The fame and the legend of the Peanuts started on October 2, 1950, and the newspaper comic strip became a success almost immediately: at its peak, it ran in more than 2,600 newspapers simultaneously and made Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Lucy household names.
This success inspired the first animated TV special in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas; almost 50 movies followed. So did theater shows, radio dramas and some of his characters became the official mascots of NASA’s Apollo 10 missions. Not to mention merchandise of all sorts, colors, forms and media. The Peanuts became one of the most successful merchandise lines of all time. Schulz (1922-2000) received countless awards, medals and even two honorary doctorates.
The book at hand is devoted to some new research concerning Schulz and several of the Peanuts gang. As it is not the first book dealing with the agendas, wisdom and humor of the great cartoonist. Nevertheless, compared to the success stories of recent popular culture events (Star Wars and other franchise), the Peanuts and Peanuts research have been rather neglected. (Even though Schulz modestly all of his life insisted that his work was not important art. Academic scholarship concerning his work accumulated only in the last 20 years.)
By the year 2000, Schulz had composed roughly 18,000 strips; add to that the movies and you can see that he was a busy artist, who would not fail to spread humor, philosophy and pragmatism (some would say) through Lucy, Linus, Charlie Brown, Snoopy or Woodstock. That wisdom, as a rule, would constantly be very much to the point and always very (American) brief and solid, as we would learn from thousands of cartoon strips, summing up conclusions and pragmatic action, in a way. Many themes and even expressions favored by Schulz found their way into popular culture (such as “sweet babboo” (sweetheart), “blockhead,” “fussbudget,” or “good grief.”) Not to forget the recommendations, vocabulary and statements developed in Lucy’s psychiatric booth that appeared not in a medical, but American popcultural context. With Blockheads, Beagles, and Sweet Babboos author Michelle Ann Abate, a professor of literature for children and young adults at The Ohio State University, follows a clear mission, when she examines a fundamental feature of Peanuts. Namely “… its core cast of characters … the unique, distinctive, and memorable characters were essential ingredients. … [T]hese figures became not simply household names, but national icons … .”
Each of the six chapters of this book is centered on one of the main characters, followed by a final epilogue. “[…] I consider these exceedingly familiar figures in markedly unfamiliar ways. … I reexamine, and rethink characters from Peanuts that most of us believe we already know.”
That examination includes the inventor himself, so chapter one deals with Charles M. Schulz and his style and also focuses on the man’s health condition, as he fought essential tremor, a disease that causes parts of the body to shake uncontrollably and a disaster for a man who draws cartoons (evidence of that condition can be identified in many of his later strips.)
The next text considers some aspects of Charlie Brown’s character and draws attention to his famous shirt: the zigzag line. Abate identifies several meanings and also “frequencies” in it, as one way of reading those triangle lines would be sound waves; coming out of a cartoon strip. Chapter three highlights possibly the best liked Peanuts character, Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy. Apart from being a beagle, he is, according to Abate, quite a few more things and “persons,” one being his closeness in character to felines. Snoopy behaves more cat-like; and also more pilot-like, and more composer-like, and writer-like and so forth.
Chapter four could be the most interesting section here, as Lucy (Van Pelt), the original “fussbudget” is not just not a very prominent and headstrong character of the strip. Schulz invented her in 1952 against the backdrop of another person by that name, Lucy (Ricardo) of I Love Lucy (1951-1957) television show fame. Abate compares both fictional characters in a very entertaining text, while highlighting “… another long-overlooked area of cultural cross-pollination: the one between television sitcoms and newspaper comics.”
The following text is devoted to Franklin, a Peanuts character conceived by Schulz rather late (in 1968). Franklin was the first black kid who entered the so far all-white Peanuts gang and universe. It was also the first time a white cartoonist broke the color line with newspaper cartoons. Even though Schulz technically used the same shading he hitherto had reserved for another Peanut, namely the dusty and dirty Pig-Pen. A fact that was immediately recognized by fans and critics.
The last chapter seeks for parallels between Snoopy’s best friend Woodstock, and the fact that Schulz named him after the rock festival of 1969. When the bird first appeared in a strip in 1970, he not only was there for comic relief but also – in part – was a cultural signifier for the spirit of the festival and its message, and the meaning of contemporary American youth culture. Although already in 1966, Schulz presented a new character, Peppermint Patty, who paved the way for Woodstock.
After all, as Abate remarks, each main character of the gang is very special and also has many different features. “Schulz’s characters are far from monolithic, and thus discussions about them cannot be either. Instead of striving to fit all these distinct and different individuals into the same critical, cultural, or theoretical mold, meet them where they are and – even more importantly – as who they are.”
A welcome addition to the slowly growing research on Schulz, who for almost seven decades experienced and watched (and in part formed) American popular culture and hid countless clever remarks on the zeitgeist in the few lines his comic strip gang voiced.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2023
Michelle Ann Abate. Blockheads, Beagles, and Sweet Babboos: New Perspectives on Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts. University Press of Mississippi, 2023, 222 p.