When Charles Schulz died on February 12, 2000, he had been writing and drawing his beloved comic strip, “Peanuts,” starring the ever-worried schoolchild Charlie Brown and his beagle, Snoopy, for nearly 50 years.
Hard as it is to believe, that was 20 years ago this week. Yet today, Schulz’s legacy lives on as colorfully as ever.
New anthologies of “Peanuts” comics are still being published, and new TV and movie adaptations — as well as the classics like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” — continue to delight old fans and new ones alike. And Snoopy is still a fan favorite, with his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and all kinds of merchandise bearing his likeness.
But “Peanuts” continues to impact American culture in more ways than just new licensed products. A groundbreaking comic strip when it debuted in 1950, it went on to influence some of the most popular cartoonists and children’s writers of the generations that followed Schulz. The work they create today carries on Schulz’s legacy, building on his innovations as they make us laugh — and think, just like Schulz did.
Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” told the Guardian that his attempts to draw Charlie Brown led directly to some of the characters in the “Life Is Hell” comic strip that got his career started. But there was more to Schulz’ influence on Groening than imitation. The whole approach of “Peanuts,” a comic that was funny and philosophical and not always lighthearted, was revolutionary and exciting:
“Peanuts seemed emotionally real (and unlike anything else). Occasional sadness comes up (such as Charlie Brown’s complaints that no one likes him, and Patty’s unsympathetic explanations of why this is so), but this is offset by a friendly drawing style, great jokes and a sense of childhood exuberance that makes the discouragements of life seem a worthy price to pay.”
Mo Willems, author of the “Elephant and Piggie” series of children’s books, was also influenced by the emotional life of Charlie Brown and his friends, as he explained in an interview with Reading Rockets: “‘Peanuts’ was really a transformative comic strip for me, because it was the only comic strip where the main character is unhappy. There’s something very realistic about that, and I don’t think childhood is necessarily a very happy time, because there’s a lot of learning, a lot of stresses and what not; and so it was realistic, but it was very funny, and the drawings were just beautiful and simple.”
Those simple drawings were as groundbreaking as the not-always-sunny world Schulz created. Bill Watterson, who created “Calvin and Hobbes,” explained it in a column for the Los Angeles Times: “The strip looks simple, but Schulz’s sophisticated choices reveal a deep understanding of cartooning’s strengths. I studied those drawings endlessly as a kid, and they were an invaluable education in how comics worked.”
Watterson ended up being profoundly influenced by “Peanuts,” and the clear line drawings of “Calvin and Hobbes” are just part of the proof. Schulz had a tendency to get philosophical, even religious, in the panels of “Peanuts.” Watterson emulated this in “Calvin and Hobbes,” a strip that, like “Peanuts,” was sometimes hilarious but also sometimes deeply meaningful.
So many creators were influenced by Schulz. Stephan Pastis, creator of “Pearls Before Swine,” told Witnify, “Peanuts is far and away my biggest influence… He basically [invented] the modern comic strip.” In the same interview, Kate DiCamillo, author of “Because of Winn Dixie,” said, “I always felt like Charles Schulz was telling me the truth. And sometimes he would make me laugh as he was telling me the truth.”
Schulz’s influence goes on and on. Ask any cartoonist who came after 1960 or so about their influences, and Schulz is likely to come up. Lincoln Peirce, creator of “Big Nate,” calls Schulz his boyhood idol. Tom Batiuk, creator of “Funky Winkerbean,” told Comic Journal, “The influence of Charles Schulz on the craft of cartooning is so pervasive it is almost taken for granted.” Even “Garfield” was directly influenced by “Peanuts,” when creator Jim Davis saw the vast marketing potential in an animal character like Snoopy.
The last “Peanuts” strip appeared in newspapers the day after Schulz died — he had prepped several strips in advance as his health declined, unaware that he’d die on the eve of the very last strip’s publication. It’s been 20 years, but the legacy of “Peanuts” is still going strong.