In a series of “Peanuts” comic strips that ran in mid-April of 1956, Charlie Brown grasps the string of his kite, which was stuck in what came to be known in the long-running strip as the “kite-eating tree.”
In one episode that week, a frustrated Charlie Brown declines an offer from nemesis Lucy for her to yell at the tree.
“If I had a kite caught up in a tree, I’d yell at it,” Lucy responds in the last panel.
The simplicity of that interaction illustrates how different “Peanuts” was from comics drawn before its 1950 debut, said Lucy Shelton Caswell, founding curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University in Columbus, the world’s largest such museum.
“The idea that you could take a week to talk about this, and it didn’t have to be a gag in the sense of somebody hitting somebody else over the head with a bottle or whatever,” Caswell said. “This was really revolutionary.”
New exhibits on display at the Billy Ireland museum and at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California, are celebrating the upcoming centenary of the birth of “Peanuts” cartoonist Schulz, born in Minnesota on Nov. 26, 1922.
Schulz carried the lifelong nickname of Sparky, conferred by a relative after a horse called Sparky in an early comic strip, Barney Google.
Schulz was never a fan of the name “Peanuts,” chosen by the syndicate because his original title, “Li’l Folks,” was too similar to another strip’s name. But the Columbus exhibit makes clear through strips, memorabilia and commentary that Schulz’s creation was a juggernaut in its day.
At the time of Schulz’s retirement in 1999 following a cancer diagnosis, his creation ran in more than 2,600 newspapers, was translated into 21 languages in 75 countries and had an estimated daily readership of 355 million. Schulz personally created and drew 17,897 “Peanuts” strips, even after a tremor affected his hand.
The strip was also the subject of the frequently performed play, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” as well as “Snoopy: The Musical,” dozens of TV specials and shows, and many book collections.
Bill Watterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,” described in a 2007 Wall Street Journal review of a Schultz biography the difficulty of looking at “Peanuts” with fresh eyes because of how revolutionary it was at the time.
Benjamin Clark, curator of the Schulz museum, describes that innovation as Schulz’s use of a spare line that maintains its expressiveness.
Schulz “understood technically in drawing that he could strip away what was unnecessary and still pack an emotional punch with the simplest-appearing lines,” Clark said. “But that simplicity is deceptive. There’s so much in these.”
The exhibit in Columbus displays strips featuring 12 “devices” that Schulz thought set Peanuts apart, including episodes involving the kite-eating tree, Snoopy’s doghouse, Lucy in her psychiatry booth, Linus’ obsession with the Great Pumpkin, the Beethoven-playing Schroeder, and more.
“Celebrating Sparky” also focuses on Schulz’s promotion of women’s rights through strips about Title IX, the groundbreaking law requiring parity in women’s sports; and his introduction of a character of color, Franklin, spurred by a reader’s urging following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
In addition, the display includes memorabilia, from branded paper towels to Pez dispensers, part of the massive “Peanuts” licensing world. Some fellow cartoonists disliked the way Schulz commercialized the strip.
He dismissed the criticism, arguing that comic strips had always been commercial, starting with their invention as a way to sell newspapers, Caswell said.
While 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is one of the most famous cartoon TV specials of all time, the characters have also returned in dozens of animated shows and films, most recently in original shows and specials on Apple TV.
Those Apple programs introduced new viewers to the truth of what Schulz drew, his wife, Jean Schulz, told The Associated Press last year. She described that truth this way:
“A family of characters who live in a neighborhood, get along with each other, have fun with each other, have arguments sometimes with each other, but end up always in a good frame hugging each other or resolving their arguments,” she said.
Caswell, who first met Schulz in the 1980s, said one of the exhibit’s goals was to surprise people with things they didn’t know about the man. In that, “Celebrating Sparky” succeeds admirably.
Who knew, for example, that Schulz, a hockey and ice-skating lover, is in both the U.S. Figure Skating and U.S. Hockey halls of fame? (Perhaps that isn’t surprising, given multiple strips that featured a hockey-playing Snoopy or Zambonis driven by the little yellow bird, Woodstock.)
By focusing on Schulz, the exhibit also aims to show he worked hard to perfect his drawing style before “Peanuts” was launched and was intentional about what he wanted the strip to be, Caswell said.
“This was a person of genius who had a very clear, creative focus to his life, and enjoyed making people laugh,” she said.
“Celebrating Sparky: Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts” at the Billy Ireland museum runs through November and was mounted in partnership with the Charles M. Schulz Museum.
The Charles M. Schulz Museum has two exhibits commemorating Schulz’s birth: “Snoopy: 100 Years of Schulz,” which explores comic strips and artists who influenced Schultz (running through Sept. 18); and “The Spark of Schulz: A Centennial Celebration,” exploring cartoonists and artists influenced by Schulz (from Sept. 25, 2022, through March 12, 2023).