Charlie Brown glares out from the cover of The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952, the first installment in Fantagraphics' much-heralded 25-volume collection of the most famous comic strip ever. His scowl is surprising--most of us know Charlie Brown as a lovable loser, not a pissed-off kid.
His creator, Charles Schulz, isn't remembered as angry either. Schulz described himself as looking like a druggist, and he was often photographed smiling genially, in slacks and a sweater. The public image of Schulz in his last days, from his retirement tributes to his obituaries, was that of a simple American success story: He came home from the war in 1946, started drawing funny kid cartoons, and they snowballed into an empire.
Peanuts had 355 million readers worldwide and over 300 million copies of reprints published in 26 languages. The mountain of Peanuts-related merchandising--toys, games, commercial endorsements--reportedly brought Schulz $30 to $40 million a year at its peak. The animated Peanuts holiday specials have been annual traditions for almost 40 years. Grunts in Vietnam went to battle with Snoopy painted on their helmets, and MetLife put Snoopy on their blimp. The strip's semiotics have been dissected by Umberto Eco; the best-selling Gospel According to Peanuts, by theologian Robert Short, analyzed its Christian meaning. When Schulz fell ill in 1999, he received a get-well call from President Clinton.
Success made Schulz a household name, but it also obscured the man. Some critics, unable to see Charlie Brown as anything but a commercial shill, never forgave him for selling out his strip wholesale. But Schulz, who died in 2000, two scant months after announcing his retirement, never hired an assistant. He drew every panel himself for 50 years--perhaps the most impressive stat of his career. Obviously, something besides money drove him.
Which brings me back to Charlie Brown's scowl. It's hard to shake. Embellished with moody shadows by the cartoonist Seth, who designed the Fantagraphics series, the image is an extreme close-up of a Schulz drawing. It bores through Schulz's success and begins to excavate him from the merchandising mountain. Between this first volume, the recent release of Li'l Beginnings, which collects for the first time Schulz's telling precursor to Peanuts, Li'l Folks, and the publication of the paperback edition of Chip Kidd's 2001 retrospective, Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz, there's never been a better time to understand the man who became the most popular humorist of the 20th century.
Born November 26, 1922, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Charles Schulz wasn't raised to expect success. His father, Carl, was a stoic, devoted man who loved his son but rarely expressed it. A barber with a third-grade education, he was often months behind in the rent on his shop during the Depression. The family got by, and Schulz always had a baseball mitt and a bike, but sometimes they dined night after night on pancakes.
The young Schulz wasn't particularly outgoing or good at sports, and the local kids considered him, to use his own word, "sissified." Shy and intelligent, he skipped two grades and preferred drawing to playing with the older kids. After he finished high school, his mother developed colon cancer, and in 1943, the week he was drafted into the army, she died. Three days later he shipped out. Schulz has called her death, at age 48, "a loss from which I sometimes believe I never recovered."
Schulz spent his World War II years as a machine gunnery sergeant--after American troops moved through an area, his unit, the first to reach Dachau, searched for escaping German soldiers. He spent two years on constant alert, not seeing combat until the final weeks of the war. He gave up drawing for the duration, and during this loneliest period of his life he found religion, ditching his casual Lutheran upbringing for an evangelical Christianity.
When Schulz came home in early 1946, his first stop was his father's barbershop. In Rheta Grimsley Johnson's 1989 biography Good Grief, Schulz said that when he walked in after nearly three years overseas, he and his father hardly exchanged a word. "That was my homecoming," he said in a 1997 interview with Gary Groth in the Comics Journal. "There was no party. Nothing. I look back on it, and I think, 'Well, that was robbery. I didn't get to be in a parade, no one gave me a hug or anything like that.'"
Back home, he lived with his dad in the apartment where his mother had died. When asked by Groth whether he had felt any sense of postwar euphoria, Schulz replied, "No, not that I recall. Nobody even thought much about it."
Schulz took a day job at a local art school, but the rest of his life revolved around religion. He preached on street corners and attended the fundamentalist Church of God; for entertainment he went to classical music recitals with other members of the congregation.
Within a year, however, he was publishing a weekly strip called Li'l Folks in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Collected and annotated in detail by editor Derrick Bang in Li'l Beginnings (published by the Charles M. Schulz Museum in February), the strips, which ran from 1947 to 1950, offer some insight into Schulz's mind-set at the time. Drawn as one panel containing three distinct gags, and featuring a group of neighborhood kids rendered in a tight, precious style quite different from the loose scrawl of later years, Li'l Folks introduces a boy named Charlie Brown and his pet beagle, who rides a bike, builds a duplex onto his doghouse, and wears reading glasses. Self-doubt, kids struggling with the adult world, kids speaking as adults about childhood questions--all of the familiar Schulz themes are present. Sighs one grade-schooler, "I certainly dread the coming of my second childhood."
Around the time Li'l Folks first appeared, Schulz started dating Donna Mae Johnson, a pretty redhead who worked in the art school's accounting department. Schulz soon fell in love, although he knew that Donna Mae was also seeing Al Wold, a local fireman. The December 21, 1947, Li'l Folks strip depicts a disappointed little girl answering her front door. "Oh rats!" she tells the little boy on the stoop. "I thought it was somebody important." A month later Schulz drew two kids out on a date. "Here's your big chance to impress me!" says the girl.
Schulz and Donna Mae went out for three years, and the relationship echoed throughout his work for the next five decades in the person of the little red-haired girl, the never-seen, unrequited love of Charlie Brown's life.
While drawing Li'l Folks, Schulz regularly took the train down to Chicago to make the rounds of the syndicates in an attempt to land a daily strip. He was routinely rejected, although the Saturday Evening Post accepted 17 single-panel cartoons from him. (Bang includes a handful of them, but if Li'l Beginnings has a flaw, it is in not collecting them all, as fans have done for years.) Around the same time, his religious fervor faded. He never gave a specific reason why, but he'd hinted that Donna Mae's mother had a problem with his religion, and had acknowledged that the loneliness of the war years drove him to it in the first place. He stopped the street-corner preaching and soon looked back on the practice as a mistake. "I would never do it again," he says in The Complete Peanuts, "because I no longer feel I'm in a position to tell anybody anything."
In the summer of 1950 Schulz proposed to Donna Mae. She turned him down. About the same time, he had asked for a raise from the Pioneer Press. They turned him down. When he said he'd just have to take his strip elsewhere if he didn't get the raise, the editor said, "OK."
That fall a New York editor at United Media bought Li'l Folks as a daily strip, with two caveats. United wanted it drawn in four regulation panels every day, rather than the innovative one-panel format he'd been working in. That way it could run vertically, horizontally, around corners, or as a block of four squares, as space demanded.
Having his comic treated as filler was a blow, but the other concession demanded of him stung for the next 50 years: the syndicate changed the name from Li'l Folks to Peanuts.
At the time The Howdy Doody Show called its studio audience "the peanut gallery." Making the leap that kids must love the word peanuts, United made the new name a deal breaker. But while Schulz's work featured children, it was never aimed at them, any more than Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye was. "There's nothing that annoys me more than somebody coming up to me and saying, 'My nineteen year old daughter really loves your strip and she still reads it,'" Schulz says in The Complete Peanuts. "I don't even like the word [peanuts]....They didn't realize that I was going to draw a strip that I think has dignity. I think it has class. But, of course, I've said this before, when a young person goes into the president's office, what that syndicate president is buying is the potential of this young person. He's not even buying the work he is looking at, he's buying the potential ten, 20 years down the road, and how does he know? They didn't know when I walked in there that here was a fanatic. Here was a kid totally dedicated to what he was going to do. And to label then something that was going to be a life's work with a name like Peanuts was really insulting."
But with no girl, a confused faith, and a dead-end day job, Schulz didn't have much else going for him. He took the deal. Peanuts debuted on October 2, 1950--just three weeks shy of Donna Mae's wedding to Al Wold. The strip shows two kids, Shermy and Patty, sitting on a suburban curb. They see Charlie Brown approaching. They know him, but cold-shoulder him as he passes. "Good ol' Charlie Brown," Shermy declares when he's out of earshot. "How I hate him!"
The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952 runs every strip from these years chronologically and includes an introduction by Garrison Keillor, a profile of Schulz by David Michaelis (whose own biography of the artist is due out in 2005), and a lengthy 1987 interview with Schulz that was originally published in 1992 in Nemo magazine. For the first year, the kids gossip, have no adult guidance, fight, and make fun of each other. There's no football snatching, no Great Pumpkin, and for the most part Snoopy's just a pet dog. Garry Trudeau recalls the strip as "vibrating with 50s alienation," and he isn't wrong.
Twenty-five years earlier, Harold Gray debuted his epic Little Orphan Annie, in which the plucky orphan spouted optimistic slogans while fending for herself in a cold, concrete urban America. Schulz's kids, playing on pristine suburban lawns emblematic of the American dream, lack Annie's enthusiasm for life. On November 14, 1950, Shermy and Charlie Brown sit on a curb, staring quietly at the ground. Three silent panels drift by until Shermy finally says, "Yup!...well,...that's the way it goes!"
As a 50s humorist, Schulz had little use for the happy endings of television sitcoms of the era. Nor did he have much in common with the "rebel comedians" of the 50s, the Lenny Bruces, Mort Sahls, or Nichols and Mays, who always let you know who the smartest person in the room was (hint: it wasn't you). They laughed at the Eisenhower squares in their gray flannel suits. They had all the answers.
Not Schulz. He had already given up preaching. He only had questions. He'd come home from the war and embraced the American dream. The square's square, he served his country, went to church, courted a girl, and pursued a career. And by 1950, the war hero found most of the dream falling profoundly short of his expectations.
Still, he moved on with his life. He married Joyce Halverson in 1951 and began a family. They moved away from Saint Paul, first to Colorado, then later to Santa Rosa, California, and Peanuts began to evolve. As family and children enter Schulz's life, the kids from Li'l Folks fade. Baby Schroeder appears, with a prodigal love of Beethoven. Violet appears as a moody once-in-a-while date for Charlie Brown. Then, the comic's tiniest terror arrives, the fussbudget herself, the infant Lucy Van Pelt. Schulz always had a special affection for bossy Lucy, signing a March 1952 strip featuring her as "A Daddy."
On May 27, 1952, a landmark strip appears: Snoopy thinks for the first time. The next day, Charlie Brown's baseball team falls behind 60-nothing in the first half of the first inning. Charlie Brown is as fantastic a loser as Snoopy is a surreal winner, and the ultimate joke of the strip is set. Charlie Brown moves on from failing in sandbox romances to failing in the big picture, life itself.
Peanuts was a slow starter. In its early days of syndication it ran in just seven papers. Then, in 1952, an edited reprint collection of the first two years was published and became a surprise hit. A hint of things to come, its success brought Schulz a hip campus following and more exposure.
Chip Kidd's Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz, bar none the finest study ever done on a cartoonist, perfectly captures Peanuts's leap from intimate comic to global phenomenon. Kidd's genuine love of Schulz lifts the book out of simple nostalgia, and like Seth, Kidd doesn't mind playing with the master's artwork. He too takes a Schulz drawing of Charlie Brown and gimmicks it up a bit into an extreme close-up for his cover. But Kidd's Charlie Brown is smiling.
Kidd's book has a much more colorful feel and tone than the Fantagraphics book, and for good reason--this is a book about success. Plenty of original art appears, but it's the piles of yellowed newspaper strips, banged-up toys, and ad designs from the Schulz archives that dominate the pages. As in his Batman Collected, Kidd fetishizes the pop product; photographer Geoff Spear highlights every nick and dent and peel of the 50-year-old toys. The story, told for the most part in pictures with annotation as needed, traces a graceful line from Schulz's early, poignant humor to the licensing and merchandising engine's growing head of steam. Cute toys and games are replaced by an ad campaign for the 1960 Ford Falcon featuring Charlie Brown and the gang.
The little red-haired girl didn't appear in his work until 1963, but Kidd even found the only known sketch of her, done in January 1950. Schulz left the pencil drawing in Donna Mae's desk. It features a boy at the front door of a house presenting the girl with flowers. She's scowling.
For those who will never forgive Schulz's putting Snoopy on a blimp, there's probably little that can ever prove him worthwhile. Still, it's important to remember where Schulz quite literally drew the line. Charlie Brown never kicked that football or got the girl, Lucy never won Schroeder's heart, and Linus never saw the Great Pumpkin. Schulz never compromised himself for a single panel. The Peanuts kids could moonlight all they wanted, but like Schulz, they never gave up their day jobs.
Li'l Beginnings, by Charles M. Schulz, edited by Derrick Bang, Charles M. Schulz Museum, $30.
The Complete Peanuts: 1950-1952, by Charles M. Schulz, designed by Seth, Fantagraphics Books, $28.95.
Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz, by Charles M. Schulz, designed by Chip Kidd, Pantheon Books, $16.95.