Among the most famous literary incipits of all time, “It was a dark and stormy night…” undoubtedly carves out a place of honor, if only for the fact that it was written by a dog, Snoopy. In reality, the world’s most famous beagle was making a cultured quote from Paul Cliffordnovel of 1830, but the phrase has equally gone down in history as his, given that it has been repeatedly published on the most loved and famous strips: those of Peanuts. Snoopy is just one of the protagonists of the immortal comic strip: next to him were Charlie Brown, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Schroeder, Woodstock, and many, many more, all sons of the brilliant pencil of Charles Schulzwhich is celebrated all over the world today because it falls on centenary of his birth.
Schulz began drawing Peanuts in 1950, and never stopped until his death on February 12, 2000. That’s not an understatement: the artist he left just the day after the last strip was publishedintroduced for the occasion by Snoopy who types a letter of greetings to readers, whose attack reads: “Dear friends“, “Dear friends”. Among his last wishes, Schulz expressed the desire to keep the Peanuts characters unchanged, e he demanded that no new stripes be drawn again: to date only his old works continue to be published (although in 2015 they became an animated film, The Peanuts Movie).
Schulz and Peanuts: how the most popular strip in the world was born
Born on November 26, 1922 in Minneapolis, Charles Monroe Schulz, this is his full name, started drawing from an early age. One of his recurring characters was Spike, the comic book version of the family dog, which landed him his very first publication in a local newspaper. A famous anecdote about his life tells that the school he attended he refused to publish a drawing of his in the school yearbook: 60 years later, the institution made it up to itself by installing a giant statue of Snoopy in the main lobby. Enlisting in the army, he had to leave for Europe at the end of World War II, during which, he said, he was lucky enough never to have fired a shot.
Back in the United States, he pursued a career as a cartoonist and obtained his first publications in local newspapers with the strip Li’l Folksa sort of forerunner version of what would later be Peanuts, in which the protagonists were children: it was on this occasion that Charlie Brown made his debut and a dog who wasn’t yet named Snoopy but looked a lot like him.
The real Peanuts were born in 1950, published by United Feature Syndicate and they were so baptized by the publisher (it is said that Schulz was never enthusiastic about the title given to his strip). After a limping start, the comic took off, and quickly became one of the most loved in the USA and in the world: at the height of its success, they boasted translations into 21 languages and publications in 75 countries, and a colossal merchandising business was generated around them. Schulz drew the Peanuts for over fifty years, adding new characters and often drawing from his personal life the inspiration for their new stories.
The popularity of the strip and its main characters is not only due to the sympathy, the jokes, the effectiveness of the short dialogues they exchange, but above all to Schulz’s ability to insert ainfinite range of emotions in which both adults and children can reflect themselves: insecurity, anxiety, frustration, tenderness. Furthermore, with hindsight, from a more careful reading we can also deduce a certain will of the designer to bring out a certain girl power: the female characters of Peanuts are girls with anything but stereotyped characters. Indeed, in some respects they show a discreetly feminist approach to life.
Lucy and Peppermint Patty, unexpected icons of gender equality
Gender themes in Peanuts have been repeatedly explored by critics, and have returned to the fore on the occasion of the aforementioned film. In particular the focus has always been on Lucy Van Pelta character that many agree to define feminist. In 2020 the Charles Schulz Museum, which is located in Santa Rosa, California, even dedicated an exhibition to her called “Lucy! From fussy to feminist “, in which it is emphasized that she is the most character empowered of Peanuts. The title of the exhibition takes up a classic debate about Lucy (and which concerns all politically engaged women from the beginning of the world), namely: is she really a feminist or is she just a grumpy, unnecessarily aggressive and opinionated child?
Dispenser of advice from the back of her “psychiatric kiosk” (indeed she’s the wisest of the bunch), Lucy starts out as the troublesome sister to Linus and Replica, though she soon evolves into a sarcastic but soft-hearted little girl. In any case, Schulz represents her as the more confident, less passive, more character empowered of the strip, which is not afraid to express itself with disarming honesty, characteristics that, between the fifties and sixties, were rarely attributed to female characters, and which they have often been associated with dislike rather than fortitude. Certainly, from the comparison with her the male characters come out as weak and inept.
The debate “Is Lucy a feminist or just a pain in the ass?” came to the ears of Jean Schulz, the wife of the cartoonist, who gave the perfect answer to the age-old question: “Couldn’t it be both?”. Schulz wanted to give a boost of gender equality to the comic by introducing him a character destined to remain iconic, for better or for worse. Over time, she added many more female characters: “At a certain point she realized,” says Jean Schulz, “that the strip was becoming a boys’ comic, and that more girls were needed. And so she started putting them in, starting with Patty.” Patty and Violet they were the first female characters to debut in the Peanuts group, and both, despite their individual characteristics, did not adhere very much to the cliché of the sweet, pretty and “proper” girl: both teased and never failed to make fun of Charlie Brown .
Also Pieperita Patty, which debuted in 1966, is a character that goes beyond gender stereotypes: she is the captain of the baseball team that, invariably, defeats that of Charlie Brown. A “tomboy”, strong, athletic, who refuses to submit to dress code of the school and fight for his right to wear sandals. His nickname is “boss” (sir in the original version), which suggests the authority with which Schulz invested her.
In short, the cartoonist’s strips are teeming with complex, multi-faceted, strong female characters and far from the stereotypes in which the girls of the time were pigeonholed. Not only, through their jokes, girls often give real lessons on gender equality to boys. Schulz was, in this sense, a supporter of ante-litteram gender equality. “I don’t know if Lucy can be defined as a feminist”, commented Steve Martino, director of The Peanuts Movie“of course if she found out she was paid less than Charlie Brown in my film she would screw up. No one would shoot anything again until equal pay was achieved.”