by Randal Hill
Charles Schulz is omnipresent in each of the nearly 18,000 Peanuts
comic strips that he produced between the years 1950 and 2000.
He once told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes: “If you were to read the
strip, oh, for just a few months, you would know me…All of my fears, my
anxieties, my joys, and almost, even, all of my experiences go into that strip.”
The arc of Charles Monroe Schulz’s life was established two days after
his birth in Minneapolis in November 1922. An uncle gave him the nickname “Sparky,” the term being inspired by the cartoon horse Spark Plug in the comic strip Barney Google.
Sparky, the only child of Carl and Dena Schulz, proved to be a naturally gifted artist who, from age 6, was determined to have a career in cartooning. Following his high school graduation and an Army stint as a draftee, Schulz took a job
grading lessons at Minneapolis’s Art Instruction School, where he had taken
a correspondence course during his adolescence.
In his off-hours he created Li’l Folks, which became a locally popular
comic strip in the St. Paul Pioneer Press before United Feature Syndicate
changed the name and debuted Peanuts nationally in October 1950.
Why the name change? UFS felt that the title Li’l Folks came too close
to Al Capp’s popular comic strip Li’l Abner. And at the time, kids in TV’s
Howdy Doody Show audience who sat on studio bleachers were called Peanuts,
their name derived from a vaudeville term describing patrons who sat in the
cheaper balcony seats—the “peanut gallery.”
Schulz’s strip was a simply drawn
group of oddly proportioned, balloonheaded
kid characters that included
Charlie Brown, Patty, Shermy, Violet,
Schroeder, Lucy, Linus, Pig-Pen and
the dog Snoopy, based on the Schulz’s
bizarre family pet who sometimes
devoured pins and tacks.
Peanuts often focused on the bumbling, insecure worrywart Charlie Brown who, along with his sometimes cruel gang of neighborhood peers, spent his days stumbling through the minefield of childhood social interactions. Through his characters, Schulz offered themes never before addressed in a mainstream cartoon strip: isolation, loneliness, melancholia, unrequited love—all stemming from his interior life.
The most famous, revered and influential comic strip in history, Peanuts earned Charles Schulz over a billion dollars and won him worldwide fame and respect. But, sadly, all of his success never allowed him to dispel the cloud of depression that hung over his life and fueled his creativity for nearly half a century.
Randal C. Hill, a former disc jockey, English teacher, record collector and author,
confesses to being hopelessly stuck in the past. He lives on the Oregon coast
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org