Peanuts and its quintessential character Charlie Brown are so woven into the tapestry of American pop-culture that many have forgotten the original source material. Much more than simply a great character to model a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon after, Charlie Brown continues to provide laughs and sighs from readers of Peanuts over 66 years after the original four-panel comic strip first appeared in 1950.
My childhood, like many others’, involved multiple screenings of A Charlie Brown Christmas. But, I’d never read a Peanuts strip until I borrowed The Complete Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz: 1950 to 1952, published by Fantagraphics Books, from a friend of mine. And, though the films and TV specials are excellent, the Peanuts strips offer bittersweet humour too mature for most children.
Peanuts 1950–52: Cast of Characters
The first Peanuts strip featured three characters, only one of whom (Charlie Brown himself) stood the test of time. Readers of Charles Schulz‘s original 1950 strip met Shermy, Patty (not Peppermint Patty), and the one and only Charlie Brown.
Those familiar with Schulz’s later work on Peanuts will notice a marked difference between this strip and what they’re used to. Chuck’s shirt is without its trademark stripe and his head is slightly less spherical than it becomes in later days.
The art may be unfamiliar, but Schulz’s unique sense of humour is immediately recognizable. It’s obvious from this strip that Schulz wasn’t making these for children. By inserting his cast of child characters into adult social situations, Schulz highlights those situations’ absurdities. Shermy’s lack of finesse in pretending to like Charlie Brown works on two levels. It nostalgizes the vagaries of the reader’s youth and serves as a negative example of how to be an adult.
Aside from an unnamed third boy who Patty punches in the eye, the next character to grace the pages of Peanuts is Snoopy. The early days of Peanuts saw Snoopy acting a lot more like a dog than he comes to later on. Most early gags involving Snoopy revolve around the lovable mutt mooching candy. After a few months, readers also meet Violet, Schroeder, Lucy, and Linus.
Peanuts 1950–52: The Bitter
If I had to pick one Peanuts strip to present as an exemplar, I’d pick this one featuring Patty and Charlie Brown discussing human greatness.
Schulz’s self-deprecation, a theme in many of his strips, is on full display here. Schulz’s ability to tap into his own self-doubt paved the way for his unique sense of humour. As David Michaelis points out in The Complete Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz: 1950 to 1952′s afterword, “Schulz dared to use his own quirks—a lifelong sense of alienation, insecurity, and inferiority—to draw the real feelings of his life and time.”
Peanuts 1950–52: The Sweet
But, among the veiled hatred and feelings of inadequacy, Schulz also spared time for touching moments. The most touching strip in this anthology of dailies and Sundays features Charlie Brown and Shermy having a heart to heart.
Schulz’s spare pen line accompanies this strip’s spare dialogue well. This strip stands out because of its strong and mysterious moment before. The reader doesn’t know what Chuck and Shermy’s conversation was about, but the reader feels they know. Only one word balloon need apply.
Peanuts 1950–52: Schulz’s Influence
From a small mid-western town where he sold his work for $10 per week, Schulz built an international brand out of his own insecurities. It’s difficult to overstate Charles Schulz’s influence on comics and American pop-culture in general. One wonders if edgy cartoons like Daria or indie comics like Fun Home would enjoy the popularity they do today had Charles Schulz not laid the groundwork.