Book cover: Oxford University Press
Charlie Brown had a hard time choosing sides. This was always part of the humor of his character.
It was also one of the many things he hated about himself.
On New Year’s Eve 1965 Charlie Brown, the star of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, decided to change: he would be decisive, clear-cut, and well-grounded. Ever the realist and always happy to burst Charlie Brown’s bubble, Lucy van Pelt would not let the boy deceive himself. “Forget it,” she blurted. “You’ll always be wishy-washy.”
Schulz often described his work the same way. “One of the remarkable things about the strip,” one interviewer remarked in 1987, “is that there are no perceivable ideologies.”
Schulz agreed. “Sort of a wishy-washiness,” he chuckled.
Often the humble, Midwestern cartoonist seemed to use such statements as a defense mechanism to avoid taking a definite position on a controversial topic. But it was more than that. “Wishy-washiness” was Schulz’s ideology. In practice, he was a political chameleon, shifting left and right within the broad middle of Cold War American political culture.
Schulz was adept, not just at amusing readers, but at creating scenes that acted as Rorschach tests. Between 1950 and 2000 Schulz’s cartoons reflected and amplified a complex range of popular sentiment on issues from civil religion, racial integration, and women’s rights to fears of capitalism’s decline, environmental degradation, and the Vietnam War.
Some critics, however, accused Peanuts of being too aloof from the national and global events of its time. Schulz often seemed to confirm this. A personally conservative man, he also believed that controversial political positions were the quickest way to undermine a comic strip’s popular appeal.
Schulz’s choices were not accidental, and he went to great lengths to avoid controversy. “You’re being hired by a newspaper editor and he buys your strip because he wants to sell his newspaper,” Schulz explained to one interviewer. “So why should you double-cross him by putting in things that will aggravate him? That’s not my job.”
Yet Schulz regularly addressed controversial issues in his comic strip, animated television programs, and feature films, and at the peak of Peanuts’ popularity, Schulz’s thoughts on such issues reached over 100 million readers each day. And, despite gaps in the record, it is possible to know exactly how some readers interpreted Peanuts, because they told Schulz. By 1971, Schulz was receiving as many as a hundred new fan letters every day. Through the daily strip and public appropriations, legal and extralegal, Schulz’s characters and concepts took on a cultural life far beyond the newspaper page or television screen.
Over time, the Peanuts characters became repositories for and expressions of Americans’ dreams, hopes, fears, and worries. Peanuts was never simply an escapist endeavor, but regularly touched on Americans lived experience in the postwar era. People of opposing viewpoints loved the same comic strip but for contradictory reasons. Walt Kelly, a former Disney cartoonist who became famous in the 1950s for his political satire comic strip Pogo, has been credited by one scholar with “providing in his strip . . . a rallying point around which like-minded people could gather.” Schulz provided the opposite: a rallying point around which people of diverse opinions could gather and debate.
While Peanuts may be the most successful example of the comic strip medium, it was deeply rooted in the history of the art. Comic strips evolved from the raucous visual world of 1890s advertising, as newspaper moguls sought to expand their readership, and corporations tried to capture public attention and private dollars. Comic strips and illustrated advertising also served as an indispensable visual guide to life in the multicultural, multilingual melting pot of American cities. Comic strip characters like Buster Brown easily danced between the funny pages and shoe advertising.
Integral to the success of the American comic strip was a characteristic comic scholars call “polysemy,” meaning that the same character or scene could be reasonably read in multiple ways by a diverse audience. The more people could relate to a comic strip, the more successful it was. Sometimes this meant using racial, ethnic, or gendered stereotypes to calcify the boundaries of American cultural citizenship.
But these boundaries could also be bridged or dismantled to broaden the audience for a comic strip. Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Krazy Kat all found ways to do this, whether by including ethnic characters, traveling through universal dream worlds, or abandoning the world of direct human social discourse for anthropomorphized animals.
Peanuts represents the ultimate perfection of comic strips. Schulz created a comic world so successfully polysemic that it attracted the largest audience in the history of the medium. At its most popular, every other American read Peanuts daily. And the comic strip sold newspapers like no other, even as the newspaper industry as a whole was in decline. There are countless stories in the Schulz archive of newspaper editors being barraged by complaints when Peanuts was accidentally omitted. Some fans carried a second newspaper subscription only because their local paper did not carry Peanuts.
But Schulz’s work sold much more than newspapers. By the 1970s Peanuts was a multimillion-dollar licensing franchise, more visible than any property not owned by Disney. It still is. In Forbes magazine’s 2019 report of the top-earning celebrity estates, Charles Schulz finished third behind only Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. While many critics over the years lamented Schulz’s licensing decisions as a commercial sellout, the truth is that Peanuts actually succeeded more than any other comic strip at doing what comic strips were invented to do: sell.
Central to Schulz’s success was his adept usage of both ambiguity and allegory to create space for multiple interpretations. Ambiguity, or a sort of intentional vagueness on the part of the cartoonist, was key in the way that he often handled religious and philosophical issues. In an October 20, 1963 Peanuts strip, Schulz used only eight words across eleven panels to address the controversy over school prayer, a comment so ambiguous that readers could not agree among themselves where the artist stood.
But Schulz also used allegory to push his readers to decide what they thought. Readily recognizable symbols and stories, like the World War I flying ace’s dog fights with the historic Red Baron, acted out by Charlie Brown’s beagle Snoopy, enabled Schulz to broach sensitive contemporary issues like the Vietnam War. Ambiguity and allegory set Schulz apart from his contemporaries w, and his mastery of polysemy enabled readers to understand themselves.
But the world that Schulz cultivated—one in which people could agree to disagree—slipped away. In the fall of 1970, as Schulz celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Peanuts, a young artist named Gary Trudeau launched Doonesbury. A comic strip filled with unrepentant, cold sarcasm, it became the voice of a new, more openly political generation in the same way Peanuts once had spoken to the alienated and discontented—but genial–1950s.
Unsurprisingly, Schulz despised Doonesbury. Aside from seeming unprofessional and downright disrespectful, in the aging cartoonist’s estimation, Trudeau’s work rested on what Schulz believed was the cheapest and least durable form of humor: political commentary. Schulz prided himself on building Peanuts on more solid ground, focusing on timeless human experience and eternal values of love, friendship, and hope.
But Peanuts was never as timeless as Schulz liked to imagine, not even when it came to politics.
During the 1988-1989 television season, CBS aired a miniseries titled This is America, Charlie Brown. In this program, Schulz tried to encapsulate what he saw as the common history and culture that had brought prosperity to the United States in the twentieth century. A unique blend of conservative Christian traditionalism and progressive historical revision, the miniseries was largely panned by critics and audiences alike.
Its failure? Trying to comment to a broad audience— a strategy that had been effective throughout Schulz’s career. But as the culture wars were gathering, Peanuts fell out of step with a society eager to take sides. Schulz’s work now seemed quaint and antiquated in the polarized world of The Simpsons and the “War for the Soul of America” speech populist presidential candidate Pat Buchanan delivered to the 1992 Republican National Convention.
Newspapers like the Chicago Tribune—one of the original seven newspapers to publish Peanuts in 1950—openly called for the retirement of Charlie Brown and the gang. Schulz’s strong base of evangelical readers too came to question the depth and authenticity of the artist’s faith as he expressed a growing discomfort with evangelicalism’s preachiness and insistence on moral conformity.
In the end, Charles M. Schulz found himself right where he had always been: stuck in the wishy-washy middle of the American political spectrum. That centrism had actually been a virtue during the political battles of the Cold War, but no longer. It left Peanuts without a side as a new age of open partisan warfare dawned.
Blake Scott Ball is Assistant Professor of History at Huntingdon College.
This essay has been adapted from Charlie Brown’s America: The Popular Politics of Peanuts (Oxford University Press, 2021) by Blake Scott Ball. Copyright © 2021 by Blake Scott Ball and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.