It wouldn’t be fair, I suppose, to start my blog post with “Once upon a time a boy was born named Charles Monroe Schulz on the 26th of November 1922…etc… etc.”. Although as a starting sentence it might seem triggering, it doesn’t depict how I interpret Peanuts. For me, it is an ongoing caricaturized autobiography or a biography of what it is to be human rather than a very familiar and famous comic strip. Therefore, allow me to start this text in the following way:
Most people know Charles Monroe Schulz. He was the creator of the little panel cartoon Just Keep Laughing (in 1945) which evolved into Li ’l Folks (in 1945-1947) before completing its metamorphosis into Peanuts (in 1950). When Schulz was two days old, he got the nickname “Sparky,” which was inspired by a horse named Spark Plug from the comic strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (created by Billy DeBeck in 1919) that was very famous at that time. Schulz’s name and nickname seemed to act as the forerunners of THE ONE and only Charlie Brown, who also got his name from a famous cartoon in the strip. An alter ego of Schulz (and why not of most of us), Charlie Brown had to suffer, tolerate rejection, handle loneliness, disappointment and social uncomfortableness; he had to get used to losing, face the cruelty of childhood, be the personification of the ambiguity of remaining unnoticed and at the same time feeling the need to be loved and recognized. Charlie Brown tried to blow away the rainy cloud of human nature that we all carry above us, while walking towards adulthood, a faraway goal that we have all carried within us at one time or another.
Sparky grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the U.S.A. In the neighborhood where he grew up, his playing life evolved in accordance to the four seasons. In winter time, he played in the deep snow. As he recalled, in Minnesota, everyone knew how to skate, but he wasn’t a very good ice-skater (Charlie Brown wasn’t a good skater either). During spring time, he played marbles with other kids and during summer time he played baseball. Although he and his friends were quite fanatical about baseball, it was rather a restrictive activity because of the weather in Minnesota in combination with the awful facilities available to them. Sparky also loved golf. He mentioned that besides being a cartoonist, he equally wanted to become an amateur golfer. Although he felt a bit guilty about the latter, since his father’s favourite sport was fishing. According to Sparky his father must have been very disappointed that his son preferred golf.
Sports were highly significant for Sparky. They played a major role in his life and consequently in his comic strip. As he mentioned, “the challenges to be faced in sports work marvellously as a caricature of the challenges that we face in the more serious aspects of our lives…when Charlie Brown (from Peanuts) has tried to analyse his own difficulties in life he has always been able to express them in sport terms”(C. M. Schulz 1975). For Sparky the comic page where he had been called to work with was seen as “a golf tournament or tennis match” and therefore, it was essential for him “to be in the finals” and “win” (C. M. Schulz 1975) .
Sparky had many influential figures in his life. Sometimes influential figures, artistic influences and living experiences were tightly interwoven. Sometimes the aforementioned factors walked in a parallel path. The most astonishing thing for me though is how all these elements were merged within Sparky’s comic strips. Since they are numerous allow me to just highlight some.
Sparky’s mother had a big impact on him. Her death when he was 20 years old was one of the losses that he could never recovered from. It was his mother who showed him an advertisement in a newspaper with the title: Do you like to draw? Send in for our free talent test. This was his introduction to the Art Instruction School Inc., in Minneapolis in 1940. Even though he was able to take the classes in person, he decided to do all the lessons by mail because he was an introvert. Sparky tried very hard to remain unnoticed and invisible, due to his social awkwardness. Nevertheless, because he was very talented, people just recognized the talent and he started to become a leading figure not only of his own life, but also within the society that surrounded him (Does this ring true for Charlie Brown from Peanuts’ neighbourhood as well?!). His mother’s influence led Sparky to name one of the leading characters, since she always said that if she ever had a second dog she would called him Snoopy. Sniffy was the first name that occurred to Sparky, but he realized it was already in use. Snoopy, as he came to know later on, was a name rejected by Disney for another character. It was his lucky day!
The model of Snoopy was Schulz’s own dog. As a cartoon character, Snoopy was the first dog to ever be seen walking on his two feet and having a thinking bubble. The way he developed Snoopy was based on Sparky’s observation of the real world where the dogs appeared to be smarter than their masters. He thought that their canine wisdom could be seen in the way that dogs tolerated the actions of small children.
Another influential figure was Sparky’s father. He was a barber just like Charlie Brown’s father in Peanuts. His father loved to read comic strips in the newspapers and then discussed them with his son. On Saturday evening at 9:00 pm, Sparky would run to the local drugstore when Sunday papers were delivered. He would buy two Minneapolis newspapers and the followign morning he would get two additional newspapers (St. Paul Pioneering Press ), so in total Sparky and his father had four comic sections to read. His father was also the one who paid his correspondence studies, $170, which was quite a difficult amount to gather. Even though he had to borrow money from people, he was always encouraging his son to study and not to worry about the costs. Finally, Sparky finished his studies and his father managed to repay what he owed. While writing Peanuts the figure of the father was one of the offstage characters and he was used by Schulz as an instrument to depict his childhood recollections of his father first, and then his own experience in fatherhood.
Other influential figures were Sparky’s co-workers at the Art Instruction Correspondence School where he landed the role of corrector/grader of basic lessons in 1945. It was there that he met Frank Wing, a fellow instructor. He taught Sparky the significance of drawing accurately, and in Sparky’s own words “almost nothing I draw is not based on a real knowledge of how to draw this object”(Schulz, 1975). Frank Wing was the one who told Sparky “I think you should draw more of those little kids…”. So he created a number of samples and eventually sold them to St. Paul Pioneering Press as a weekly feature which he called ‘Li’ l Folks’. In time, these little kids would evolve into Peanuts,. Sparky named many of them after his own friends and colleagues, including his very good friend Charlie Brown, who he met at the Art Instruction Corrrespondence School. Finally, it was in this same place where Sparky met the little red-haired girl, his own unrequited love and in consequence of Charlie Brown’s in Peanuts.
*Featured image is copyrighted to the Charles M. Schulz Museum
Bibliography and Further Reading
Ball, Blake Scott. 2016. ‘“Snoopy Is the Hero in Vietnam:” Ambivalence, Empathy, and Peanuts’ Vietnam War’. The Sixties 9 (1): 54–78.
Lind, Stephen J. 2008. ‘Reading Peanuts: The Secular and the Sacred’. ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 4, 2. Accessed 18/02/2018.
Schulz, Charles. 1975. Peanuts Jubilee: My Life and Art With Charlie Brown and Others. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
Caswell, Lucy Shelton. 2000. Peanuts: The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library, September 18, 2000 – January 19, 2001. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.
Schulz, Jean. 2001. Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz. Edited by Chip Kidd. 1st edition. New York: Pantheon.