry Trudeau), funny people (Patton Oswalt, Robert Smigel, Lemony Snicket), famous people (Leonard Maltin, Billie Jean King, Diana Krall), actors (Whoopi Goldberg, Alec Baldwin, Kristin Chenoweth), directors (John Waters, Paul Feig, Hal Hartley), and one U.S. president (Barack Obama). That such a wide variety of people were compelled to discuss the work of Charles M. Schulz shows how his work touched everyone, regardless of type.
So if you think you know “Peanuts,” it can be argued that you only really know “Peanuts” if you’ve read it, beginning to end. The simplicity of the art belies the messages contained therein, namely that we’re all human, that we’re all the same on the inside. We all have flaws, but we pick ourselves up and keep going anyway because that’s how we get through life.
It is that essential humanity of “Peanuts” that was touched upon in the cartoons and elsewhere, but its true home is in the comic strips, and without the source material, you’re only getting half the story.
Glen Cadigan is an author/editor that has written on the subject of comics for most of the 21st Century. His previous topics include The Legion of Super-Heroes, The Teen Titans, and All-New, All-Different X-Men co-creator Dave Cockrum. His short story, “One of Those Days,” was adapted into the live film, Eldritch Code, and he also writes the ongoing series, Bedlam & Belfry, Intergalactic Attorneys at Law. His online home is at www.glencadigan.com.