October 1, 2010
This morning the National Portrait Gallery was formally presented with a 1986 photograph by Yousuf Karsh of cartoonist Charles “Sparky” Schulz, whose brainchild comic strip “Peanuts” has been a funny pages mainstay and cultural touchstone for 60 years. Schulz, who died in 2000 hours before his final cartoon went to press, was warmly remembered by family and friends. Even Snoopy the beagle made sure to make an appearance, hamming it up with guests and curators as the portrait was formally installed.
“For the last half of the 20th century,” Schulz friend Edwin C. Anderson observed, “Sparky was America’s foremost goodwill ambassador.” Currently, the strip appears in more than 2,200 newspapers in 75 countries and in 21 languages, a testament to the fact that his themes and characters transcended American culture and represented the hopes, dreams and ideals of people the world over.
A Minnesota native, Schultz started to seriously ply his hand at writing comics after serving in the army in World War II. He developed a weekly comic called “Li’l Folks” for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 1949, he shopped the strip to the United Features Syndicate who liked the cartoon but was worried the title was too similar to that of other comics such as “Li’l Abner.”
Changing the name to “Peanuts,” the strip started it’s momentous 50-year run on October 2, 1950 and introduced readers to a lovably wishy-washy hero, Charlie Brown. (Schulz always hated the name change. “In the first place, it has no dignity,” he said in a 1987 interview with Rick Marshall, writing for NEMO magazine. “I don’t even like the word. It’s not even a nice word. They didn’t realize that I was going to draw a strip that I think has dignity.”)
The strip was remarkable in how it depicted children, departing from traditional rambunctious and rascally characterizations and instead opting for well-rounded characters. Indeed, members of the Peanuts gang are oftentimes seen trying to deal with anxieties, frustrations and personal shortcomings as well as ponder life’s great questions. And who here doesn’t have that football they’ll never kick, kites that will always end up tangled in trees and loves that will remain unrequited? Such stuff is a lot for most people to handle, let alone little kids. But Lucy was always there to offer psychiatric advice on the cheap, even though her words of wisdom were total bunk more often than not.
Yet, in spite of the complex subject matter addressed in the space of little cartoon bubbles, the strip always managed to maintain a warm and fuzzy quality. Despite pitfalls, the characters always manage to persevere. And those were sentiments that were carried over into the string of beloved television specials which dealt with lighter topics—like surviving Christmas and Halloween—as well as serious ones—like surviving cancer. The animated cartoons were produced by Lee Mendelson, who offered his own loving remarks in rememberance of Schulz. ”There is always a market for innocence,” Mendelson remarked. “As we go through this period of rancor and negativity, I hope that market for innocence will bring us back.” Still going strong after 60 years, I think there’s a strong chance that Charlie Brown and his buds can accomplish that.
You can see the Charles Shulz portrait in the “New Arrivals” exhibition on the first floor. And if you’re absolutely nuts for “Peanuts,” come on out to the Portrait Gallery on Saturday, October 2 for a family fun day centered around Charlie Brown and the gang. The American History Museum is also marking the 60th anniversary of the comic strip with a showcase featuring Schulz ephemera—such as drawing utensils and hand-drawn comic panels—to an animation cell from the animated television special It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.
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