Charles M Schulz - Small world

Charles M Schulz

Charles M Schulz spent 50 years creating the likes of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Mark Robertson savours the moment as Canongate publishes his entire works

It’s the little things that make the difference. In the case of the Charles M Schulz cartoon strips, that could mean the smallest of pen strokes for a raised eyebrow, an extra crease on a forehead, the downward bend on the ends of a mouth. Schulz created a world which was defined by crucially tight limitations, inhabited by kids who never grew up, living in a land without adults where pets could become World War II flying aces or orchestra conductors in the space of a couple of frames. Despite, or because of this, he managed to produce a strip every working day of his life for over 50 years, some 17,897 in total, which were published globally and remains the most successful endeavour of its kind. So, in a true feat of publishing cojones, Canongate celebrate his life and work by publishing every strip, two handsome hardback volumes a year from now until 2016.

For all its setting in the backyards of suburban, post-war America, Peanuts managed to crystalise the writer’s deeply personal philosophical, political and social concerns, through the cypher of junior school kids, headed by Charlie Brown, his pet beagle Snoopy and a little yellow bird Woodstock. Newspaper cartoons until then were normally social commentary or cheap gags but rarely both. As Gary Groth, editor of the Comics Journal says: ‘Peanuts evolved during its 50 years, but it remained, as it began, an anomaly on the comics page; a comic strip about the interior crises of the cartoonist himself.’

Schulz was born in Minneapolis on 25 November 1922 and grew up an avid fan of sports, movies and comics. He was drafted to fight in World War II and on his discharge from the army began in earnest to try and sell his strips to newspapers. One modest success was Lil’ Folks, for which he earned $10 a week and morphed into the strip which United Features Syndicate renamed Peanuts; Schulz stated on numerous occasions that he hated this title.

Schulz retired from drawing Peanuts at the end of 1999 due to ill health and died on 14 February 2000. Two days later the final Peanuts cartoon was published. It’s a tragic, if romantic notion, that the strip died with him, but these timely re-issues illustrate not only the skill and subtle brilliance of his work but also the origins of the form beyond simple merriment. Garry Trudeau may have the political nous, Steve Bell the perfect balance of surreal and satirical, and Hagar the Horrible the hat with the horns and the big beard, but this is a perfect opportunity to see where so much of the humanity and pathos in the artform first emerged.

As Garrison Keillor says in his introduction to the first volume: ‘There is not much in Peanuts that is shallow or heedless. Schulz created a world based on powerful iconic characters who express deep feelings of loneliness and resentment and despair. The feeling that everything is against us. The craving for love. An enormous amount of earnestness about doing the right thing.’ Very grown-up emotions were conveyed through the mouths of babes. But this was far, far from being child’s play.

The Complete Peanuts volumes one and two are out now published by Canongate.

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