Charlie Brown Turns Seventy: Peanuts Debuts on October 2, 1950
Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” not only became one of the most influential and beloved comic strips of all time but an enduring pop culture phenomenon. When “Peanuts” made its debut in seven national newspapers on October 2, 1950, it was clear this was no run-of-the-mill strip. The only characters were children and animals (adults were always unseen) which many editors thought was doomed to fail. But what made Peanuts truly remarkable for its time was Schulz’s gentle yet effective social commentary. This was especially true when compared to other strips running in the ’50s and early ’60s.
The up-hill climb to achieve racial and women’s equality were not addressed head-on by Schulz in the strip. Instead, he assumed these challenges were already familiar and understood by the reader. In the “Peanuts” Universe, Peppermint Patty’s athletic prowess and assertiveness are a given, as is Franklin attending a racially integrated school.
Schulz saw no need to point out what he thought should be the norm. With “Peanuts,” he created an alternate reality of love and equality. He crafted his storylines to present social justice as organic human behavior instead of a goal to be attained.
As a “Peanuts”-addicted-kid back in the 1970s, I appreciate this so much in retrospect. I accepted this as the natural order without question, and it’s remained with me my entire life. I learned more about being a decent, thoughtful person from reading the “Peanuts” strips (I had, and have, a zillion of the old paperback collections) than I did from twelve years of Catholic school. By far.
Schulz never hesitated from directing his sharp wit at any number of controversial topics. Through the years, he took on at the Vietnam War, the “new math,” and school dress codes. In 1963, he added a young lad named “5” to the cast of characters, who also had two sisters named “3” and “4”. Their dad had changed the family’s surname to their ZIP code to protest how numbers were overtaking people’s identities.
In another strip, Schulz took a jab at Little League and other forms of organized play. When all the other kids in the neighborhood join snowman-building leagues, they taunt Charlie Brown when he insists on building snowmen without official organizations or coaches.
“Peanuts” also drew upon religious themes on occasion, most memorably during the 1965 holiday classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The blanket-clenching sage Linus Van Pelt quotes from the King James Version of the Bible (Luke 2:8–14) to a stressed-out Charlie Brown who is desperate to know “what Christmas is all about.” It's touching without being preachy, a skill Schulz had done pat.
During interviews, Schulz revealed that Linus mirrored his own spiritual side. Charlie Brown, on the other hand, represented some of the more painful and awkward experiences of his growing-up years.
The strip (and its many commercial offshoots) enjoyed immense popularity right through the 1990s. But when Schulz was diagnosed with colon cancer, he was forced to retire. The last original daily Peanuts strip was published on January 3, 2000. The strip was simply Snoopy sitting at his typewriter deep in thought with a note above him from Schulz that reads as follows:
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…”
The daily strip had ended, but there were still six original Sunday Peanuts strips that hadn’t been published yet. With a finality that seemed predestined, the last original Sunday Peanuts strip was published the day after Schulz's death on February 12, 2000.
So, what is it about Peanuts that makes their popularity so enduring? Why are we drawn to a world where the baseball games are continuously lost, the tree always eats the kite, grades are perpetually a D-, love is inevitably unrequited, and the Great Pumpkin never shows?
Perhaps because Charlie Brown and his circle of friends never give up, at least not for long. They never stop trying. They never stop believing. The characters in Peanuts may despair, but they never lose hope. There’s always another chance to kick that football, best the kite-eating tree, or eat lunch with the Little Red-Haired Girl. They’ll always be another game, another kite, another test, another Halloween.
Just wait ’til next time!
If you enjoy my work, please consider sponsoring my writing on Patreon
Or feel free to donate directly via Paypal
Thanks for reading!