At the height of his fame, Snoopy appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers around the globe, while the Peanuts comic was read by more than 355 million people, in 21 different languages, across 75 countries. Created by Charles M. Schulz in the 1950s, Snoopy would become the most famous comic strip character of all time and a central part of many readers’ lives. Here, we take a look at the history of the character and examine how Schultz managed to turn four simple comic strip panels into one of the world’s longest and best-loved stories.
Mature ideas in a child’s world
Before we dive into the history of Snoopy and Peanuts, we’re going to provide a little context and a broader overview of the comic’s main themes. While cartoons are a medium that’s typically associated with children, the most popular and successful comic strips often have complex, adult ideas at their heart. Peanuts is just about the best example of this.
Ostensibly a cartoon about a group of young friends, it’s easy to make a case that Peanuts’ main themes are loneliness, alienation and how to be “good” in a cruel world. These are concepts that resonate with children on a subconscious level but that adults identify pretty easily. The comic is full of conflict and characters struggling to do the right thing when faced with difficult situations or behaviour. And it doesn’t shy away from tough subjects, like depression, either. It’s what made it such a universally popular comic - Peanuts disguised adult thoughts and feelings in young characters, simplifying key ideas in the process.
It’s also important to think about the context in which the comic was published. Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, one of the only cartoons with a reputation that comes close to Peanuts, adored Schulz’s work, claiming “it vibrated with ‘50s alienation.” Peanuts emerged at the same time the Beats were creating literature that brazenly attacked the consumerist, nuclear family, suburban “paradise” of the post-World War II USA.
In some ways, Peanuts expressed similar ideas to that of the Beats and the USA’s rapidly developing counter-culture. In other ways, it remained very much outside of that movement. Across the decades, counter-culture influences were woven into the story, most famously with Snoopy’s yellow-feathered friend, Woodstock. However, as Snoopy grew and became the iconic character we know and love today, these influences became less and less influential.
Walking on four legs and a bit-part player
But let’s go back to the start. The first Peanuts cartoon was published in the pages of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, in 1947. At the time, it went by the name Li'l Folks. This incarnation ran for three years but had little impact and failed to find a large, adoring audience. In 1950, Schulz took the strips he had already written and compiled them into a series that he sold to United Features Syndicate, an editorial and comic strip publisher that sold its writing and artwork to various newspapers around the US.
Unhappy with the comic’s existing title, UFS forced a name change on Schulz and went on to publish the first real Peanuts strip in October of 1950. Schulz was deeply unhappy with the new name. Already aware that he wanted his comic to be both meaningful and significant, he felt the new moniker trivialised the cartoon and was somewhat undignified.
Several of the ideas that we’ve touched upon already were present from the very first Peanuts strip. In it, Charlie Brown is drawn walking past two friends, one of whom turns to the other and says, “Well! Here comes 'ol Charlie Brown! Good 'ol Charlie Brown ... how I hate him!” The cruel world within which Charlie Brown would spend the next few decades trying to find his place was established within a few simple frames. This initial strip is very much the Big Bang of the Peanuts universe.
Snoopy made his first appearance two days after the first strip was published. However, another month would pass before readers were given his name. Originally supposed to be called Sniffy, Snoopy was conceived of as Patty’s dog, then Shermy’s, before finally becoming Charlie Brown’s pet. In the early comic strips, he walked on four legs and was silent, not communicating in any way. His famous thought bubbles wouldn’t be introduced until 1952. While a popular character, Snoopy was by no means the star of the show. It wasn’t until the ‘60s and ‘70s that he would become its defining feature and most iconic character.
The Golden Age
From the very first strip, Peanuts was published in several prestigious newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Denver Post and The Seattle Times. Throughout the ‘50s it grew immensely in popularity and was syndicated to other publications. This was a period in which Schulz established the Charlie Brown universe and introduced many of the characters who would become story-staples over the next few decades.
That being said, it was the ‘60s that really put Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang on the map. They appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1965 and, in 1967, in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 disaster, Snoopy was adopted as NASA’s official safety mascot. Regarded as the comic’s “Golden Age,” the ‘60s also saw Schulz become increasingly confident about the strip’s ability to tackle big ideas.
Over the course of the decade, Schulz introduced political and social ideas that were way ahead of other mainstream artworks. He touched on gender and racial equality, criticised the dehumanising forces in modern society, covered the Vietnam War and mocked the media furore that surrounded the space race. He did so in an understated way, largely refusing to preach and usually opting to have his characters demonstrate the moral course of action. Schulz didn’t make a big song and dance about Charlie Brown’s baseball team containing both boys and girls, it just did.
The ‘60s was also the period in which Snoopy was brought to the fore. Originally an ever-present side-character that witnessed the kids’ discussions, arguments and adventures but rarely participated in them, Snoopy’s character became increasingly developed over the years. Some of his most famous costumes and imagined alter-egos were written into the story at this time and his World War I fighter pilot and novelist personas can be traced back to the early ‘60s.
However, the character’s inability to communicate with the other characters meant that Schulz couldn’t easily integrate Snoopy into the complex web of friendships and rivalries that defined the comic. Instead, Snoopy retreated into his own head, becoming prone to flights of fancy and daydreaming. For some fans of Peanuts, this wasn’t the right artistic choice.
Snoopy has his critics
As with all famous characters, Snoopy has his detractors. At its centre, Peanuts is a story about the complex way in which a group of young characters interact. The vast majority of these characters are flawed in some way and struggle with the world around them.
Charlie Brown is anxious, alienated and feels as though he never gets anything right. Lucy is aggressively self-confident and domineering. Linus is dependent on his blanket and is reduced to terror without it. Much of the drama of the first 15 years of Peanuts comes from the way these characters cope with these flaws, sometimes with the help of other characters and sometimes despite them.
Unlike Charlie Brown and the gang, Snoopy’s ability to escape into his own world and live independently of the other characters meant that he wasn’t dependent on his friends. He could escape the struggles and do away with the complex universe Schulz had painstakingly created. His escapes into wild imagination also struck some critics as remarkably self-centred and lacking in empathy.
While his best friend, Charlie Brown, had his whole world crashing down around him, Snoopy would often retreat to the dog house to write a novella or imagine flying sorties against the Red Baron. In a comic that was very much grounded in the intricacies of day-to-day interactions and that had characters who couldn’t avoid feelings of crushing inadequacy, this ability to simply blank out all the bad moments could be jarring.
At the same time, many readers loved this aspect of Snoopy’s character. He was a distraction from the drama of Charlie Brown’s real world and able to flee it at a moment’s notice. He was a loveable trickster who allowed Schulz to explore the brighter side of life with wit and a sense of warmth and adventure. He provided some much-needed empathy when other characters were at a low point. He helped the comic to evolve.
As one of Snoopy’s biggest fans, the novelist Jonathan Franzen described the character as “lovable at heart, the quick-change artist who, for the sheer joy of it, can become a helicopter or a hockey player or Head Beagle and then again, in a flash, before his virtuosity has a chance to alienate you or diminish you, be the eager little dog who just wants dinner.”
From the Golden Age to the global age
By the ‘70s, Snoopy was certainly centre stage. In the second half of the ‘60s, the Peanuts gang made the switch to the small screen and began appearing in popular television specials. Schulz had also started to amass a small fortune off of the back of the comics and Snoopy was an international figure that featured in car advertisements and a diverse array of successful Peanuts merchandise. Snoopy stores were opened in Japan, audiences in the UK fell in love with Peanuts and the loveable beagle became a worldwide phenomenon.
The ‘70s was also the period in which Snoopy’s family was properly introduced for the first time. The character had a total of seven siblings, some of which appeared in the strip more than others and all of whom would be gradually phased out. Though Schultz enjoyed drawing the siblings at first, he came to realise that they distracted from and diminished Snoopy’s unique role as the only animal in the children’s world.
In the ‘80s, Snoopy’s legend continued to grow. Schultz became one of the highest-paid entertainers in the USA and Peanuts became the most-read cartoon of all time and was syndicated to a record-breaking 2000th newspaper. By this time Peanuts was an empire. Comic book compilations, TV tie-ins, advertisements, endorsements and its continued publication in the newspapers ensured that Snoopy became a cultural icon. Which was somewhat peculiar, considering that Charlie Brown was theoretically the central character.
Schulz has always been honest about the way Snoopy developed as a means to tie the comic together. While Charlie Brown, the eternal loser, may have been the soul of the comic, his character didn’t allow for the same versatility as Snoopy. Where Charlie Brown failed, Snoopy succeeded. Where Charlie Brown suffered, Snoopy shrugged it off, While the tone of Peanuts’ early years certainly tipped towards Charlie Brown’s angst, the ‘70s and ‘80s saw it shift towards Snoopy’s brilliance. However, it would undergo another gradual change in the ‘90s.
Schulz says goodbye to Snoopy
Early in the ‘90s, Schulz would discover that his health was in decline. By the mid-’90s he developed a tremor that was readily apparent in his drawing. At the turn of the Millenium, on 14th of December, Schulz announced his retirement, with his last Peanuts Sunday strip scheduled to be published on the 13th of February. On the 12th of February, Schulz passed away at the age of 78.
Over the course of that decade, Snoopy seemed to step back from his spectacular fantasies and become more empathetic and connected to the children characters. Whether this was a conscious decision by Schultz or a subconscious reaction to his deteriorating health, we’ll never know. However, we do know that Snoopy and the Peanuts gang lived on after the artist’s death, featuring in several animated series and a feature-length film in 2015. While these have brought the classic character to the attention of a new, younger audience, it’s still the original comic strips that fans hold dearest.
One of the most iconic comic book characters of all time, Snoopy is a lot of things to a lot of people. Some think he’s the star of the show, others that he’s far too self-centred when compared with the human characters. Which side of the fence do you fall on? And what do Peanuts and Snoopy mean to you? We’d love to hear about your favourite Snoopy moments and memories, so get in touch and leave us a comment.