Like many Americans from the Midwest, I have fond memories of marking the autumn and winter holidays with “Peanuts” television specials. At Halloween, my brother and I would swap candy from our plastic jack o’lantern bowls over the tinny voices from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”. A few weeks later, in the endorphin-induced sleepiness following the Thanksgiving feast, we would laze around watching “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” while trying to psych ourselves up to follow Charlie’s example and kick a football in the backyard.
My background might have given me a greater affinity with the “Peanuts” characters – their creator, Charles Schulz, was a born-and-bred Midwesterner and gave his comics with romanticised Midwestern touches, such as wholesome swear-words (“Rats!”). But the comic strips, books, TV shows and memorabilia penetrated the cultural imagination of places far beyond the American Midwest. Between the genesis of the series in 1950 and his death in 2000, Schulz made 17,897 comic strips – all in his own hand – which ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries. Over the decades, many of the strip’s characters came to inhabit particular niches in popular culture: Charlie Brown embodies the lovable “everyman”, while his dog Snoopy represents both wisdom and child-like innocence (and perhaps appropriately, has been co-opted as the safety mascot of several organisations, including America’s space agency, NASA).
“Good Grief, Charlie Brown!” at Somerset House in London celebrates the enduring global appeal of “Peanuts”. Although the show incorporates 20 works from contemporary artists inspired by the themes in “Peanuts”, the 80 original comic strips on display are the real stars of the show. It is fascinating to see the strips alongside Schulz’s personal effects, such as his correspondence with politicians and readers about his treatment of hot-button topics like race and feminism. Schulz reportedly disliked the name “Peanuts” and instead preferred the strip’s original name, “Li’l Folks”: “I wanted a strip with dignity and significance. ‘Peanuts’ made it sound too insignificant.” But to millions of people across the world, the significance of “Peanuts” – its emotional intelligence, its comforting nostalgia, its warm humour – could not be more profound.
Early Snoopy (1950)
It is difficult to imagine Charlie Brown’s pet beagle looking any different from the upright, pot-bellied, round-snouted creature we’re more familiar with. But Snoopy began his life as a normal dog – or rather, as a more anatomically correct depiction of a dog. He was inspired by Schulz’s childhood dog, Spike, a mixed-breed loved for his intelligence and playfulness. In 1937 Schulz published his first-ever illustration in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”, a syndicated newspaper feature, which featured Spike and a tagline highlighting the dog’s penchant for mischief: “A Hunting Dog That Eats Pins, Tacks, and Razor Blades…” Snoopy inherited Spike’s character and the markings on his coat.
This strip marks Snoopy’s first appearance in “Peanuts” as a small, jaunty puppy scampering on all-fours. Although he officially received his name (originally suggested by Schulz’s mother) within a month of his debut, it took several years for Snoopy to evolve into the character we know and love: he did not communicate through thought bubbles until 1952 and he did not stand on his hind legs until 1956.
Security blanket (1958)
Schulz has been credited with introducing several words and phrases into the English language, including the insult “blockhead” and Charlie Brown’s resigned sigh, “Good grief”. Schulz said he had just used the terms he had grown up with, but he was proud of how his work popularised the idea of a “security blanket”. This strip from 1958 shows Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus defending his “security blanket” from Snoopy. Throughout the series, Snoopy and other characters – especially Linus’s acerbic older sister, Lucy – try to take Linus’s blanket away from him. It’s seen by them as a sign of babyish weakness, but the blanket gives Linus the confidence to offer words of wisdom to his friends. Schulz has been praised for reassuring children that it was OK to use a security blanket to cope with the anxieties of growing up.
Psychiatric booth (1988)
One of the central relationships in the “Peanuts” strips is between Charlie Brown and Lucy, his bolder friend. Charlie’s retiring nature makes him especially vulnerable to Lucy’s bullying – one of the strip’s most famous tropes is Lucy snatching away Charlie’s football as he tries to kick it off the pitch. But Lucy’s pragmatism can shake Charlie out of his melancholy moods. Their encounters are sometimes staged at Lucy’s psychiatric-help booth (above) where she offers hare-brained answers to Charlie’s existential questions.
Part of the appeal of “Peanuts” is its nuanced view of the human psyche. Although the series is ostensibly for children, the concerns it addresses, from loneliness to fear of failure, apply to people of all ages. Although it can be demoralising to read about Charlie’s repeated lack of success, in his love life and on the playing field, it made the strip relatable to a wide audience. “Charlie must be the one who suffers”, said Schulz “because he is a caricature of the average person. Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than winning.”
Franklin and the Vietnam War (1968)
Over its five decades in print, “Peanuts” addressed a number of serious topics, including mental health and second-wave feminism. In 1968 Schulz took on two of the most contentious social issues of the day – race-relations and the Vietnam war – in a single strip. Here, Charlie Brown gets to know Franklin, the first African-American character to join the “Peanuts” gang after 18 years. Schulz had been nervous about depicting black children, afraid he would come across as insensitive or even offensive. In a letter to Harriet Glickman, a Californian teacher who campaigned for the introduction of an African-American “Peanuts” character after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, Schulz wrote, “The more I think of the problem, the more I am convinced that it would be wrong for me to do so. I would be very happy to try, but I am sure that I would receive the sort of criticism that would make it appear as if I were doing this in a condescending manner.” But Schulz soon overcame his qualms, encouraged by many letters from his readers.
As he builds a sandcastle with Charlie Brown – a metaphor for the need to build solid relationships between races – Franklin shares that his father is “over in Vietnam”. It’s a subtle but significant reference – the first time Schulz had alluded to the war within the comic. He hoped that other children whose fathers were away fighting would be able to relate to Franklin, whether they were black or white.
Franklin has received some criticism as a character – it took several years for him to become a core part of the group, and he never became as well-rounded a character as the other children. But it was one of the first times that many African-American children had seen a positive representation of someone who looked like them in print. As Barbara Brandon-Croft, the creator of “Where I’m Coming From”, the first nationally syndicated comic strip by an African-American woman, recalled earlier this year, “I remember feeling affirmed by seeing Franklin in ‘Peanuts’. ‘There’s a little black kid! Thank goodness! We do matter.’”
Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Somerset House until March 3rd 2019