- Abbeville Press, Incorporated
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- 1st ed
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An Excerpt from America's Great Comic-Strip Artists
In 1950 Charles Schulz practiced the ritual undertaken by magazine cartoonists of the day: submitting to newspaper syndicates. Li'l Folks was rebuffed by several organizations, but United Feature Syndicate of New York was interested. Although he ultimately received a contract, there were several surprises: it was suggested that the single-panel format be changed to a daily strip and the title changed to Peanuts. On each count Schulz deferred to big-city syndicate moguls, but he resented the imposed title -- and still does. To him it lacks dignity, is a non sequitur, and leads readers to assume one of the characters is named Peanuts. The title was chosen by executives from a list of ten suggested by production manager Bill Anderson, who had not even seen the samples. His inspiration was the kid's audience, called the "peanut gallery," for television's Howdy Doody show.
Peanuts it was, and when it made its debut on October 2, 1950, Shermy and Patty issued history's first recorded put-down of Charlie Brown before the readers of only seven newspapers. The early list of characters was rounded out by Snoopy, and at the beginning Schulz himself had not yet decided upon a lead. The large cast of strong personalities that populates Peanuts today was not present in the strip's early years. Characters were added slowly but with regularity; the strip's famous tone -- children speaking as adults -- was not present from the start; there was a definite evolution toward Schulz's singular modes. All of which confirms the cartoonist's genius; his contributions have been arrived at instinctively rather than clinically.
Although a cult following soon developed, the growth in Peanuts's acceptance was gradual. After a year it was carried in thirty-five papers; forty-one a year later; and fifty-seven the next. In 1952 a Sunday page was added (in ten newspapers), and only in 1956 did Peanuts start appearing in more than one hundred newspapers. By then the avalanche had begun. Schulz's formulas were in place -- Charlie Brown had become America's most notable neurotic; Schulz's gag pacing was mature; the economical punch lines were clever and eminently quotable; and the cast was rounding out. Snoopy was developing a personality that began to exhibit markedly human traits. Lucy the brassy fussbudget appeared, with her unflappable brother, Linus (he was phlegmatic in large part because of his security blanket, a prop and a term that Schulz contributed to the American language). Schroeder played the grand works of Beethoven on a toy piano.
Finally -- the catalyst that brought Peanuts to more readers than newspapers did at the time -- the Rinehart publishing company began issuing Peanuts reprint anthologies. In 1955 Charles Schulz was the recipient of the Reuben award, cartooning's Oscar, from his peers in the National Cartoonists Society, and in 1964 he became the first cartoonist to win the honor twice -- but by that time his success and impact were becoming the stuff of legends.
Schulz was adding memorable characters to the strip at a rapid pace. Charlie Brown acquired a sister, Sally; and Lucy acquired a second brother, Rerun. Peppermint Patty -- no relation to the original Patty -- evinced a strong personality and eventually starred with her friend Marcie in sequences apart from the regular cast. Franklin was a black boy whose casual appearances comfortably integrated the American comic strip; Jose Peterson was to be another, albeit somewhat eclectic, ethnic representative. Snoopy acquired not just a brother, Spike, but a new persona. He was to provide a special brand of fantasy to a strip previously only tinged with the element.
Coincident with Snoopy's fantasies -- imagining himself to be the Red Baron, writing novels atop his doghouse (on a precariously perched typewriter), "conversing" with a bird named Woodstock -- was an explosion in publishing spinoffs. The Peanuts books were predictable best-sellers, but a quantum leap occurred when HAPPINESS IS A WARM PUPPY appeared. It was a book of homilies accompanied by simple drawings, and it quietly rested atop best-seller lists for forty-five weeks. There were other such books in addition to the strip anthologies, and they inspired greeting cards, posters, and countless other forms of merchandise.
The ubiquitous presence of Peanuts cast members on the American cultural landscape, and their universal appeal, led in still other directions. In 1965 an animated cartoon for television, written by Schulz and produced with Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson, not only was a major ratings success but captured two prestigious awards, the Peabody and an Emmy; A Charlie Brown Christmas is now a classic that is telecast every Christmas season. Dozens of other animated specials have followed. In 1967 an off-Broadway play, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, opened to rave reviews, a four-year run, and enough road and repertory performances to make it the most produced musical in American theatrical history. In 1970 a theatrical cartoon, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, broke box office records at Radio City Music Hall.
A host of other forums, formats, appearances, uses, and honors were tied in to the Peanuts cast -- Schulz's story is as much a story of modern licensing as one of modern cartooning -- but in 1969 a unique compliment was paid. The astronauts on Apollo 10 named their command module Charlie Brown and their lunar lander Snoopy. For millennia dogs had howled at the moon; Snoopy was a dog who visited it.
Currently Peanuts appears in more than two thousand newspapers, having become the most widely distributed comic strip in history. Its licensing activities are attributable to the strip's enduring appeal, even in these days when some strips use merchandising as a crutch or seem to be dictated by licensing considerations. Perhaps most remarkable about Charles Schulz in his later work is that he continues to experiment and innovate. Once again comparison with other strips is apt: other thirty-plus-year old strips have rested on laurels, simplified characters and situations, and grown routine. Schulz has kept fantasy alive with a thinking school building; has utilized the honored tradition of humorous continuities with summer-camp sequences; has engaged in melancholia with hospital episodes; and has altered his daily format to accommodate three-, two-, and even one-panel gags.
Excerpted by permission of Stewart, Tabori and Chang. Copyright 1997 by Roundtable Press, Inc., and Richard Marschall.
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