In October 1950, a funny little boy, with not much hair and fewer social skills, stepped onto the comics pages.
Nearly 60 years later, that boy, Charlie Brown; his dog, Snoopy; and his friends (and sometime enemies) Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty and others have become firmly entrenched as cultural icons.
Even after Charles Schulz stopped drawing his "Peanuts" comic strip (he died in 2000), reruns of the strip still appear in 2,200 newspapers (including the Sunday Deseret News) in 75 countries and 25 languages.
It is especially popular in Japan.
Holiday specials made for TV, such as "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," are still regularly aired and often achieve No. 1 ratings.
Hallmark has sold more than 2 billion "Peanuts" greeting cards; more that 350 million copies of books are in print. Everything from stuffed animals to breath mints sport the images.
And now, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the strip, Andrews & McMeel has created "Celebrating Peanuts: 60 Years," which contains more than 500 pages of classic strips, the story of "Peanuts" in Schulz's own words, a look at how the strip evolved over the years and often reflected the social milieu of the times.
"We decided this should be a pure glimpse of Schulz and his work," said Paige Braddock, creative director at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., who was involved with putting the anniversary edition together, and who worked with "Sparky," as he was known, for several years. "So, we decided not to have other people interpret the work, but to use only quotes from him."
He was truly a special person, she said in a telephone interview. "He had been a hero of mine, and you always worry when you actually meet your heroes that they won't be what you expect. But he was everything he should be. He was playful, always young at heart."
Braddock gives a lot of lectures on Charlie Brown, and people always want to know why his characters are so popular. "The best I can come up with is that they have intangible qualities that the average person responds to. Charlie Brown seemed real to us. Schulz's brilliance is shown in the fact that he created a sparse environment, so you could project your own context, so that you, as a fan, bring something to it."
We could all relate to Charlie trying to kick a football as Lucy pulls it away time and again, Braddock said. We could all relate to Charlie's being intimidated by the Little Red-Haired Girl, to Linus' need for a security blanket, to Lucy hanging over Schroeder's piano or giving psychiatric advice.
"There's just an honesty to the writing," Braddock said, "and you can't fake that."
Schulz always said there was a lot of his own life in the strip. "If you read the strip, you would know me."
He was born in Minneapolis in 1922. His nickname came when he was only two days old. An uncle started calling him "Sparky" after the horse, Spark Plug, in the "Barney Google" comic strip. So, there was something fitting in his growing up to create his own strip.
"The first indication that I had any drawing talent was in kindergarten," he said. "I drew a picture and the teacher said to me, 'Someday, Charles, you're going to be an artist.' Looking back, I see that the best thing my parents did for me was to simply not get in my way. That's sound advice for a parent trying to encourage an artistic child. If you can provide him or her with pen, paper, colors, a table and a place to work, you've done it all."
Schulz always knew he wanted to be a cartoonist. He put his ambitions on hold while he served a stint as a machine-gun squad leader during World War II, but after his return to civilian life, he began to submit cartoons to his local newspaper. Between 1947 and 1950, he drew a weekly panel for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, covering various topics, and he shopped his idea for a continuing strip.
After a lot of rejections, "Peanuts" debuted in seven newspapers on Oct. 2, 1950. Schulz continued with a daily and Sunday strip until December 1999. He died on Feb. 12, 2000, just hours before the final Sunday strip appeared in newspapers.
"His overriding goal was not to falter," Braddock said. "He knew that so few people get to do what he did. And looking back, it is so interesting to see one person doing the same thing for so long, to see how it changed, to see how he kept it fresh."
This anniversary edition gives a good look at that, she said. "You really get a better understanding of "Schulz in relation to his artwork."
He was one-of-a-kind, she said. "He came along at the perfect moment in time and history. He ended different than he started, but there was always a comfort in the narrative repetition, and humor in the struggles of life."
If "Peanuts" chronicles defeat, Schulz always said, "It is probably because defeat is a lot funnier than victory." But even Charlie Brown could hit the occasional home run. Schulz himself hit one out of the ballpark.
CELEBRATING PEANUTS: 60 Years, Charles M. Schulz, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 544 pages, $75
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