Monday, September 07, 2015


You probably remember my post from earlier this year about the frequency with which characters appeared in the Peanuts comic strip. Well, nobody technically asked me to continue it, but a couple of people expressed polite interest, and I just hate to leave things part-finished, so here's the second in a series of decade-by-decade analysis! It went on for fifty years, it's the kind of thing that takes multiple blog posts to talk about.

Here's the whole lineup of characters as we left them in 1957

Just to bring the first graph up to the end of 1959 - the most noteworthy thing is the birth of Charlie Brown's baby sister Sally in that year. She follows the example of Linus, remaining a baby for a good few years before magically catching up in age with the rest of the gang, and it takes even longer for her to be seen as frequently as the main stars of the comic...

And so now we move into the sixties. Actually, although a lot of fans feel the sixties was the golden age of Peanuts (I agree with them, too), in terms of character-prominence it's the most boring decade of the lot. The whole period is dominated by the big four - Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy, with everyone else huddled down in the bottom section of the chart far below them. But the lines on the graph still highlight some interesting trends in the comic strip's development...

The original characters have already faded away by the start of the decade but not entirely disappeared - Shermy shows up in the background once in a blue moon, Pig-Pen's appearances are even rarer (though the animated cartoons, which started in the mid-sixties, give him a more prominent role), Patty and Violet have become a double-act of occasional cameos and Schroeder has settled into the role of exclusively showing up in piano or baseball-themed comics, which he pretty much stays with until the series ends in 1999. So there is plenty of scope to introduce new people to take things in different directions, though it takes a while to happen.

Frieda (she of the naturally curly hair) makes her debut in 1961 and briefly becomes a regular star - for a little while she's a regular double-act with Lucy (chatting in the baseball outfield rather than paying attention to the game) and Snoopy (criticising him for not chasing enough rabbits). Her cat, Faron, shows up too, but disappears quickly; apparently Charles M Schulz decided he couldn't draw cats. I remember seeing him interviewed on British TV somewhere in the 1980s - when asked if there were any characters he regretted introducing to Peanuts, his first thought was "There was a girl who was always talking about her naturally curly hair, I never liked her much...", but Frieda carries on showing up in minor roles for many years after her 1961 moment of fame. Schulz went on to say that he probably shouldn't have introduced other dogs to the strip, since it stopped Snoopy being so unique, which was kind of a strange thing to say since this was during the period when Snoopy's brother Spike was all over Peanuts. Still, that's all in the future as we look at the 1960s - Snoopy's still somewhere close to being a normal kind of dog at the start of the decade...

1963 gives us the first appearance of 5, the reaction to the introduction of zip codes in the USA. This is the great thing about reading old comics; they can be like time capsules, reminding us of things that were considered a big deal at the time the strips were drawn, though they're just taken for granted these days. Clearly there was a moment when it was new and weird to put a string of numbers after your address. 5's sisters, 3 and 4 (their surname is 95472) also show up a couple of times, and all three of them turn into useful characters for crowd scenes over the years to come - Peanuts at this point still never shows any other characters except the named regulars, but there are some times when it needs to show a line of kids buying movie tickets or the like.

Here's everyone (except, strangely, Linus) all together in 1964

But the more interesting development comes in 1965 when, after fifteen years of being set exclusively in and around Charlie Brown's neighbourhood, the world of Peanuts becomes a bigger place. Charlie Brown goes away to summer camp, we see on-panel appearances of other nameless boys, and we meet a new named character, Roy. Okay, he never really does anything, but he represents a significant change in the whole focus of the comics.

Another significant moment very arguably comes in 1966 - I'm following the excellent Peanuts Wiki in dating that as the first appearance of Woodstock, though most other people who care about such things (you'd be surprised how many there are) say 1967. Really, though, it's more of a gradual development than a single debut moment, because Snoopy has been hanging out with birds (much more birdish-looking birds than Woodstock eventually becomes) for a long time before this, and really it's 1969 before it definitely becomes clear that it's the same bird every time. And of course it's 1970 before he gets a name and becomes Snoopy's ever-present sidekick, so maybe that yellow line shouldn't be on the sixties graph at all...

In 1966 it's Linus who goes to summer camp and meets Roy, who then makes his greatest contribution to shaking up the status quo of Peanuts by introducing his friend Peppermint Patty to the gang. (Original Patty's name hadn't been mentioned for years in the strip; though she did get a namecheck in the cartoons, I doubt many people remembered it. Still, the duplicated name is one of the strange things about Peanuts.) It turns out that Peppermint Patty and Roy live in another neighbourhood across town, and they very gradually develop a group around themselves (starting with José Peterson the half-Swedish half-Mexican player on Peppermint Patty's baseball team). Peppermint Patty immediately stands out as a wonderful character, but it takes her a while to become prominent - for the first few years she tends to take centre stage for a brief run of strips at a time and then isn't seen for a few months. It's the seventies before she really becomes a regular, and of course acquires her loyal sidekick Marcie.

When Peppermint Patty gets her own summer camp storyline in 1968, we get three more named characters in Sophie, Clara (something of a prototype Marcie) and Shirley, who become the comic strip's first one-off characters appearing just for one specific series of comics - everyone else who's shown up until now has at least been intended to be an ongoing recurring character. The camp trio do reappear nearly twenty years later, which is a kind of recurring, I suppose, but you know what I mean.

The final significant debut of the 1960s is of course Franklin, in 1968. More time-capsule stuff, obviously, and even today he hasn't really escaped from being talked about exclusively in terms of how radical it was to introduce a black character to the daily newspaper comic strip (that he goes to school with Peppermint Patty was the really radical thing in the USA at the time - just to make it extra clear how Schulz felt about that hot topic, there's also a rare appearance of Charlie Brown's unnamed schoolmates, who include a black girl, at around this time. Good man, Charles M Schulz). But in terms of character prominence graphs, Franklin is probably the final nail in the coffin of Shermy's days as a recurring character - he takes over the role of the nice-guy friend of good ol' Charlie Brown, and Shermy disappears for good (nearly) after one last showing in 1969.

The gang from the other side of town in 1969 - Peppermint Patty, Franklin, Roy and José Peterson

Lila, Snoopy's original owner who appears on-panel in just one 1968 strip, gets to be in the chart as well for the sake of completeness (seeing as she's got a name), though her little blip is lost in the general squiggle of lines down at the bottom there. But 1968 is most notable for that epochal moment when Snoopy's line moves above Charlie Brown's on the chart. The gradual transformation from "puppy who the kids play with now and then" to "central character of the strip around whom all storylines revolve" is complete. Peanuts will never be the same again, for better or worse. Join us again soon for the 1970s, when those lines get a lot more messy and we wonder how to tell the difference between Conrad, Olivier and Bill!

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