The man behind ‘Peanuts’ and his inspired imagination

By Vikas Datta

He can be hailed as creator of the longest-running, most popular comic strip ever, which saw its characters used from selling insurance (Metlife) to nickname an Indian Air Force chief (NAK Browne). But Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” was not only a cartoon series featuring a group of children and a dog but a depiction of life in both its most heartwarming and bittersweet moments.

“Peanuts” was a phenomenon, with the 17,897 strips of its run from October 2, 1950, to February 13, 2000 — a day after Schulz’s death — making it “arguably the longest story ever told by one human being”, as per American academician Robert Thomson.

It was also a story that resonated well across the globe, appearing in 2,600 newspapers in 21 languages across 75 countries in its heyday. “Peanuts” can still be read in several places, including India (though these are actually reprints), and has inspired animated versions, amusement parks, parodies and spin-off merchandise, apart from the fame of its principal characters — Charlie Brown and his beagle, Snoopy.

But while we can go on about shy and nervous Charlie Brown, Snoopy, bossy Lucy van Pelt, Linus and his blanket, the Great Pumpkin, Peppermint Patty and other characters, equally deserving of attention is its industrious but shy creator, whose 95th birth anniversary is on Sunday, and his inspirations.

Charles Monroe Schulz (1922-2000) was not only the son of a barber like Charlie Brown, but there were many other incidents and persons from his life mirrored in “Peanuts”. Charlie Brown for one was named after a drawing school colleague and many other of Schulz’s friends inspired the character’s own friends in name or deeds.

Born in Minneapolis (Minnesota) on November 26, 1922, Schulz was gifted at drawing right from an early age and determined to make it his profession. “The only thing I ever wanted to be was a cartoonist. That’s my life. Drawing,” he said later.

One of his earliest sketches was of the family’s pointer dog, Spike, who ate unusual things like pins and blades — and it went on to appear in Ripley’s “Believe it or not”. But it was not always that easy — while at high school (where he was as shy and meek as Charlie Brown), his drawings for the yearbook were rejected.

After a brief spell in the US army during World War II, he returned to Minneapolis and plunged into his dream field. His first regular series was a weekly one-panel “Li’l Folks”, which ran locally from June 1947 to January 1950.

This was a forerunner to “Peanuts” for Schulz here first used the name Charlie Brown — though it was used for three or four different boy characters — and had a dog looking like Snoopy. He tried to have it syndicated but the deal fell through.

However, Schulz saw his new four panel strip which the United Feature Syndicate accepted, though naming it “Peanuts” instead of his own preference for “Li’l Folks”, beginning just a few months later. The first installment appeared on October 2, 1950 and went on to become history.

Though he had more disputes with United Features, which sparred him over his contract (even considering replacing him in the 1970s) and always priced the copyright over what he — even having become rich — could pay, the syndicate deserves credit for sticking with “Peanuts” even after a poor start: The strip debuted in just seven newspapers, two of which dropped it within the first six months.

But “Peanuts” steadily gained ground as Schulz began to get more confident and inventive, and went undeterred even after heart surgery in the early 1980s left him with “shaking hands”. However, he was forced to give it up in December 1999 after suffering strokes and being diagnosed with cancer — to which he succumbed in the following February.

His request that “Peanuts” not be carried on by anyone else was respected, but there was enough already to keep its fans happy.

But Schulz, in the process of the work, not only relived parts of his own life or exalted his profession (“A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing every day without repeating himself”) but taught some invaluable lessons — about being popular without being aggressive or ambitious, about companionship, regard for others, equality but above all, never letting go of your dream. That is his greatest contribution.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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