On the night of Feb. 12, 2000, Charles M. Schulz, the cartoonist who drew the wildly successful comic strip Peanuts, had dinner with his family at his home in Santa Rosa, California. He had been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer the previous November, and he was becoming progressively frailer as the treatment, coupled with his age, began to impact his vision, drawing ability and other functions. Because of this downturn, he announced in December that he had decided to end his comic strip, which had become his life’s work over the last half-century. February 13 marked the 20th anniversary of the final day that the Peanuts strip ran in newspapers, bringing an end to an entire era of the thoughts and exploits of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy and the various other characters.
Charles M. Schulz passed away at around 9:45 p.m. the night of Feb. 12, 2000; the final Peanuts strip, which contained his retirement statement, ran the very next day. That day, a work spanning 50 years and 17,897 strips, each one drawn exclusively by Charles “Sparky” Schulz himself was brought to a close. Though the strip reached its end only 20 years ago, it has already influenced so much of popular creative culture that it seems as if it has been around forever.
Peanuts remains so ubiquitous in popular culture that we sometimes forget exactly how groundbreaking and unprecedented it was upon its debut in 1950. Before Peanuts, most popular comic strips (such as Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates) were predominantly action or slapstick-based, with protagonists that routinely embarked on wild adventures, always emerging triumphant, or simply conveying a gag a day. With few exceptions, many cartoonists did not worry about the subsequent significance of each individual strip besides its context within the current storyline; indeed, astonishingly few of them actually even drew their strips without the help of various assistants. What greeted the readers of seven newspapers on the first day of Peanut’s publication was more of a confusing anomaly: a slickly-drawn strip devoid of ornamentation and built on philosophical ponderings and clever responses, relying on emotional substance rather than physical substance, completely created by one person. It did not take long for others to take note: “He brought a whole new attitude toward the comics that wasn’t there,” fellow cartoonist Mort Walker later recalled. “He brought pathos and the attitudes that all real children have … and he somehow made them funny.” Peanuts channeled within its installments a darker and more brooding sentiment than its newspaper companions, running contrary to the optimism of post-World War II America. It depicted children having intellectual conversations and displaying misanthropic behavior in a nuanced way that has not truly been replicated since. It even tackled various social issues that other, arguably more “mature” strips (in terms of content), would not dare touch. Peanuts showed desegregated schools as early as the late 1960s and even commented on gun control in the December of 1988. None of its traits indicated that it would be a success. But it was.
Peanuts also changed the perception of what a comic strip could be through its art. Faced with the ever-worsening problem of steadily decreasing space due to paper shortages during World War II, many cartoonists resorted to whatever tactic possible to make their strip noticed. Schulz decided to pursue a different approach and emphasized the minimalism and emptiness in his strip — rarely (if ever) depicting backgrounds and only drawing the bare minimum needed to convey an interaction. This gamble succeeded, and people noticed the abundant amount of white in its panels as well as a lack of resulting clutter. By the time Peanuts ended, this more minimalistic and artistic approach had become the staple of its successors, with a strong story taking the place of visual and stylistic opulence. Its influence would be felt forever; still, everyone had to face the fact that Peanuts itself would inevitably cease to continue alongside them.
The final Peanuts strip is an interesting and moving affair, as well as the only strip made after Schulz was diagnosed with cancer. The strip was created by using elements of previous ones, since he did not draw anything new on account of his failing health. The idea of allowing anyone else to take on his life’s work was unthinkable to him. The title panel is taken from the Nov.21, 1999 strip and shows Charlie Brown speaking on the telephone with someone, saying “no, I think he’s writing,” referring to Snoopy. In the second panel, we see Snoopy doing just that, composing a letter that begins “Dear Friends…” and is displayed in its entirety in the final panel. The letter laid out Schulz’s reasons for retiring, expressing his gratitude for his fans and featuring various moments from previous strips floating throughout as ethereal clouds of memory. It is quite a fitting farewell, capping a comic strip built on emotional struggles and the general obstacles of life by bringing those same feelings to the forefront once more. For many (the author of this article included), Peanuts is not just a work of art but also a microcosm of the human condition: how we are, and how we should aspire to be.
And it is so hard to believe that it has been gone for two decades already.
Note: all biographical information was identified and verified by consulting David Michaelis’s biography of Charles M. Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts.
(Final Strip—February 13, 2000)
(Strip about Gun Control—December 17, 1988)
John Colie is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]