It’s hard to believe we once lived in a much simpler country where television producers actually worried about the potential ramifications of Linus reciting a brief line of scripture during a church nativity play in A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Isn’t that what children do in nativity plays?) Or how resistant some Southern newspapers might be to the blithely abrupt appearance, in 1968, of Franklin (the first Black character in a nationally syndicated American comic strip), sitting near Peppermint Patty in an otherwise all-white grammar school at a time when the Supreme Court was handing down desegregation decisions. It’s not clear if Schulz intended to send signals of support for desegregation (though Ball argues that he did), but when a Southern newspaper editor asked him to redraw the character, Schulz claimed to have fired back: “Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit.”
Even when Schulz expressed support for changes in social life and public policy, he couldn’t always make it work creatively. The much-heralded and debated early appearances of Franklin didn’t deliver a character that Schulz could work out how to use, and Franklin soon receded into the background cast of minor characters. “I’ve never done much with Franklin,” Schulz apologized in the late 1970s. “I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a little black boy, and I don’t think you should draw things unless you really understand him.”
While Franklin never took off as a character, Peppermint Patty did. Her name was inspired by the popular foil-wrapped candies, but her personality emerged from Schulz, like Athena from Zeus’s head, full-blown. Patty was a latchkey kid, raised by a single father, who loved sports and hated school, and when she made her first appearance on August 22, 1966, she introduced herself as a tough, sporty girl who wanted to join Charlie Brown’s team and “solve” his “baseball problems.” She went on to become one of the most omnipresent and continually interesting characters in the strip, eventually presenting the most consistent political argument in Peanuts that seemed to address Schulz’s own support for Title IX reforms in how public school sports were financed.
But to the end of his life, Schulz made almost every strip, and almost every utterance of every character, consistent with a comic fictional world where boys, girls, and dogs of every stripe wrestled with abstract enormities, such as unrequited love, losing baseball games, and gazing up with a sense of vast loneliness at a night sky filled with unutterably perplexing stars. Over the 50 years of its existence, it’s rare to find a single Peanuts panel in which any character serves as a mouthpiece for Schulz’s editorial opinions: His characters are always—whether analyzing scripture (Linus), or bullying their younger siblings about what TV programs to watch (Lucy), or devoting their writerly life (Snoopy) to collecting rejection slips—consistent with themselves and the imaginary world they inhabit together.
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