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Peanuts

From Academic Kids

This article is about Peanuts, the comic strip by Charles M. Schulz. There is a separate article about the peanut, the plant.
Peanuts book cover
Peanuts book cover

Peanuts was a syndicated comic strip written and drawn by American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. The strip originally ran from October 2, 1950 to February 13, 2000. The strip was one of the most popular in the history of the medium, and helped to cement the four-panel gag strip as the standard in the United States; reprints of the strip are still syndicated and run in many newspapers.

Contents

History

Peanuts had its origin in Li'l Folks, a weekly panel comic that appeared in Schulz's hometown paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, from 1947 to 1949. When his work was picked up by United Feature Syndicate, they decided to go for the new comic strip he had been working on. This strip was somewhat similar to the panel comic, but it had a cast of characters, rather than different nameless little folk for each page. Maybe the name would have been the same, though, had it been less close to the names of two other comics of the time: Al Capp's Li'l Abner and a now-forgotten strip entitled Little Folks. To avoid confusion the syndicate settled on the name "Peanuts", a title Schulz himself was not particularly fond of. In a 1987 interview, Schulz said "It's totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing, and has no dignity—and I think my humor has dignity". The strip soon got an obvious main character, which Schulz would rather have named the strip after: "Good Ol' Charlie Brown", a character informed by some of the painful experiences of Schulz's formative years. In fact, the periodic collections of the strips in paperback book form typically had either "Charlie Brown" or "Snoopy" in the title, not "Peanuts".

Peanuts premiered on October 2, 1950 in seven newspapers nationwide: The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Tribune, The Allentown Call-Chronicle, The Bethlehem Globe-Times, the Denver Post and The Seattle Times. Earlier strips only featured for six days, and the Sunday editions did not appear until January 1952.

The strip's early years resembled that which it finally developed into, but with significant differences. The art was cleaner and sleeker, though simpler, with thicker lines and short, squat characters; for example, in these early strips, Charlie Brown's famous round head is closer to the shape of an American football. In fact, most of the kids were initially fairly round-headed. Charlie was unique in having virtually no visible hair.

Peanuts is remarkable for its deft social commentary, especially compared with other strips appearing in the 1950s and early 1960s. Schulz did not explicitly address racial and gender equality issues so much as he assumed them to be self-evident in the first place. Peppermint Patty's athletic skill and self-confidence is simply taken for granted, for example. As illustrated above, Robert L. Short wrote several books in which he claimed he detected theological messages in the strips. Additionally, he used them as illustrations during his lecturing about the gospel. Schulz supported such interpretation but ultimately attempted not to align himself with it. Although he was a Christian who once taught Bible classes, and whose Linus character routinely quoted scripture, Schulz referred to himself more than once as a secular humanist.

Schulz could throw barbs at any number of topics when he chose, though. Over the years he tackled everything from the Vietnam War to school dress codes to the "new math". One of his most prescient sequences came in 1963 when he added a little boy named "5" to the cast, whose sisters were named "3" and "4", and whose father had changed the family surname to their ZIP Code to protest the way numbers were taking over people's identities. Another sequence lampooned Little Leagues and "organized" play, when all the neighborhood kids join snowman-building leagues and criticize Charlie Brown when he insists on building his own snowmen without leagues or coaches.

The storyline Charles Schulz was most proud of was in the early 1970s, when Charlie Brown came down with a strange ailment that made him see every round and spherical object as a baseball, like the sun and ice cream scoops. This condition soon worsens to the point where he develops a strange rash on his head that precisely resembles the stitching pattern of a baseball. Charlie Brown is sent to summer camp to recuperate, wearing a paper grocery bag on his head at all times. The other kids dub him "Mr. Sack", treat him with unaccustomed respect and even elect him camp president. Eventually, Charlie believes his condition is easing and goes out to see the sunrise hoping not to see it as a baseball. As it turns out, he does not, but what he does see indicates, to his frustration, that his condition has simply become even stranger than before.

Peanuts probably reached its peak in American pop-culture awareness between 1965 and 1980, during the heyday of the strip, and there was numerous specials and book collections. However, sometime in the mid 1980s, other strips surpassed Peanuts in popularity, most notably Doonesbury, Garfield, The Far Side, Bloom County, and Calvin and Hobbes, and the number of Peanuts books on store shelves dwindled. However, Schulz still had one of the highest circulations in daily newspapers, and because of licensing and marketing, Peanuts brought in large amounts of income for Charles Schulz.

The daily Peanuts strips were formatted in a 4-panel "space saving" format since the 1950s, with a few very rare exceptions of 8 panels. In 1975, the panel format was shorted slightly horizontally, and shortly after the lettering became larger to accommodate the shrinking format. In 1998, Schulz abandonded this strict format and started using the entire length of the strip, in part to combat the dwindling size of the comics page, and to experiment.

Schulz continued the strip for 50 years, with no assistants even in the lettering and coloring process. Starting in the 1980s his artistic line started to shake. This became more noticeable in the 1990s, along with his format change--in some ways the art seems to have deteriorated somewhat, especially where character expression was concerned. Nevertheless, he continued the strip until he was unable to due to health reasons, and died the night before the final strip was published in newspapers. The final original Peanuts comic strip was finished on January 3, 2000 and published in newspapers a day after Schulz died on February 12. Following its finish, many newspapers began reprinting older strips under the title Classic Peanuts.

Cast

Peanuts did not have a lead character from the onset. Its initial cast was small, featuring only Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty (not the later character Peppermint Patty), and a beagle, Snoopy. The strip soon began to focus on Charlie Brown, though. Charlie Brown's main characteristic is his self-defeating stubbornness: he can never win a ballgame, but continues playing baseball; he can never fly a kite successfully, but continues trying to fly his kite. Others see this as the character's admirable determined persistence to try his best against all odds. Though his inferiority complex was evident from the start, in the earliest strips he also got in his own licks when socially sparring with Patty and Shermy. Some early strips also involves romantic attractions between Charlie Brown and Patty or Violet, the next major character added to the strip.

As the years went by, Shermy and Patty appeared less often, while new major characters were introduced. Schroeder, Lucy van Pelt, and her brother Linus debuted as very young children--Schroeder and Linus both in diapers and pre-verbal. Snoopy began as a more or less typical dog; he did not yet have thought balloons.

The Peanuts characters generally do not age, or age very slowly, except in the case of infant characters who catch up to the rest of the cast, then stop. Linus, for example, is born in the first couple of years of the strip's run. He ages from infancy to right around Charlie Brown's age over the course of the first ten years, during which we see him learn to walk and talk with the help of Lucy and Charlie Brown. Linus then stops aging when he is about a year or so younger than Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown himself was four when the strip began, and gradually aged over the next two decades until he settled in as an eight year old (after which he is consistently referred to as eight when any age is given, so we can safely assume that was his "stopping point"). The Peanuts gang as a whole can be roughly broken up into three generations:

  1. Charlie Brown and his peers (Lucy, Shermy, Violet, Schroeder, and others), who are all in 3rd grade.
  2. the younger siblings Linus and Sally, along with Frieda, Eudora, and a few minor characters. They are 1-2 years behind the older generation, about 1st or 2nd grade.
  3. Rerun, Linus and Lucy's youngest brother. Another character who joined the strip as an infant, he eventually reached kindergarten age.

In the 1960s, the strip began to focus more on Snoopy. Many of the strips from this point revolve around Snoopy's active fantasy life, in which he imagined himself to be (most famously) a World War I flying ace or an ice hockey star, to the amusement and consternation of the children who wonder what he is doing but also occasionally participate. Snoopy eventually took on more than 150 distinct personas over the course of the series, from "Joe Cool" to Mickey Mouse.

Schulz continued to introduce new characters into the strip, particularly including a girl named Patricia Reichardt, better known as Peppermint Patty. Patty is an assertive, athletic, but rather obtuse girl who shakes up Charlie Brown's world by calling him "Chuck", flirting with him, and giving him compliments he's not so sure he deserves. She also brings in a new group of friends, including the strip's first black character, Franklin, and Peppermint Patty's bookish sidekick Marcie Johnson, who calls Patty "Sir" and Charlie Brown "Charles" (all other characters call him "Charlie Brown" at all times, except for Eudora, who also calls him "Charles", and a minor character named Peggy Jean in the early 1990s who called him "Brownie Charles"). Some have speculated that Peppermint Patty and Marcie are portrayals of lesbians, but this may well be idle fantasy, especially considering both girls' admitted affection for Charlie Brown. Marcie resembles, and acts like, a younger version of Doonesbury's Honey Huan. However, from occasional references within the strip, it's clear she was modeled on Billie Jean King.

Other notable characters include Charlie Brown's younger sister Sally, who was fixated on Linus; Snoopy's friend Woodstock the bird, who spoke entirely in vertical lines; Pig-Pen, the perpetually dirty boy who could raise a cloud of dust on a clean sidewalk, or in a snowstorm; and Spike, Snoopy's desert-dwelling brother from Needles, California, who was apparently named for Schulz's own childhood dog.

After some early anomalies, adult figures never again appeared in the strip. "Peanuts" had several other recurring characters who were similarly absent from view. Some, such as the Great Pumpkin or the Red Baron, may or may not have been figments of the cast's imaginations. Others, such as the Little Red-Haired Girl (Charlie Brown's perennial dream girl), Joe Shlabotnik (Charlie Brown's baseball hero), or World War II (the vicious cat who lives next door to Snoopy), are real. Schulz added some additional fantastic elements, sometimes imbuing inanimate objects with sparks of life. Charlie Brown's nemesis, the Kite-Eating Tree, is one example. Sally Brown's school building, which expressed thoughts and feelings about the students (and the general business of being a brick building), is another. Linus' famous "security blanket" also displayed occasional signs of anthropomorphism.

Books

Peanuts strips have been reprinted in many books over the years. Some represented chronological collections of strips, while others were thematic collections, such as Snoopy's Tennis Book. Some single-story books were produced, such as Snoopy and the Red Baron. In addition, most of the Peanuts television animated specials were adapted into book form.

Charles Schulz always resisted publication of early 'Peanuts' strips, as they did not reflect the characters as he eventually developed them. However, in 1997 he began talks with Fantagraphics Books to have all Peanuts strips published, including every strip from the early years. The first volume in the collection, The Complete Peanuts: 1950 to 1952, was published in April 2004. Peanuts is in a unique situation compared to other comics in that archive quality masters of most strips are still owned by the syndicate. The following books publish much of this previously-unreproduced material.

Television, film, and theatre

Aside from numerous books of or about the comic strips, the Peanuts characters have appeared in animated form on television many times. This started when the Ford Motor Company licensed the Peanuts characters in 1961 for black and white television advertisements for the Ford Falcon. This commercial was animated by Bill Melendez who worked at Playhouse Pictures, a cartoon studio that had Ford as a client. Schulz and Melendez became friends, and when then documentary producer Lee Mendelson decided to make a 2 minute short film called A Boy Named Charlie Brown in 1963. he brought on Melendez to work on the animated sequences. Before this project was completed, the three of them (with help from their sponsor, the Coca-Cola Company) produced their first television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, first broadcast in 1965 on CBS, which featured the music of Vince Guaraldi.

The animated versions of Peanuts characters differ in some aspects from the strip. In the strip, adults voices are seldom heard, and conversations are usually only seen from the characters perspectives--in other words, the characters just answer questions or repeat the questions posed to them. To reflect this reality, Melendez used the sound of a modified trombone to simulate this--leading to the legendary "Whaa Whaaaw Whaa" sound attributed to such specials. The most serious deviation from the strip was the treatment of Snoopy. In most specials, Snoopy's thought balloons are ignored and his character's thoughts are not communicated directly, rather only via growls and body language, or other characters vocalizing dialog that Snoopy normally thinks. These treatments have both been abandoned temporarily in the past; they experimented with teacher dialog in She's a Good Skate Charlie Brown, and in the animated adaptations of the plays, Snoopy's thoughts were conveyed by a voice actor. The elimination of Snoopy's thoughts is probably the most controversial aspect of the adaptations, but Schulz apparently wanted or at least suggested this treatment.

The success of A Charlie Brown Christmas was the impetus for CBS to air a long-running, celebrated series of prime-time Peanuts TV specials over the years, including It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, and many others. In total, more than thirty animated specials were produced. These were also memorable for their jazz-inspired and piano-led theme tunes, written by Vince Guaraldi. In particular, the piece "Linus and Lucy" has become popularly known as the signature theme song of the Peanuts franchise.

Schulz and team later collaborated on other television specials and full-length feature films, the first of which was A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). Most of these made use of material from Schulz's strips, which were then adapted, although in other cases plots were developed around areas where there were minimal strips to reference. The Peanuts specials were most successful during the 1970s, with an average of 1 new special a year. During the mid 1980s, Peanuts was adapted to a weekly Saturday morning animated series, entitled The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, which lasted about 2 seasons.

In the 1980s, their popularity started to wane, and CBS had sometimes rejected a few specials. An 8-episode mini-series called "This is America, Charlie Brown", for instance, was released during a writer's strike. Eventually, the last Peanuts specials were released direct-to-video, and no new ones were created until after the year 2000 when ABC got the rights to the three fall holiday specials.

The Peanuts characters even found their way to the theatre, appearing in the musicals You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Snoopy!!!. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown was originally an extremely successful off-Broadway musical that ran for four years (1967-1971) in New York City and on tour, with Gary Burghoff as the original Charlie Brown. An updated revival opened on Broadway in 1999. It was also adapted for television twice, as a live-action NBC special and an animated CBS special.

The Peanuts characters are currently spokespeople in television commercials for the MetLife insurance company. Over the years, they have also appeared in advertisements for Dolly Madison snack cakes, Friendly's restaurants and Cheerios. Pig-Pen appeared in a memorable spot for Regina Vacuum Cleaners.

Filmography

Feature films

Animated TV specials


Peanuts characters

The following characters, listed in order of first appearance, would be considered the major and important minor characters in the strip:

External links

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