Masters of comics: Charles M. Schulz

Masters of comics: Charles M. Schulz

Candido Romano Published on 12/4/2023

The life and works of Charles M. Schulz, the world’s most famous and influential comic strip cartoonist and the man behind Peanuts and iconic characters like Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

Charles M. Schulz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 26 November 1922. He became one of the world’s most influential cartoonists and created Peanuts, the comic strip that for 50 years entertained and moved millions of readers all over the world and made them question their lives.

Schulz grew up in an ordinary family and showed a great interest in drawing and comic strips from an early age. His father, a barber, was of German origin, while his mother was of Norwegian descent.

A few days after he was born, his uncle nicknamed him ‘Sparky’, inspired by the character Spark Plug from the popular comic strip Barney Google. The name stuck, and friends and relatives called him ‘Sparky’ his whole life. He even used it to sign his early work.

Charles M. Schulz excelled at school, but he was very shy: he was only child, and found it difficult to make friends, often preferring to stay at home reading the comics published in the Sunday papers at the time, including Skippy, Mickey Mouse and Popeye. His teachers immediately spotted his talent for drawing, telling him “Charles, you’re going to be an artist when you grow up“. This strengthened his resolve, and he started to draw more regularly, while continuing his ritual of reading the Sunday comic strips with his dad.

His family moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul, where, at the age of 13, he was given a dog named Spike: the little animal inspired his first ever character, Snoopy, one of the most recognisable characters in the history of comics.

Schulz’s high school famously turned down his request to publish some drawings in the school yearbook. 60 years later, they made amends by unveiling a statue of Snoopy at the school.

Schulz was too introverted to attend art college: he was afraid of being judged by his teachers and classmates. Instead, he decided to sign up for a correspondence course in cartooning and illustration at Art Instruction, Inc.

Military service, war and debut publication

Two events made a deep impression on Charles M. Schulz: his conscription in 1942 and the death of his beloved mother at a young age in 1943. Like many young men of his generation, at the age of 20 the cartoonist was forced to serve in the Second World War, in his case in France. “The Army taught me all I needed to know about loneliness”, he later said in an interview.

He returned to the USA in 1945, and found a job as a letterer for the magazine Timeless Topix and then at Art Instruction, Inc., where he assessed drawing students’ work for several years, while also studying and drawing in preparation for his debut.

Several colleagues at Art Instruction, Inc. provided him with inspiration for his future characters, including those who appeared in Charlie Brown. He also found love, albeit unrequited: the object of his affections was called Donna Mae Johnson Wold (seen with Schulz in the photo below), a school accountant who flatly refused his marriage proposal. She inspired the ‘little red-haired girl’, Charlie Brown’s unrequited love interest,

who is only ever cited and never actually appears in the Peanuts strips.

In the meantime, Schulz continued to refine his technique and artistic style, which right from the start stood out for its dry and intelligent humour. He sent his first drawings to various publications, and finally, in 1947, his work was accepted by St. Paul Pioneer Press. His strip was called Li’l Folks, and the artist kept it going it for three years, until 1950. It was basically an embryonic version of Peanuts, hinting at characters and themes that Schulz then continued to explore in his more famous series. The artist even used the name Charlie Brown for the first time in Li’l Folks, although he was not yet the character we all know and love.

The start of Peanuts, the world’s most influential comic strip

After gaining experience with various newspapers, Schulz started working with the United Feature Syndicate, one of the largest and most powerful comic distribution companies in the United States and indeed the entire world, which agreed to publish a series of his comic strips. However, the UFS decided to change the name, as there was already another trademarked 1930s cartoon called Little Folks. The name Peanuts was not chosen by the author but by sales manager Bill Anderson, who later confessed that he came up with the name without having seen the comic strip.

Schulz never liked the name Peanuts and struggled to accept it for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, the first Peanuts strip made its debut on 2 October 1950 in various American newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

To begin with, the UFS forced the artist to change the layout to four small cartoons, which could be assembled in a square or a line depending on the space available in the newspaper: they were treated as nothing more than editorial ‘stopgaps’. Schulz was vehemently opposed to this treatment, but nevertheless he accepted and continued to publish his drawings.

Charles M. Schulz’s style and poetics

His straight-to-the-point and minimalist drawing style perfectly matched the publications of the time: despite being relegated to small vignettes, the situations the various characters find themselves in are always clear and immediately understood by readers of all ages.

Reading Peanuts also means getting to know Charles M. Schulz: his fears, anxieties and his unrequited love for the red-haired girl (although the cartoonist married twice and had several children).

To begin with, the series focused on four characters, Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty and Snoopy the dog, who initially was only a dog, who did not speak or express himself. As the years went by, Shermy and Patty faded into the background and new characters came in their place: Schroeder, Lucy van Pelt and her brother Linus, Peppermint Patty, Franklin (the first Black character) and many more.

Each of these characters embodies a part of the author’s personality. Charlie Brown, who is essentially the strip’s lead character, is stuck in his ways, often impatient and, in 50 years of comics, never ever manages to kick a football. However, he keeps on trying, teaching us that one should never give up.

Pulling the rug from under his feet is Lucy van Pelt, inspired by the cartoonist’s first wife: she is bossy, selfish and often judges and comments sarcastically on situations. The scientific journal The Lancet even described Lucy as “the best-known psychiatrist of the twentieth century”. In a famous strip, Charlie Brown asks Lucy, who is sitting at a ‘psychiatric help’ desk, for advice to help his deep depression. Lucy responds ‘Snap out of it. Five cents, please’. This perfectly describes a period (it was published in 1959) when the word depression was not given a second thought, and was seen as the fault of the individual, something you could choose to have or not.

Linus, meanwhile, Lucy’s younger brother and another very important character, gets his psychological security from sucking his thumb and his essential comfort blanket. In the 1970s, Snoopy‘s character also started to emerge: the dog took on increasingly anthropomorphic features and began walking on two legs. He represents the author’s vivid imagination.

The dog imagines himself living countless lives: in the cartoons he ‘becomes’ a First World War pilot pursuing the fearsome Red Baron, a deadbeat college student Joe Cool, and a professional ice hockey player. Over the years, Snoopy had over 100 alter-egos.

No adults ever appear in Peanuts – the stories only describe situations experienced by children who think like adults, but never get any older. Actually, that’s not quite true: Charlie Brown started off as a four-year-old child, and after 20 years of publications he was eight, but he never got any older than that.

Peanuts is therefore in some ways an existentialist comic strip. Indeed, it is more than that; it is a vessel into which the author poured his whole self: ‘You just sit there and think about the past, kind of dredge up ugly memories and things like that”, Schulz once said.

Worldwide renown and the end of an era

Peanuts‘ global success is almost impossible to get your head around: Charles M. Schulz was the sole writer, illustrator, letterer and colourist for a total of 17,897 strips over 50 consecutive years. Peanuts also inspired several films and cartoon series, theme parks and endless toys and merchandise.

In 1969, even the lunar modules for the NASA Apollo 10 mission, the one which preceded the moon landings, were called Snoopy and Charlie Brown. At the height of its success, the  Peanuts series appeared in 2,600 publications across the world and was translated into over 20 languages, with an incredible 355 million readers. This behemoth was worth around $1 billion a year.

In December 1999, a seriously ill Schulz announced his retirement. The final Peanuts strip was published on 3 January 2000, a month before the artist’s death. It stated:

Dear friends,

I have been fortunate to draw Charlie Brown and his friends for almost 50 years. It has been the fulfilment of my childhood ambition.

Unfortunately, I am no longer able to maintain the schedule demanded by a daily comic strip. My family does not wish Peanuts to be continued by anyone else, therefore I am announcing my retirement.

I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the wonderful support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy…how can I ever forget them…“.

Respecting Schulz’s wishes, the Peanuts comic strips stopped with the artist’s death, although the animated series and other forms of entertainment continued.

Charles M. Schulz’s legacy

Charles M. Schulz left behind a priceless legacy for the world of comics and beyond. His ability to turn everyday situations into extraordinary comic strips, the depth of his characters and his skill at dealing with complex themes ensured his works captured the hearts of millions of readers all over the world.

He also proved that comics can be a powerful tool for exploring human emotions and all the various nuances of life. And he opened the way to a new form of visual storytelling, which influenced generations of authors and artists and enabled the rise of successful strips like Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, Dilbert and many more.

All in all, he was a true legend.