Today, Snoopy can be found on coffee mugs, greeting cards and blimps, and even has his own amusement park. But Charlie Brown’s lovable black and white spotted dog wasn’t always mainstream. In fact, when the comic strip first appeared in the 1950s, the dog and his Peanut friends were considered, to quote Time Magazine’s David Michaels, “the fault-line of a cultural earthquake” due to the way the comic depicted life, real characters, and sadness. Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, went so far as to call Peanuts “the first Beat strip… everything about it was different…. [it] vibrated with ’50s alienation.”
The story of Peanuts is the story of its creator, Charles Schulz- the man who changed everything about comic strips.
Schulz was born on November 16, 1922. He would later state that a mere two days after his birth, “an uncle came in and looked at me and said, ‘By golly, we’re going to call him Sparkplug.’ So, I’ve been called Sparky since the day after I was born…”
Somewhat fittingly, this nickname was in reference to a horse, Spark Plug, from the Barney Google strip.
Schulz was an only child and often talked later about his feelings of isolation. With the freezing weather in St. Paul, Minnesota, no siblings, and an introverted personality, he could be found most days reading comics by himself, with his life’s ambition even from childhood to be a comic artist. As to why, Schulz stated,
When I was growing up, the three main forms of entertainment were the Saturday afternoon serials at the movie houses, the late afternoon radio programs and the comic strips. My dad was always a great comic strip reader, and he and I made sure that all four newspapers published in Minneapolis – St. Paul were brought home. I grew up with only one real career desire in life, and that was to someday draw my own comic strip.
Schulz was also quite smart and skipped two grades in elementary school, with the result being even more isolation and inability to make friends among his older classmates.
It was in high school where his artistic skills began to take off. Even late into his life, Schulz would show off the collection of his early works, though the school yearbook rejected printing any of his submissions. Beyond this perceived failure, Schulz also stated in an interview with Johnny Carson that high school didn’t go nearly as well as elementary school academically- “I was a bland, stupid-looking kid who started off badly and failed at everything.”
A few years after finishing high school, now at the age of 20, Schulz nearly simultaneously experienced two abrupt life changes. The first occurred in February of 1943 when his mother died from cancer, with her last words to him reportedly, “Goodbye Sparky, we’ll probably never see each other again.” You see, Schulz had recently been drafted and set off for basic training days before her death.
Unsurprisingly for a young man who just lost his mother and was soon to experience the horrors of WWII, his drawings from that era were ones of depression and isolation. He would later state of his time in the army, “The army taught me all I needed to know about loneliness.”
This all seems to have eventually worked out for the man who once stated, “You can’t create humor out of happiness” and whose first wife, Joyce Halverson, said he told her on their honeymoon, “I don’t think I can ever be happy.” She further claimed, “He said he wouldn’t go to a psychiatrist because it would take away his talent.”
Schulz would further note in an interview in 1997 with Charlie Rose, “I suppose there’s a melancholy feeling in a lot of cartoonists, because cartooning, like all other humor, comes from bad things happening.”
Upon coming back from the war, he devoted himself to becoming a full-time artist, first teaching at Art Instruction Inc., and eventually getting his first real cartooning job at a Catholic publishing company where he lettered a religious comic book called Timeless Topix. Schulz stated of this job,
I eventually would letter the entire comic magazine in English, French and Spanish — and at one time I think I even lettered it in Latin, I’m not sure. And for this [Roman Baltes] gave me $1.50 an hour — I was just to submit my time — and I was always very efficient. He would call me up during the day when I was working at Art Instruction. ‘Sparky, I’ve got some things here and I sure would like to have them by tomorrow morning.’ So I would drive from Minneapolis all the way to downtown St. Paul — sometimes taking the streetcar if I didn’t have my dad’s car — pick up what he wanted, which he left outside the door, and then go over to Art Instruction for the day. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I could letter very fast. One day I had done a special fast job for him, and as a reward he let me draw a four-page story which had something to do with some soldiers or something, and then he actually let me do two pages of humor cartoons, and some of them were little kids. After they printed two of them, for which I think I got $20 a page, he then said that the priest who was running the outfit didn’t care for those, so that was the end of that.
Nevertheless, his work at Timeless Topix got him enough local attention and experience that, in June of 1947, he managed to get hired by the Minneapolis Tribune to draw a strip he called Li’l Folks. Still living in his father’s basement and getting paid ten dollars per comic (about $111 today), Schulz was in heaven.
One can absolutely trace the origin of Peanuts to Li’l Folks- from the well-dressed boy who loves Beethoven to a dog with human traits to a bald-headed kid named Charlie Brown- named after a colleague of Schulz’ at Art Instruction.
The tone was also similar- a mixture of loneliness, sadness, sarcasm, and outward expressions of childlike joy.
Schulz would later say that many of his characters in both Li’l Folks and Peanuts came from real-life inspiration. For example, Schulz noted, “The first dog I ever had was a Boston bull named Snooky. She got run over by a taxicab when she was about ten years old and I was about twelve…about a year later we got a dog named Spike, and he was the inspiration for Snoopy… [Spike] was the brightest dog I ever met. He had a vocabulary of at least 50 words – words he understood, that is.”
Looking to name his comic dog after his real-life one, he was disappointed to find out that another comic at the time already had a dog named Spike. So, he tried Sniffy but that was also already taken. Finally, he settled on “Snoopy.”
As for the character that would eventually take the lead, Charlie Brown, this seems to have been most closely inspired by the man himself, though it’s generally thought that all the characters embodied elements of Schulz’ personality. For instance, Schulz once revealed in an interview that Linus, among other things, represented his spiritual side.
But as for Charlie Brown, said Schulz, “I worry about almost all there is in life to worry about. And because I worry, Charlie Brown has to worry.” Or as Charlie Brown once so succinctly stated, “My anxieties have anxieties.”
Continuing the parallels, his father, Carl Schulz, was also a barber the same as Charlie Brown’s dear old dad.
On top of this, the red-headed girl Charlie Brown always longs for but never attains also mimics Schulz’s real life one time flame- a red-haired woman by the name of Donna Mae Johnson, who Schulz proposed to, but who turned him down and not long after married someone else instead.
Going back to Li’l Folks, Schulz attempted to get it syndicated into newspapers across the country, which was generally necessary for a comic artist of the day to make a career of the job. But for three years, there were no takers. Things finally changed when United Features Syndicate expressed interest in the then 27-year-old Sparky Schulz’ rather unique comic.
But there was a problem- there were already comics out there with similar titles, like Little Folks and Lil’ Abner, so a new name was needed. As for what the name should be, that choice was taken out of Schulz’ hands when it was decided…
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