“Be yourself,” Charles Schulz once wrote. “No one can say you’re doing it wrong.” It was such moments of understated wisdom that ensured Schulz’s coterie of put-upon cartoon protagonists, from Charlie Brown and Snoopy to Peppermint Patty and Linus van Pelt, their status as some of the most beloved comic strip characters for more than half a century.
First published in October 1950, the Peanuts comic strip became the most influential and popular in the world: at its peak, it was read by 355 million people in 75 countries. The final strip was published on 13 February 2000.
To coincide with the 65th anniversary of the strip, the Peanuts gang have been brought to life, and modern audiences, in a film that will be released on Saturday.
The film release comes at a crucial time for the legacy of the influential comic strip. The final Peanuts cartoon was published the day after Schulz died, aged 77, but old strips are still syndicated to newspapers across the world. However, younger audiences now rarely come into contact with the printed newspapers that were home to the insecurities and misadventures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy for six decades, and the Schulz estate, which collaborated on the film, has expressed hope that it will introduce Peanuts to a new generation.
The film has been written and produced by the cartoonist’s son Craig and grandson Bryan. Schulz’s widow, Jeannie, said because of the mixed reception received by the Peanuts television adaptations made after her husband died, she was originally hesitant about the project.
“That’s why it took so long,” she said. “We did several television shows after my husband died and there were mixed feelings about how they fared. So there were qualms.”
There were 17,897 Peanuts strips published overall, documenting the trials, tribulations, failures and insecurities of the ever-worrying Charlie Brown, who kept going no matter what misfortunes life threw at him. Many have argued that the enduring appeal of Schulz’s strip is its honest and emotionally insightful reflection on the human condition.
Recalling her late husband’s close relationship to the strip, Jeannie said: “He always said, ‘I am all the characters. I’m Charlie Brown. But I also have Lucy in me. I’d love to be able to do all the things that Snoopy does in his fantasy world.’ He said, ‘I can be cranky like Lucy; I’m philosophical like Linus.’
“All the insecurities in the strip are his and I don’t think he ever got over them actually. Despite that insecurity, he did understand how much people loved his work and he appreciated the global reach of the comic strip.”
She said Schulz had been very protective of Peanuts, but added that she thought he would be very pleased with its transition to the big screen for modern audiences.
Schulz’s cartoon may have embraced nostalgia for an innocent and untroubled past, but his cartoon was also progressive at times. As well as always having gender equality in his strips – Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown both played sport – in 1968, three months after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, he introduced Franklin, one of the first African American characters in a comic strip.
He had initially been concerned that such a move would be considered patronising or pandering to the fight for racial equality, of which he was a supporter, but a letter from a school teacher convinced him otherwise. His depiction of Franklin as sitting in a classroom next to Peppermint Patty angered southern newspapers, who still had segregation in place, but Schulz refused to alter it, apparently responding: “Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?”
For Derrick Bang, who runs the Peanuts Fan Club and the website Five Cents Please, Charlie Brown’s emotional honestly was also pioneering in the 1950s. “The way Schulz used his characters was quite novel, mostly in terms of the degree of emotional complexity and interpersonal angst that flowed between the characters,” Bang said.
“I tend to think of adults in the 1950s as the ‘repressed generation’, because they never, ever discussed their feelings; such adults were inclined to raise their children the same way. But here comes Charlie Brown, who talks about his feelings all the time. In effect, he made it okay to feel insecure, as long as you didn’t let it beat you down.”
Bang said the essence of the timeless appeal of Peanuts was that Schulz had created a self-contained universe almost resistant to economic and cultural trends that would age it, adding that it was as relevant today as ever. “Schulz is one of the rare authors, rare artists, who had the ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia for a childhood we never had,” he said. “In hindsight, we have to admire the fact that Schulz was a remarkably perceptive, witty and intelligent individual. He had a firm grasp on the human condition and a lot of the messages that he put forward in the newspaper strip I think are still going to be timeless 200 years from now. Human nature doesn’t change.”
The strip still has a notable following among cartoonists and in the wider literary world. When Schulz died, more than 100 cartoonists paid tribute to him in their comic strips.
Jonathan Franzen described Snoopy as “the protean trickster whose freedom is founded on his confidence that he’s loveable at heart, the quick change artist who, for the sheer joy of it, can become a helicopter or a hockey player or Head Beagle and then again, in a flash, before his virtuosity has a chance to alienate you or diminish you, be the eager little dog who just wants dinner”.