Good Grief, Charlie Brown!

Earlier this winter, Somerset House on the south side of the Strand in central London hosted an exhibition celebrating Snoopy and the enduring power of Peanuts. As most people are aware, Peanuts is a long-running cartoon strip that features the iconic deuteragonist beagle Snoopy who has become as easily recognised as the protagonist, Charlie Brown. The successful exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown! took visitors on a “behind-the-scenes” tour of the Peanuts franchise from its early beginnings until the present day. Most importantly, the man behind the illustrations, Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000), was brought to the forefront through the presentation of seventy years worth of work.

Since the creation of Peanuts in 1950, the comic strip has continuously entertained and inspired others, touching over 355 million people in a whole variety of ways. Through his drawings, Schulz tackled recurring themes that many can relate to, such as anxiety, love and failure, as well as issues along the lines of racism, war and feminism. With a total of 17,897 hand-drawn strips, Peanuts was published in over 2600 newspapers throughout 75 different countries. The strips have also been translated into 21 languages, making them one of the most widely accessible art forms in the world.

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Charles M. Schulz in 1956, drawing Charlie Brown

Most of Schulz’s inspiration came from his own life, particularly his childhood growing up as an only child in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles Monroe Schulz was born on 26th November 1922 to immigrant parents Carl Schulz and Dena Halverson. His German father was a barber, a profession Schulz appropriates for the father of his character Charlie Brown. Like Charlie in the comic strips, Charles was a shy, introverted child who felt out of place around his Norwegian mother’s family who were a boisterous and occasionally violent crowd.

“When I was small, I believed that my face was so bland that people would not recognise me if they saw me some place other than where they normal would. I thought my ordinary appearance was a perfect disguise.”
– Charles M. Schulz, 1975

“Sparky”, as he was nicknamed at only two days old, after a racehorse in the Barney Google comic strip that his father enjoyed, grew up to love comics, regularly reading them with his father on a Sunday morning. Sparky grew up with cartoons such as Mickey Mouse and Popeye and decided from the age of six that he wanted to become a comic strip artist. For a child that believed he was nothing special, this aspiration gave him a purpose in life.

Just as Sparky would go on to base the “bland” faced Charlie Brown upon himself, he also used his family pet as a model for another famous character. At thirteen years old, Charles and the Schulz family became the owners of a mixed breed dog called Spike. Being mischievous and rather intelligent, Spike kept the family entertained with his tricks and ability to eat everything and anything. Later, Schulz used Spike as the model for his character Snoopy who shares the same markings as his beloved pet. Although Schulz designated Snoopy a Beagle, this was due to the amusement the sound of the word brought him rather than the drawing being an accurate representation of the breed.

Schulz chose the name “Snoopy” because his mother, who died prematurely from cervical cancer, once said she would name her next dog, if she ever had one, Snoopy. Spike, however, was used as the name of Snoopy’s moustachioed brother who was introduced to the comic strip in 1975.

Schulz drew throughout his childhood without any form of training until his final year of high school when he applied for a correspondence course run by Art Instruction. These lessons Schulz completed at home, sending in assignments that racked up a cost of $170, which his father struggled to pay. His comic strip career could not start off straight away, however, because, in February 1943, Schulz was drafted into the US Army, a traumatic experience which coincided with the death of his mother.

After the Second World War, during which he was stationed in France and Germany, Schulz began working for Art Instruction, whilst trying to sell his cartoons. He eventually sold his first series of one-panel cartoons in 1948 to the Saturday Evening Post. He then focused on developing a cartoon revolving around the lives of children, which he titled Li’l Folks. When he sent these to the United Features Syndicate in New York on the very slim chance they would be accepted, he received a response asking him to create more. Unfortunately, he needed to change the name because Li’l Folks had already been copyrighted. Thus, Peanuts was born, despite Schulz’s dislike of the name: “I wanted a strip with dignity and significance, ‘Peanuts’ made it sound too insignificant.” Yet, as the exhibition proved, Peanuts was by no means insignificant.

Although colour would be added later once Peanuts had become more commercialised, Schulz produced his comic strips by creating quick, simple line drawings with different sized dip nib pens, such as the Esterbrook Radio 914, which due to its flexibility, was able to produce both thick and thin lines. With these economical pens, Schulz was able to produce simplistic cartoons that seemed to vibrate with life. Carefully placed marks easily altered a character’s emotions and various lines effectively represented action.

Whilst the characters’ appearance helped to tell the brief story, speech bubbles let the readers know exactly what is occurring in the strip. Just as he did in the illustrations, Schulz used different line thicknesses to denote a large range of emotions and tone of voice. The thicker and darker the line, the more frustrated the character was. Schulz also used this technique to represent other sounds, such as the letter “Z” for snoring. Quiet sounds were written with a thin nib, whereas loud noises were shown in BIG, BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS.

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Charlie Brown

Peanuts consisted of many characters, which were added to over time. The main character, as already mentioned, is Charlie Brown, who has been hailed as one of the best comic strip characters of all time. Slightly based on his creator, Charlie has a gentle, loveable personality with a whole host of insecurities. Whilst he is intelligent, he has the tendency to overthink and procrastinate.

Schulz’s aim was for Charlie Brown to be seen as an “everyman” or a “loser” who experiences disappointment after disappointment. He never wins at baseball games, his friends often ostracise him and he is convinced he is a worthless person. Whilst this may sound rather depressing, his vulnerability reminds everyone that we are small and alone in the universe; we are human.

“Charlie Brown must be the one who suffers because he’s a caricature of the average person. Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than winning. Winning is great, but it isn’t funny.”
Charles M. Schulz on Charlie Brown

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Charlie Brown often worries about letting people down and will often go along with his friends’ ideas even if he ends up being ridiculed. For example, every year his friend Lucy promises to hold an (American) football in place so that he can run up and kick it. Every year, Lucy removes the ball at the last minute causing Charlie to trip over. This became a running joke throughout the series and likens Charlie Brown to the mythological figure Sisyphus who was doomed to repeat the same trivial task of pushing a boulder up a mountain for it to only roll back down to the bottom.

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Lucy van Pelt

“Lucy comes from that part of me that’s capable of saying mean and sarcastic things, which is not a good trait to have, so Lucy gives me a good outlet. But each character has a weakness and Lucy’s weakness is Schroeder.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Lucy van Pelt

Lucy van Pelt is probably the most major female character in the Peanuts series. Described as the Ying to Charlie Brown’s Yang, Lucy is a bossy, crabby, selfish girl, prone to tantrums. Although she appears in a whole host of comic strip scenarios, she is particularly known for Lucy’s Psychiatry Booth in which she offers poor advice in exchange for five cents. Lucy’s booth is a parody of the lemonade stand that children operated in their front gardens in many American towns. It also recalls the peanut stand that Charlie Brown had in Li’l Folks, which undoubtedly gave Peanuts its name.

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The inclusion of the psychiatry booth was Schulz’s way of mocking the “shrink culture” that was prevalent at the time, in which many Americans thought it was fashionable to see a psychiatrist. Lucy’s unhelpful answers reflect the trivial matters people discussed with their shrink, however, she could, on occasion, be more insightful.

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Schroeder

Lucy’s one weakness is her love for Schroeder who is nearly always drawn sitting at his toy-size piano. Lucy often tries to talk to him, admitting her unrequited love, however, Schroeder is always too absorbed in his music.

“I kind of like Schroeder. He’s fairly down to earth, but he has his problems too. He has to play on the painted black piano keys, and he thinks Beethoven was the first President of the United States.”

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Schroeder is usually an impassive character, only angered when someone insults his playing or his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven. In most strips involving Schroeder and his piano, the music notation of Beethoven’s Second Symphony are drawn on staves above his head. As a way of poking fun at Schroeder’s total preoccupation with music, Schulz occasionally depicted the staves as a physical object that could bend, stretch or even interact with the other characters.

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Linus van Pelt

Whilst Charlie Brown may overthink things and have many insecurities, there is no one more anxious than Lucy’s younger brother Linus. Often depicted with a blanket, Schulz popularised the term “safety blanket” as an object of comfort that helps people deal with their insecurities. Linus commonly appeared with his thumb in his mouth, another typical soothing technique of the anxious.

“Linus, my serious side, is the house intellectual, bright, well-informed which, I suppose may contribute to his feelings of insecurity”
– Charles M. Schulz on Linus van Pelt

Much to Linus’ horror, his sister is forever trying to “cure” him of his blanket habit. Without the security of his blanket, Linus feels extremely paranoid and is frequently depicted as a shaking, worried, sweating figure. A running gag in the comic strip involves his sister, or sometimes friends, stealing his blanket and turning it into something else.

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November 9, 1971

Over time, more characters were added to comic strips, for instance, Charlie Brown’s sister Sally who appeared in 1959. The tomboy Peppermint Patty arrived in 1966 and was a key character when Schulz tackled themes of feminism. Although Schulz’s cartoon strips were meant to be a bit of fun, they often reflected current events. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, Schulz introduced his first black character, Franklin. Regrettably, this caused a lot of antagonism and Peanuts lost many readers, however, Schulz stuck to his guns and Franklin remained a regular feature.

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Snoopy

When it came to current events, Schulz often used his canine character Snoopy to reflect the issues in the comic strip.

“Snoopy’s whole personality is a little bittersweet. But he’s a very strong character. He can win or lose, be a disaster, a hero, or anything, and yet it all works out. I like the fact that when he’s in real trouble, he can retreat into a fantasy and thereby escape.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Snoopy

Snoopy had many strips devoted to his own adventures, during which he was able to speak English and thus be understood by readers. Snoopy had a wild imagination and often assumed fictional roles. His main alter-ego was the World War One Flying Ace who first appeared in 1965 shortly after the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam. Initially, it was not Schulz’s intention to use Snoopy’s war antics as an allegory for Vietnam, instead, it was a way of expressing the horrors he had witnessed during his time in the US Army. By turning Snoopy into a World War One character, no one could accuse Schulz of mimicking the combats in progress at that present time.

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Woodstock

For the most part, Snoopy’s comic strips involve everyday things, such as eating – he was particularly partial to root beer and pizza – sleeping, doing “dog things” and playing with his friend Woodstock.

“Woodstock knows that he is very small and inconsequential indeed. It’s a problem we all have. The universe boggles us…Woodstock is a lighthearted expression of that idea.”
– Charles M. Schulz on Woodstock

Woodstock is a tiny yellow bird of undisclosed breed who debuted in 1966. Being so tiny, Snoopy almost becomes Woodstock’s guardian, particularly since he cannot fly very well. Woodstock often joins in Snoopy’s fantasy games, however, is very easy to upset, which more often than not results in arguments. Nonetheless, the pair always hugs and makes up, their latest disagreement quickly forgiven and forgotten.

Although Woodstock sometimes appears in comic strips with human characters, no one but Snoopy can understand what he is saying. On the occasions that Woodstock talks, his words are represented as short lines resembling chicken scratches. The reader only knows what Woodstock has said by Snoopy’s response.

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Snoopy & Woodstock ”Peanuts” Strip Hand Drawn by Charles Schulz

As years went by, Peanuts became more commercialised with figurines, badges, t-shirts and toys appearing with the faces of the well-known characters. Unsurprisingly, the most popular character was the happy, fun-loving Snoopy. In the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, a disillusioned young group of Americans voted for Snoopy as their “write-in candidate”. This resulted in the production of banners, flags, badges and so forth featuring the beloved character and the words “Snoopy for President.” Since then, legislation has been issued making it illegal to nominate fictional characters.

In 1969, Snoopy became the safety mascot for the Apollo 10 mission, whose job was to skim the moon’s surface to within 50,000 feet and “snoop around” in order to find a suitable place for Apollo 11’s historic moon landing. Due to this, Schulz drew a corresponding storyline in which Snoopy on his kennel raced the neighbour’s cat to become the first animal on the moon. A large number of plastic Snoopy dolls dressed as an astronaut were produced in honour of Snoopy being made a mascot by NASA.

The exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown! turned what at first appears to be an innocent, amusing comic strip, into something meaningful and important. Over time, Peanuts developed into something more than a strip on the “funnies” page in newspapers. It dealt with everything from irrational fears and childhood dread to war, racism and feminism.

Peanuts opened the minds of adults, causing them to see the world from a child’s perspective. The fears and misunderstandings of events, such as the Cold War, shone through, as did the range of confusing human emotions people experience every day.

Ironically, Schulz’s form of popular culture introduced readers to high brow forms of art. Oftentimes, people first came across names of books or types of classical music while reading a Peanuts strip. Schulz also included references to other artists, such as Vincent van Gogh, of whom Snoopy was a fan.

Personally, until I visited the exhibition at Somerset House, I was only vaguely aware of the Peanuts characters and, as far as I can recall, had never seen any of the comic strips or television episodes that evolved from them. By being introduced to Charles M. Schulz’s background, the individual characters, the methods of production and the themes involved, it is clear that Peanuts is much more than a comic strip. With simple but clever illustrations plus huge and relevant ideas, Charles M. Schulz is someone who deserves recognition for his work and Peanuts deserves a permanent place in the world.

4 thoughts on “Good Grief, Charlie Brown!

  1. Very entertaining, immensely interesting and a total joy to read. I was only vaguely familiar with the cartoon character Peanuts but now realise, due to Hazel’s article, that I have missed out a great deal.
    Thank you for sharing your significant talent with your followers. We would be impoverished without you.

  2. Like you Hazel I was only vaguely aware of the Peanuts cartoon characters and I now feel I have missed out such a lot. This is a brilliant exposition and I am certainly going to look out for books containing some of Charles Schultz’s cartoons. Thank you for introducing me to him.

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