Friday, 21 March 2014

Nostalgic for my childhood - Snoopy, Charlie Brown & Peanuts

Last year, I started a thread on the blog that I called “Nostalgic for my childhood” (you can see a round-up at this link, or use the label), covering books and films and various things that I remember fondly  It’s a thread I'm continuing and this is one of those posts, though it’s nostalgic for me in a slightly more oblique way.

Tracy, me and her Snoopy
When I was growing up, Snoopy was a big part of my life since my sister, Tracy, loved him.  Through her, I read the books and watched the films and saw the toys and I enjoyed it, I enjoyed sharing something with her.  Sadly, Tracy passed away in 2003.  A few years back, I was in a second hand bookshop and picked up a couple of the Coronet Peanuts collections for a couple of quid.  Reading them again, after a break of years, was a delight - I enjoyed the artwork, the comedy and the pathos as much as if I was just discovering it for the first time, but there was also this wonderful nostalgic tinge, this nod to the past of two kids sitting in the garden, reading those Coronet paperbacks and laughing and sharing the joke.  Since then, I’ve collected a lot more and now Dude has started reading them too, which makes me feel very good.

So to that end, since today is Tracy’s birthday, I’m going to talk about Peanuts.

Charles M. (Monroe) Schulz was born in Minneapolis in 1922, an only child who liked to draw and sold a picture of his dog Spike (who ate pins and tacks) to “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” magazine in 1937.  His drawings were rejected by his high school year book though the school in question - Central High - had a five-foot tall statue of Snoopy placed in the main office sixty years later.  His mother Dena, to whom he was very close, died of cancer in 1943 and not long after, Schulz was drafted into the army where he saw active service at the end of the war.  In 1951, he married Joyce Halverson and they had four children together, as well as an adopted daughter, moving to Santa Rosa, Califorina, in 1969, where he lived and worked.  The Schulzes divorced in 1972 and in 1973 he married Jean Clyde, a union that lasted until his death.

In the 1980s, Schulz complained of a shaking in his hand that sometimes got so bad “I have to hold my wrist to draw”, which was diagnosed as an essential tremor.  In November 1999, he suffered several small strokes and it was later discovered he had colon cancer that had metastasized and as he could neither read or see clearly and was undergoing chemotherapy, he announced his retirement on December 14th 1999.  When asked if, in the final strip, Charlie Brown would finally get to kick the football, he said “Oh no!  Definitely not! I couldn't have Charlie Brown kick that football; that would be a terrible disservice to him after nearly half a century.”  However, in a later interview, he is quoted as saying “'You know, that poor, poor kid, he never even got to kick the football. What a dirty trick…”

Charles M Schulz died in his sleep on February 12th 2000 and his last Peanuts strip was published the next day.  As part of his will, he requested that no new comic strips based on the characters be drawn.  On May 27th 2000, more than 100 cartoonists paid homage to him and Peanuts by incorporating his characters into their comic strips on that date.

Although he created other strips, Schulz will be forever known for Peanuts, a name bestowed by Universal Feature Syndicate that he always disliked (in a 1987 interview, he said it was “totally ridiculous, has no meaning…or dignity”) so whenever the strips were collected, the books either had “Charlie Brown” or “Snoopy” in the title.

The first strip
The Peanuts strip debuted in nine newspapers on October 2nd, 1950 in the four-panel format that would become its trademark.  Snoopy first appeared in the third strip, with what would become the main stock company of characters not appearing until later:  Schroeder in May 1951, Lucy in March 1952 (and bearing in mind the huge part she later played, it makes you wonder what happened in those early strips), Linus in September 1952, Pig Pen in July 1954, Sally in August 1959, “Peppermint” Patty in August 1966 (though her partner-in-crime Marcie wouldn’t appear until July 1971) and (most astonishing to me, considering how closely he’s associated with Snoopy), Woodstock in April 1967 (though he wasn’t named until June 1970).

Over the 50 year run, most of the characters’ ages don’t change any more than four years (Charlie Brown started as a four-year old and aged over the next two decades to settle as an eight-year-old for the remainder of the strip) and when characters are born (such as Sally), they age only until they’re small children.  Having said that, the characters aren’t defined by their ages and often discuss literature, art and music, faith, loneliness and depression, as if they were adults.

Of course, the characters are key to the strips success, with Lucy’s forthrightness, Patty’s self-confidence and Snoopy’s joie-de-vivre contrasting well with Charlie Brown’s melancholy.  In fact, for me, it’s that mixture of pure fun and occasional poignancy that keeps drawing me back to the strip.

Charlie Brown is the key character (apparently developed from some of the painful experiences of Schulz’s formative years), drawn to melancholy but also full of admirable persistence (he wants to win a baseball game, he wants to fly a kite, he wants to kick Lucy’s football  and he will keep trying until he succeeds).  He also has an unrequited crush on the “little red-headed girl”, which is just marvellous to read (and she herself was only seen once, in 1998, as a silhouette).

Snoopy as Joe Cool, with an equally cool Woodstock
Snoopy is probably the best known character and the strip began to focus more on him in the 60s, with his wildly imaginative fantasy life being given plenty of room to thrive.  From the “World War One Flying ace”, to a ‘world famous attorney’ (often representing Peppermint Patty and often losing), he was also a (somewhat failed) best-selling suspense novelist and, of course, Joe Cool.  Although the other characters seemed to wonder what he was doing at any given time, most of them generally participated in the fantasy.

At no point does an adult enter the world - the reader is made aware that they’re about, from parents to teachers, but only ever sees the children.  In the TV special, grown-ups are seen but all talk in a trombone-like special effect.

No definite location is ever given (though Linus is once shown hugging a sign that says “Pinetree Corners Population 3,260”), but several addresses seem to suggest it’s set in Minneapolis, where Schulz was born and grew up.

Shulz decided to produce all aspects of the strip himself, which lent it a unified tone, though the early artwork is different - cleaner and sleeker - than the more popularly known strips from the 60s through to the 80s.  He employed a minimalistic style, generally without too much background and his sometimes frazzled lines forced “its readers to focus on subtle nuances” (according to art critic John Carlin).

The 1960s is known as the “Golden Age” for the strip and certainly, during this period, several well known themes and characters appeared for the first time including “Peppermint” Patty and Marcie, the flying ace and Franklin (and by extension, a matter-of-fact assumption of a racially integrated school and neighbourhood).  Further social commentary came with the fact that Charlie Brown’s baseball team had three girls in it and the 1966 TV special “Charlie Brown’s All-Stars” showed him refusing sponsorship because the sponsors said the league didn’t allow girls or dogs to play.  There were also satirical barbs on occasion, over a raft of topics, with the key one focussing on childhood activities becoming so organised that they often wore down individuality.  Whilst not a violent strip, there were occasional scuffles, mainly from Lucy who often threatened to ‘slug’ someone, though it was generally the girls being mean to the boys.  Religion was another theme touched on occasionally, in both the strip and most notability the 1965 TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.

The strip remained massively popular during the 1980s and 1990s (though rivalled by Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes respectively) and is reputed to have earned Schulz in excess of $1bn.  Peanuts is regarded as one of the most influential comics strips of all time, with Schulz receiving the National Cartoonist Society Humor Comic Strip Award, the Reuben Award twice (the first cartoonist to receive the honour twice), the Elzie Segar Award and the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award.  The TV specials won two Peabody Awards and four Emmys and Schulz has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as a place in the William Randolph Hearst Cartoon Hall of Fame. Peanuts was featured on the cover of Time Magazine on April 9, 1965, with the accompanying article praising the strip as being “the leader of a refreshing new breed that takes an unprecedented interest in the basics of life.”  In addition, the Apollo 10 lunar module was nicknamed “Snoopy” and the command module “Charlie Brown” and Snoopy is the personal safety mascot for NASA astronauts (NASA issues a Silver Snoopy award to employees that promote flight safety).

At its height, Peanuts was published daily in 2,600 papers across 75 countries and in 21 languages, with Schulz himself drawing nearly 18,000 strips over 50 years.  His routine, he once wrote, consisted of first eating a jelly donut and going through the day's mail with his secretary before sitting down to write and draw the day's strip at his studio. After coming up with an idea (which he said could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours), he would draw, which could take an hour for the dailies or three hours for Sunday strips.  Asked why he never used assistants to help produce the script, he said “it would be equivalent to a golfer hiring a man to make his putts for him.”


The final daily comic strip was published on January 3, 2000 and on February 13, 2000, the day following Schulz's death, the last ever strip was published.  It shows Charlie Brown answering the phone to someone presumably asking for Snoopy.  “No,” says Charlie Brown, “I think he’s writing.”  Snoopy is shown sitting at his typewriter, which contains a note from Schulz that reads:

Dear Friends,

I have been fortunate to draw Charlie Brown and his friends for almost fifty years. It has been the fulfillment of my childhood ambition.

Unfortunately, I am no longer able to maintain the schedule demanded by a daily comic strip. My family does not wish "Peanuts" to be continued by anyone else, therefore I am announcing my retirement.

I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the wonderful support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy... how can I ever forget them...

— Charles M. Schulz


Fittingly, Charlie Brown was the only character to appear in both the first strip and the last.

Happy birthday, TJ!

1 comment:

  1. It was all about Snoopy for me!

    Happy Birthday, Tracy.

    ReplyDelete