COLUMBUS, Ohio – In a ‘Peanuts’ comic book series that aired in mid-April 1956, Charlie Brown grabbed his kite string, which was stuck in what became known as the ‘kite.’ – eat a tree.
In an episode that week, a frustrated Charlie Brown declines an offer from nemesis Lucy to yell at the tree.
“If I had a kite caught in a tree, I’d scream at it,” Lucy replies in the final panel.
The simplicity of this interaction illustrates how different “Peanuts” was from comic books 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 largest museum of its type in the world.
“The idea that you could take a week to talk about it, 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. “It was really revolutionary.”
New exhibits at the Billy Ireland Museum and the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California, celebrate the centenary of the birth of cartoonist “Peanuts” Schulz, who was born in Minnesota on November 26, 1922.
Schulz went by the nickname Sparky, bestowed by a relative after a horse called Sparky in an early comic book, Barney Google.
Schulz was never a fan of the name “Peanuts”, chosen by the union because its original title, “Li’l Folks”, sounded too much like the name of another band. But the Columbus exhibit makes it clear through comics, memorabilia, and commentary that Schulz’s creation was a juggernaut in its time.
By the time Schulz retired in 1999 following a cancer diagnosis, his creation had appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers, been 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 tape has also been the subject of the frequently performed stage play, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”, as well as “Snoopy: The Musical”, dozens of TV specials and shows and many collections of books.
Bill Watterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,” described in a 2007 Wall Street Journal review of a biography of Schultz the difficulty of looking at “Peanuts” with fresh eyes because of his revolution at the time.
Benjamin Clark, curator of the Schulz Museum, describes this innovation as Schulz’s use of an alternate line that maintains his expressiveness.
Schulz “technically understood in drawing that he could weed out the unnecessary and still pack an emotional punch with the simplest lines,” Clark said. “But this simplicity is deceptive. There are so many things in there.
The Columbus exhibit features tapes featuring 12 “devices” that Schulz said set Peanuts apart, including episodes involving the kite-eating tree, Snoopy’s doghouse, Lucy in her psychiatric cabin, obsession of Linus for The Great Pumpkin, The Beethoven Playing Schroeder, and more.
“Celebrating Sparky” also focuses on Schulz’s promotion of women’s rights through comic strips about Title IX, the groundbreaking law requiring parity in women’s sports; and its introduction of a colored character, Franklin, spurred on by a reader’s insistence following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Additionally, the exhibit includes memorabilia, from branded paper towels to Pez dispensers, which are part of the vast world of “Peanuts” licensing. Some other cartoonists disliked the way Schulz marketed the strip.
He dismissed criticism, arguing that comics had always been commercial, beginning 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 television specials of all time, the characters have also returned to dozens of animated shows and movies, most recently in original shows and specials on Apple TV.
Those Apple programs introduced new viewers to the truth about what Schulz drew, his wife, Jean Schulz, told The Associated Press last year. She described this truth this way:
“A family of characters who live in a neighborhood, get along, have fun, sometimes argue, but always end up in a good setting by sticking together or working out their arguments,” she said.
Caswell, who first met Schulz in the 1980s, said one of the exhibition’s goals was to surprise people with things they didn’t know about the man. In this, “Celebrating Sparky” succeeds admirably.
Who knew, for example, that Schulz, a hockey and ice skating fan, is in both the American Figure Skating Hall of Fame and American Hockey Hall of Fame? (Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given several comics featuring a hockey-playing Snoopy or Zambonis driven by the little yellow bird, Woodstock.)
Focusing on Schulz, the exhibit also aims to show that he worked hard to perfect his drawing style before the launch of “Peanuts” and was intentional about what he wanted the strip to be, Caswell said.
“He was a genius person who had a very clear and creative direction in his life and loved to make 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 presents two exhibits commemorating Schulz’s birth: “Spark Plug to Snoopy: 100 Years of Schulz,” which explores the comic books and artists who influenced Schultz (until September 18); and “The Spark of Schulz: A Centennial Celebration”, exploring cartoonists and artists influenced by Schulz (September 25, 2022 to March 12, 2023).