November 26 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charles M. Schulz, the cartoonist who gave the world the Peanuts comic strip along with all of its multiple cultural spinoffs. Over the course of the strip’s fifty years of daily newspaper publication – and the subsequent twenty-plus years of reruns and adaptations – its characters have become familiar to the point of cuddliness, spokespeople for baked goods and insurance, plush stuffies and collectible figurines, avatars of sentimental platitudes like “Happiness is a warm puppy.”
So it’s easy to forget that, for most of its run, Schulz’s creation was a mordantly despairing comic masterpiece about anxiety and depression and disappointment and cruelty. Charlie Brown never won a baseball game or kicked Lucy’s football. Lucy had rage issues, Linus was pedantic, Schroeder was fixated, love was universally unrequited. And Snoopy, between his delusions of grandeur and the condescension with which he treated his owner, was never a particularly warm puppy. The punch line of the very first Peanuts strip was “Good ol’ Charlie Brown… how I hate him!” And it got darker from there.
Schulz was famously dissatisfied with the title Peanuts, pressed on him by a marketing-minded syndicate; he thought it was frivolous and trivializing. Which maybe explains why he wrote the strip as for an audience of erudite – and neurotic – adults. The little kids in Peanuts demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of literature, philosophy, and Biblical theology, with a vocabulary to match. Despite his idiosyncrasies — or maybe because of them — Schulz’s influence over his chosen art form was pervasive; the World War I flying ace foretold Calvin and Hobbes’s Spaceman Spiff, and Snoopy’s deadpan interspecies communications led to Opus the penguin’s loopier iteration.
Together, Schulz’s characters comprise one of American culture’s towering achievements. Through the Library’s collection you can explore his world, if you’re up for some hilarious four-panel bursts of fatalistic melancholy. And the titles listed here are just the beginning; there are dozens more available in the Library catalog, as well as via hoopla, Libby, and Comics Plus.