Today marks the 13th Anniversary of the passing of Charles M. Schulz, whose simple pen and ink comic strip Peanuts parlayed into a worldwide empire of riches, success and set the bar and standard as one of the greatest comic strips of all time.
Schulz, who was a passive and insecure man in real life, utilized those “traits” as the building blocks to the main character of Peanuts, the young tyke Charlie Brown. The sparse-haired, zig-zagged-shirted Brown, became the true embodiment of the seminal “loser” type everyman who seemed to never get a break, let alone an even one, in his life…always coming up empty, always rolling snake eyes with the metaphorical dice he was given.
In essence, Charlie Brown was kind of a G-rated Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in the famed American novel penned by J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield, who also went through periods and rough patches of loneliness and pained despair, was almost like a more adult version of Charlie Brown. With Peanuts however, and through humor, insight, philosophy, and even sprinkles of religion, Charles M. Schulz was able use those ingredients as a palate of life, showing us not only Charlie Brown’s foibles and frailties, his screw ups and his extreme bad luck, by way of his own volition or the volition of the other characters in the script, characters who borderlined on being vicious, unfeeling reflections of adults, but also showed us a reflection of most of us. The strip wasn’t for the winners in life, although Peanuts transcended personalities and stereotypes in its fan base, largely due to most people perceiving the strip as a “kid” one, not reading deeper and seeing that it really always was and remains a very mature strip considering its content and face value approach.
Those that read between Schulz’s lines discovered a multitude of almost a therapeutic form of comedy, by exposing our truths to us by way of these characters, who, along with Charlie Brown as the main axis, comprised of three-dimensional and yet still very cartoonlike figures: the fussbudget Lucy Van Pelt, who had an extreme cynical and downright viper, spitfire feel to her; her brother Linus, who was an even-tempered and calming philosophical presence in the strip, with a sharp mind and eye, yet still remained also insecure within, to the point of where he needed a security blanket (which was a character of the strip in itself); Charlie Brown’s sister Sally, who had a crush on Linus that left her relentless in her unrequited love and who was a lot more aggressive than her “wishy-washy” (a term often used in the strip) brother; the no-nonsense musician Schroder, who played sundry amounts of classical music quite convincingly on his toy piano (and also had his own annoyance in Lucy’s constant unrequited love for HIM); and the mute beagle Snoopy, owned by Charlie Brown and who remained the constant dreamer, who had a scope of imagination that reached endless horizons, but yet still had a sort of dumb cockiness that got him into trouble usually during his self-obsessed excursions.
It was the universe of the intermingling of these characters and more (like spunky Peppermint Patty and her down to earth friend Marcie, or the perennial physically filthy Pig Pen), that came from the witty, sharp, intuitive and innovative mind of Charles M. Schulz. He drew and wrote the strip for almost 50 years singlehandedly, an unprecedented run, from 1950 till the earliest months of 2000 (In fact the very last strip, a Sunday installment, was published to newspapers coast to coast the day after he died, on February 13th, 2000). In between, the strip grew in more ways than one; it went from being a crudely drawn gaggle of simple gags and jokes to one that sported lengthy stories and many of them were mirrored by Schulz’s own life, his personal successes, failures and tragedies, which all wound up becoming vivid for the world he created in the four squares that became the daily strip and the much more expansive and colorful Sunday strips.
From Linus’s blanket hating grandmother, to Snoopy’s dog house catching on fire (and burning his Van Gogh painting among other things), to Snoopy going on the moon or almost breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time Home Run record in 1974 (before Hank Aaron beat him to it that year in real life), to the many baseball games Charlie Brown’s team lost, to Charlie Brown one day waking up and seeing the sun resemble a baseball and having to wear a sack over his head (when he found out the back of his head suddenly had the stitching of a baseball), which garnered more positive results in how people perceived him than when he didn’t have the sack on, (a story in which Schulz had claimed was one of his personal favorites in all of the ones he created through the half century of work he did for Peanuts), and the hundreds if not thousands of other mini-stories presented in the strip as the years went on, and ultimately there were over 18,000 strips by the time Schulz was forced to retire because of a cancer that would eventually cause his passing, the day to day activities, adventures, successes and letdowns of the characters in the land of Peanuts became a ritual for not just America, but the world.
Schulz, through Peanuts, also created a marketing blitz that was akin to what the Star Wars franchise would do, in essence gestating a billion dollar industry which still exists to this day. And it didn’t only transcend to T-shirts and posters, paperback books and covers and blankets and sheets, cereal bowls and stuffed figures, there were also TV specials (starting with the now-American classic and holiday 1965 favorite A Charlie Brown Christmas, which won an Emmy Award) and theatrical adaptations, and a Broadway show which ran for awhile in which live actors played the beloved characters. It not only created a mammoth of wealth for all involved, it also elevated Schulz to a renaissance man, an absolute titan of his craft and field, and his vision influenced so many other cartoonists in his wake. In fact, one can almost say that every strip that came after Peanuts, has some sort of direct or indirect homage to it, from Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, and so many more. The fellow artists, the fans and the world, still continue to hold Charles M. Schulz in the highest reverence and respect as a cartoonist and observer of human nature.
There are so many ways to still enjoy the man’s work, be it from the many publications and reprints of the classic strip, or the DVDs and Blu-rays of most of the animated specials, or the myriad of interviews Schulz has given through the years of his professional life, which give a keen window and insight to man who didn’t hide behind his drawing table, he used it to show the world his soul, feelings and thoughts, making them laugh and think all the while.
Remember the great genius that was Charles M. Schulz today, the man affectionately known as “Sparky.” Exclaim “Good Grief!” in wonderment at all he was able to achieve with Peanuts. Make it and his work and his immortality part of your personal and metaphorical lexicon for all time. Actually, when one comes to think about it, is there anyone who hasn’t?