Recognize these phrases? “Curse you, Red Baron!,” “It was a dark and stormy night,” “Good grief,” “You blockhead!” and of course, “Auugh!”
Those additions to the popular lexicon — and familiar characters like the beleaguered Charlie Brown, bossy Lucy and loyal but sometimes lazy Snoopy — are the legacy of Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip “Peanuts,” which made its debut 70 years ago Friday, on Oct. 2, 1950.
Reprints still run in more than 2,000 newspapers around the globe, now 20 years after Schulz’s death. His far-reaching work has been translated into 25 languages and published in 75 countries. Over the second half of the 20th century, “Peanuts” portrayed the everyday life of children and sometimes reflected much larger events, from the Vietnam War to the feminist movement. It’s obvious the comic strip has left an indelible mark on popular language and culture.
“When ‘Peanuts’ began in 1950, Schulz was under no illusions. … Comic strips were generally regarded as a very low rung on the entertainment ladder,” said Simon Beecroft, a British pop culture scholar and author of “The Peanuts Book: A Visual History of the Iconic Comic Strip,” published late last month.
“Over the course of his phenomenal 50-year career, Schulz showed what comics were capable of as an art form,” Beecroft said. “‘Peanuts’ could be wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking, often in the space of one short strip. His worldview is fundamentally humane and non-stereotyped in terms of gender, class and race. He led the way in so many ways.”
Beecroft is just one of a long list authors, scholars and “Peanuts” devotees from near and far scheduled to participate in online special events scheduled by the Charles M. Schulz Museum through the end of the year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the comic strip. Others lined up to take part include Stephan Pastis, Santa Rosan and creator the daily comic strip “Pearls Before Swine;” “Mutts” cartoonist Patrick McDonnell and Schulz’s widow, Jean Schulz.
A hit with all ages
Schulz, who was born in Minneapolis and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, moved to Sonoma County in 1958. Though he wasn’t a native, locals considered him one of our own. When Schulz died in 2000 in Santa Rosa, he had been writing and drawing the “Peanuts” comic strip for nearly 50 years.
“We know that images like hang-dog Charlie Brown, loud Lucy and Snoopy, with his endless flights of fancy, have had a huge impact on pop culture,” Jean Schulz said.
Scholars often point to Schulz’s introduction of his groundbreaking Black character, Franklin, in 1968 or the feminist independence of crabby “fussbudget” Lucy as evidence of the strip’s ongoing relevance to the real world.
Recognizing Lucy’s lasting significance, the Heong Gallery at Downing College at the University of Cambridge in England plans a exhibition in November 2021 titled “Lucy Van Pelt: Director of Everything,” with help from the Schulz museum in Santa Rosa.
“Charles Schulz did not invent the daily cartoon strip, but ‘Peanuts’ revolutionized it. It presented the inner lives of children in all its complexities, without making childhood or childishness the butt of the joke,” said Prerona Prasad, curator of The Heong Gallery.
“‘Peanuts’ never invited us to laugh at children for being children, and that is why I think it was such a hit with all ages,” she added. “Everyone could identify with the characters. Everyone was or knew someone from the ‘Peanuts’ gang.”
Packed with meaning
What has made the quiet, understated, simply drawn comic such an enduring influence on us all? Part of it has to do with Schulz’s understanding of others, according to Blake Scott Ball, an assistant professor of history at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.
“Charles Schulz was a master of empathy. Hundreds of millions of people around the world over the last 70 years have stumbled across a ‘Peanuts’ comic strip in their daily life and felt as though Schulz had written it directly to them,” said Ball, who has studied the parallels between the comic and American culture, including the environmental and feminist movements and the Vietnam War.
Charles Schulz’s work not only has staying power but incredible impact, said Brian Fies, a Santa Rosa writer and cartoonist and author of the graphic memoir “A Fire Story” about the 2017 wildfires.
“There’s not another comic strip, and very few creative works in general, that have penetrated the culture as thoroughly as ‘Peanuts,’ through books, TV, movies, theater, merchandising,” Fies said. “Even people who’ve never read a newspaper comic know what a ‘security blanket’ or a ‘Charlie Brown Christmas tree’ is.“