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- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium Curator

PEANUTS

The comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz 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 Features 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 disliked. 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"; and the Sunday panels eventually typically read, "Peanuts, featuring Good Ol' Charlie Brown".

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. At first there was only a daily strip. The first Sunday strip appeared January 6, 1952, in the half page format, which was the only complete format for the entire life of the Sunday strip. Most readers did not know that they often missed one or more panels, so their newspaper could save space.

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 Brown was unique in appearing to have virtually no hair. Though this is often interpreted as him being bald, Charles Schulz explained that he saw Charlie Brown as having hair that was so light, and cut so short, that it wasn't seen very well. Schulz described his style as "The Toothpick School," i.e., as though drawn with a toothpick.

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 is Franklin's presence in a racially-integrated school and neighborhood. As illustrated right, 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.

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Peanuts did not have a lead character from the onset. Its initial cast was small, featuring only Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty (not to be confused with 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 involved 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 and were demoted to supporting roles, 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, who began as a more or less typical dog, soon started to verbalize his thoughts via thought bubbles; eventually he adopted other human characteristics such as walking on his hind legs, reading books, using a typewriter, and participating in sports.

In the 1960s, the strip began to focus more on Snoopy. Many of the strips from this point revolve around Snoopy's active, Walter Mitty-like fantasy life, in which he imagined himself to be (most famously) a World War I flying ace or a bestselling suspense novelist, to the bemusement 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 strip, from "Joe Cool" to Mickey Mouse.

Schulz continued to introduce new characters into the strip, particularly including a tomboyish, freckle-faced, shorts-and-sandals-wearing girl named Patricia Reichardt, better known as "Peppermint Patty". "Peppermint" 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, who calls Peppermint Patty "Sir" and Charlie Brown "Charles". (Most other characters call him "Charlie Brown" at all times, except for Eudora, who also calls him "Charles"; Charlie Brown's sister Sally, who usually calls him "big brother"; and a minor character named Peggy Jean in the early 1990s, who called him "Brownie Charles". Also, Snoopy calls his owner, Charlie Brown, "that round-headed kid".) 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 as well as a few other birds such as Conrad, Oliver, Bill and Harriet, all of whom 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), World War II (the vicious cat who lives next door to Snoopy), and Charlie Brown's unnamed pen pal, were 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, that 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.

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.

Peanuts probably reached its peak in American pop-culture awareness between 1965 and 1980; this period was the heyday of the daily strip, and there were numerous animated specials and book collections. During the 1980s some 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 Charles Schulz a large income.

The daily Peanuts strips were formatted in a four-panel "space saving" format beginning in the 1950s, with a few very rare 8 panel strips, that still fit into the four panel mold. In 1975, the panel format was shortened slightly horizontally, and shortly after the lettering became larger to accommodate the shrinking format. In 1988, Schulz abandoned this strict format and started using the entire length of the strip, in part to combat the dwindling size of the comics page, and also to experiment. Most daily Peanuts strips in the 90s were three panels.

Schulz continued the strip for nearly 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; depending on one's view, the art deteriorated at this point, especially where character expression was concerned, however this is highly subjective and difficult to estimate.

Schulz continued the strip until he was unable to, due to health reasons. He died the night before the final strip was published in newspapers. The final daily original Peanuts comic strip was published on January 3, 2000. The final original Sunday strip was published in newspapers a day after Schulz's death on February 12. Following its finish, many newspapers began reprinting older strips under the title Classic Peanuts.

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