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1950 Part 1 - Good Ol' Charlie Brown

(timestamps are approximate)


[00:00:00] Jimmy: Welcome to the first episode of Unpacking Peanuts, the podcast, where we go deep into the world of Charles Schulz and the Peanuts gang. I'm your host, Jimmy Gownley, the cartoonist behind Amelia Rules, The Dumbest Idea ever, and 7 Good Reasons Not to Grow Up. Joining me are my co-hosts. Michael Cohen, cartoonist behind A Gathering of Spells Tangled Rver and Strange Attractors as well as composer for the band Complicated People, and this podcast

Michael: Hello there

Jimmy: and Harold Buchholz, executive producer and writer of Mystery Science Theater 3000, former vice-president of Archie comics and cartoonist behind the Instagram strip Sweetest Beasts.

Harold: Hello.

Jimmy: Welcome guys. Thanks for doing this podcast with me.

Michael: This is very exciting,

[00:00:48] Jimmy: Michael. I, I, I think you, the fact that I convinced you to be a part of this podcast is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.

[00:00:58] Michael: Well, I am terrified, but I will carry on bravely.

[00:01:03] Jimmy: and Harold how do you feel? Do you feel, you feel nervous, you feel excited? What are you, what are you looking forward to here?

[00:01:06] Harold: I feel excited. Peanuts is something that is, yeah, it's just been such a big part of my life and, and. To be able to unpack it and take a look at it and understand a little bit of what that impact was is I think is gonna be super helpful to me.

And I think I'm not alone.

[00:01:23] Jimmy: So just, just to give us some background, Michael, why don't you tell us, where and who you were when you first discovered this comic strip

[00:01:32] Michael: Okay, well, I was very young. I'm the elder spokesman of the group by the way, as you'll figure out, cause Peanuts debuted almost exactly a month after I was born.

Jimmy: Wow.

Michael: And I remember quite distinctly going over to my aunt and uncle's house and playing on the floor with these little plastic toys. And I think I was around five or six, so we'd be talking 1955, 1956. And I remember being on the floor and looking over their bookcase, seeing this little green volume.

And I went over there and it was, so it was just called Good Old Charlie Brown that's right. which I think was maybe the fourth, I think, volume from the series. And I was just like totally captivated. They also had Snoopy, which might've been the third or fourth and Peanuts and more Peanuts.

And I remember, I think I just asked if I could have them, so, or I stole them. I don't know, but those copies and read them like thousands of times. And up through the late sixties, they bought every volume as they came out.

Jimmy: Wow.

Michael: So I had quite a big collection of those, but to me it was just so amazing. Cause I don't even think I was following any newspaper cartoons at the time.

it was just a whole new world. And I still learned a lot about the world from reading these things. I mean, there was words, I didn't know. And there was, you know, Schulz was dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter. So to me it was like the best school I ever had.

[00:03:20] Jimmy: And Harold, how about you?

[00:03:22] Harold: Well, from a very young age, I was fascinated by the printed word and cartoons.

When I was a toddler, my mom caught me on the floor of the house with an upside down Time magazine, picking at the letters. I was as fascinated with print and when I was three, I remember. I was reading the Sunday comics section was Nancy, and I'm trying to make sense of the strip and it didn't make sense.

And I knew enough that it didn't make sense that I was close enough to making sense of it. And then I went to my father and I said, what's why did this happen? And he's like, oh, you're you're reading. Exactly backwards. I was like in the lower right corner reading. This was before anybody adults had even thought to tell me, here's how you read in order.

This is so pre-reading.

Jimmy: Wow.

Harold: But I was trying to make sense through comics of a story with a mixture of the picture and the words. And I discovered that I was reading it backwards and it's something that for some reason is a memory that I have. It's so strong, you know, how comics, you know, tied into my life.

And I was drawing my own comics from the age of three. I was, I had a little bird, named Birdie of course, with a sideways B for a beak, and a little turtle who kind of look like the head of a Pac-Man and two sticks coming out of the bottom of this little head for legs and looking at those comics. From my, from my earliest years, I still have some of them.

I was struck by the power of emotion in them as a little kid. You know, I was, wasn't very articulate, but I felt things very deeply. And I think as adults, we sometimes forget, you know, how much is actually going on inside as you're trying to live your life as a little kid. And this is where Peanuts comes in, because I think by around the age of seven, I began to receive these little Fawcett Crest Peanuts mass market paperbacks, like a little 50 cent books, and I was reading large chunks of the strip for the first time. And I think that's when it had the first major impact on me. I think Schulz. opened up to me and the depth of feeling and those strips communicated to my soul in ways that no human interaction yet had.

So again, it's like comics are kind of pre pre-experience of anything else. you know, Peanuts was, was speaking to me in a way that I had not yet processed as a, as a kid growing up. And so without an irony, I can say that somehow, Charlie Brown and Snoopy and Lucy and Linus were more real to me than anybody.

That's a strange thing to say, but I think that's true, especially Linus I connected to and related to Linus, like nobody else in my life at that time. And somehow Charles Schulz through Peanuts was let me know somebody and be known. And that is a very strange thing to say about a little black and white comic strip line or a comic strip.

But looking back on it, 45 years later, I marvel at the impact that that strip had on my life.

[00:06:20] Jimmy: Yeah, no, absolutely. For me, I remember it predates almost everything. It really predates almost everything. And I wonder if that's one of the reasons why when you find this particular strip, really, really, is that why you're drawn to make them yourself?

Because it imprints on you so young. For me, I, what happened was, my cousins from Philadelphia would come up to visit our mutual grandmother every Memorial day. and then every Labor day-- they're big into any holiday they could go to a cemetery and mourn someone. So they would come to visit and they, but they brought these Peanuts books.

And the one that struck me was this thing called What’s It All About Charlie Brown. And I don't know if you guys know this one, but the cover of it is Snoopy's doghouse burning and saying, you know, my books, my pool table, my records, my van Gogh. And, it was. The comic strip and have some sort of bizarre, you know, self-help pop psychology book.

And obviously I couldn't read any of that stuff. I mean, I was three years old or whatever, but the strips within them, I absolutely loved. And I remember to this day, one in particular, I remember coloring it in the, in the book. I still have the book. I'll post it in the show notes. My actual copy. I had a, which it's I believe it's Schroeder. It's Charlie Brown and Linus or Charlie Brown and Schroeder. Actually, I think it is because it's in the middle of winter and you can't see who they are because they're wearing hats and snowing. And they were like, oh, we should go. There's Snoopy, he looks cold, we should go and comfort him and they walk over and they say, be of good cheer, Snoopy. Yes. Be of good cheer. And they just walk away. And Snoopy has a question mark over his head.

And I read that I'm like, I don't get this at all. But I think when I understand that I will understand something important about life and the thing I loved about it was that it always felt as familiar as the kids I played with in my town.

And always also a little bit beyond me, a little bit out of reach. And I loved that. But the other thing I have to say is I also can't remember a time when Charlie Brown Christmas wasn't in my consciousness because my other earliest memories would be watching a Charlie Brown Christmas and going out with my dad to cut down our very own Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

We'd find the rattiest, the rattiest-looking tree and bring it home. And I decorate it with hand-drawn Peanuts ornaments.

Harold: Was that the only tree you had?

Jimmy: No, we had a real tree too. No, mom, wasn't going to go for that. Come on. You know? But, yeah, so those are my absolute earliest memories.

And so I'm really excited about the fact that we are going to get to go on this journey together. We're going to get to talk about it, because we all have it. And I hope I'm obviously, if you're out there listening, you guys love it too. Right? So we're taking you back to October, 1950. Everybody remembers October, 1950.

Of course. First-class postage was just 3 cents. So tell Harold, what do you, where do you think, what would it be like for someone like Charles Schulz? Who's at this point he's just about to turn 28…

[00:09:28] Harold: He’s 28 years old

[00:09:32] Jimmy: Just about to. He's living in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is not a place that is not all the, all the syndicates, all the people that put the comic strips out into the newspapers of the world are in much larger cities, Chicago, New York.

Right. So, so what, so tell us, what do you, what, what would it be like for a guy like that to.

[00:09:49] Harold: So paint a picture of a Charles Schulz and here's this mild-mannered kid who's, he's grown up in St. Paul and his whole life. He’s, taken a correspondence school in art specifically, apparently because it had a good section on cartooning and he wanted to be a cartoonist. It's just something he knew he wanted to do. And, and here he is in St. Paul and interestingly, in the twin cities, that is where the art instruction schools are. So it's kind of funny that he's taking this and sending this stuff in even thought the actual course with the instructors is in…

[00:10:23] Jimmy: And I'm certain that, that an element of that was his personal shyness. He talked through his life about how shy he felt and how he felt invisible in crowds and stuff like that. I think occur cartooning correspondence course is is a perfect Charles Schulz solution.

[00:10:37] Harold: And that, you know, is, is a relatively new thing. You know, if you were an artist, you usually had to go to a major city and traverse that city and be able to figure that city out and be willing to, to go into that kind of environment, to be an artist. This is a unique thing where here's somebody, the shy guy and he's, he's just doing it all out of, out of his, his apartment, above his dad's barbershop.

I think that's, that's a different artist then the type of commercial artists that was, you know, was, was usually getting work prior to that. They were probably a little more extroverted on, on, on average and they had to be.

[00:11:22] Jimmy: yeah. And interestingly, you know, the National Cartoonist Society is, is an organization of professional cartoonists, and it was known as one of the hard drinking wildest bunches that you can imagine. And this was at a time when a newspaper syndicated cartoonist was a celebrity position and they would make money hand over fist. Guys like Al Capp and Ham Fisher and all those, those guys.

[00:11:49] Harold: Yeah. So this is, this is a whole different world. He's aspiring to something. And this is this field that has, has really big upside. And this is a, this is a dream, but he's, he's committed to this street. And then world war II comes along.

He's finished the correspondence course, but he's, he's now, in Europe during World War II as this very young kid, I think his mother passes away right around the time of going off to war.

[00:12:15] Jimmy: Well, she says to him as he's leaving “well, Sparky,” everyone called him Sparky. And one of the great ironies of his life or, or synchronicities of his life, I guess you could say he was nicknamed after a comic strip character, a horse in the, in the comic strip, Barney Google.

So she said to him, “well, Sparky, I guess is the last time we'll see each other.” And then he went off to war.

[00:12:35] Harold: that's brutal

Jimmy: Yes it is brutal.

Harold: And talk about loneliness. I mean, he's obviously. You know, it's this mixture of loneliness being surrounded by people that he has in World War II. He continues to draw.

He's, he's not forgetting his goal comes back after World War II and he actually gets a job with the same place.

[00:12:58] Jimmy: Which is Art Instruction School is the name of the correspondence school. And I would just say just tangentially. I don't know if either of you guys have ever seen, one of the courses, but my neighbor, I lived in this little tiny town, Girardville, Pennsylvania, a very creative town.

I lived on A street. Literally, they could not even bothered to name it, but like three doors down. the neighbor's daughter took the Famous Artists course and I got to see all the binders of-- it's legit. It was really an impressive course. If you, it was all on you, you had to do it right. But boy, if you did it, I think you would've gotten a legitimate art education.

[00:13:32] Harold: He obviously took that extremely seriously and that he must've been a good student and a very fastidious student for him to come back to them and say, you know, I just graduated from your course a few years ago and he’s going to try and take on a job. Doing the instructor side of what he had taken, not too long go without really a whole lot of experience under his belt.

He was a very good student at this point, all they had to go on. So that kind of speaks to who he was. And so he's working locally trying to find his way into cartooning, which is not easy in St. Paul, Minnesota, but to his credit. I think it kind of speaks to who he was as a person is very. Committed. I think there was a Catholic kids comic and I think it was based on a St.

Paul called Topics. And he was, he was lettering pages at the rate, not per page, but a dollar 50 an hour. So he was working I’m guessing pretty fast and not getting a whole lot of money, but at least he was working in comics and he sold I think a couple of $10 pages of single panel jokes to them as well. Some of them featuring little children.

So it's kind of the first time he's getting published with the kind of comics that we know him for. And one of the cartoons of those pages, there's this girl running a potato sack race. But, instead of for jumping in there, she's got a sack upside down over her head, and her legs are sticking out below, running at full speed and it looks like their parents are just standing by the trees.

And the mom says to the husband, “you sure Judy understood the rules of the sack race?” It's genuinely funny. It's, it's absurd, but you know, Those elements of Peanuts that we see later.

[00:15:13] Jimmy: Right and one of the other things that's really it's happening at the same time or roughly at the same time, as he starts doing a newspaper strips for his own, his own local paper at the Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

[00:15:26] Jimmy: Yeah. And now, Michael, have you seen the L’il Folks stuff? Have you ever read those?

[00:15:31] Michael: I don't know if they've been republished. I do have an issue of the Comics Journal story with the huge Schulz interview. And they print some of them that they're actually funny.

Jimmy: They are pretty funny.

Michael: They’re not Peanuts. They’re one panel.

[00:15:46] Jimmy: No, but would you recognize it as Schulz art?

Michael: Oh, absolutely.

Jimmy: Right, right. I think so too. I think it's interesting because he's doing this. as it's essentially a gag strip, multiple, multiple panels, I think he did two or three different little

vignettes in each strip.

Harold: the women's section I think

[00:16:05] Jimmy: exactly right. And he will and at the same time though, he's submitting these gag strips to major market magazines like Saturday Evening Post.

[00:16:13] Harold:. And so he has quite a success with that. That's his first national successes that Saturday Evening Post picks up these single panel cartoons.

It's little kids in big people's settings, you know, that they're wearing oversize skis into a comic effect or a little girlI think the famous one is a little girl standing in high heels and she's angled at the angle of where her feet are, these giant shoes.

[00:16:36] Jimmy: And his first one that he sold was actually the, the gag is it's a tiny little kids sitting on a giant lounge chair, but with his feet hanging off, resting on an o ttoman in front of it that he obviously didn't made.

So. As personal of a strip that Peanuts actually eventually became it's interesting that really, I think one of the reasons it's about kids is because that's the thing that was selling.

[00:16:59] Harold: Yeah. And, and, and consistently, I mean, we don't see anything else he's doing that doesn't have the kid element in it and he sold like 17 of these single panel cartoons and the competition to get into the Saturday Evening Post by cartoonists was fierce. It was probably one of the top five paying spaces you could sell into and buy the best pay spaces that you could sell into. He sold 17 of these things over a course of three years. So I think being at the time where there were certain strips that would start out in a magazine and or panels, and they became so much a good seller that the same, like Hazel, I think, the maid, right. It was in, was in the magazine cartoons and then ultimately got pulled out and became its own thing because they kept buying these funny cartoons from this, from the same artists over and over again, people got to know these characters, right. I think Little Lulu was like that

[00:17:53] Jimmy: Little Lulu, Henry, all those, there are a couple like that.

[00:17:56] Harold: that, but that's fascinating that he was that successful. That is so hard to get even one joke in there and he got 17.

[00:18:03] Jimmy: But what he's not doing is creating characters, which I think is really interesting. It's yeah. So basically what happens to kind of cut to the chase and get

to the Peanuts of the matter is he asks for a raise from the Pioneer Post. It gives that, and they tell him to go take a hike. So he loses his spot in that paper, in his hometown paper. And now if he wants to be a cartoonist, he's going to have to sell it nationwide.

[00:18:26] Harold: And for some, some personal perspective, what he was paid in today's dollars over a 3-year period post-war when he really started getting into, trying to get published from 1947 to 1950 when Peanuts debuts,, he made about $25,000 in today's dollars. Being a guy who had no background out of St. Paul Minnesota, that's not bad for what would it be?

[00:18:50] Jimmy: What was the average salary? Like four or 5 thousand a year probably?

[00:18:52] Harold: I'm talking about today's dollars just to kind of like…

Jimmy: Oh I see adjusted for inflation right.

Harold: He was super young. He's, he's determined. He's really working hard to, to get something going. And I believe what he said was all during this time. He's also, you know, not only he's got this job, he's doing our instruction schools. He's getting all these cartoons into the local, the local paper, a regular feature.

He also has the Saturday Evening Post, but he's, he's also sending things out to syndicates to try to get national…

[00:19:26] Jimmy: Right, to get nationally syndicated. So he decides he's going to take a trip on a train to New York city. He goes to United Features Syndicate, and he has two packs. One pack contains basically L’il Folks, gag strips. Another pack. It contains daily comic strips. Okay. Which don't really have still defined characters. He arrives too early at the offices of the syndicate, United Features. So he goes out for breakfast. By the time he comes back, the editors that be have opened the packs and said, Hey, if you can do a comic strip and create some definite characters, we would like the strip.

And just like that, boom, Charles Schulz is a syndicated cartoonist. So, but I want to talk for a minute about the things that were beyond Schulz's control. First thing that was imposed upon them, that I can think of that he had no control over was the name. The syndicate named it Peanuts.

[00:20:15] Michael: That seems to be the case and a lot of people can't even figure out why it was given that name.

[00:20:23] Jimmy: I have heard it had to do with the peanut gallery from Howdy Doody

[00:20:27] Michael: possibly, but that I met somebody recently who to this day had no idea that Peanuts was actuall kind of a little term for little kids, that'd be like a pet name, hey peanut, you know, they, they didn't associate it with kids in any way.

So it was a great mystery.

[00:20:49] Jimmy: Right. And you know, I'd never occurred to me that it was associated with kids. It just sort of seemed like it was like a Kleenex. I don't know why it's called that. It just is what it is. But he hated it too. And to his dying day, he hated the name Peanuts.

Other things. the fact Peanuts, every single day was four panels.

They were the exact same size, never varied. Harold, talk to us a little bit about why that, that was a thing.

[00:21:16] Harold: Apparently one of the things that the editor was looking at when he was, when he saw the strip and he saw this new version wasn't straight forum was, he was looking for an angle, I guess, to sell a new strip to these newspapers.

It's super competitive to get your strip in the newspaper and editor. Hard to get to switch out one strip or another. And this was at a time when post-war newsprint prices were through the roof because they put caps on newsprint all through World War II as a commodity during the war. And then as soon as they took the prices off of it, it skyrocketed, it went up like that, like 70 percent from 1945, 1948, starting to go up again in 1950 and the news, the newspaper people were going nuts over this because all of their profits were being eaten away. So this editor decides, Hey, let's try to sell a strip that is somehow more efficient, uses less newsprint than anything else.

Cause I mean, if you can imagine it's printing the same thing a hundred thousand times every day, if it's smaller and you can still have the entertainment value, supposedly that's a sales point to the cartoon editor. And so that is, it's this kind of strange this utilitarian approach to the street. It's kind of an indignity for, for Schulz.

The best of the main thing. They’re selling, it's not, so Schulz's brilliant work. It's the fact that this thing is tiny and can be reconfigured any which way can.

[00:22:41] Jimmy: Yeah it can be printed vertically, it can be printed horizontally. It can be printed as a square . So that was it. You know, he didn't have a InDesign and Photoshop, so that was a big benefit, to the editor theoretically, but it only ended up in a handful of papers.

I've always heard seven, but the Wikipedia article says nine and then later says seven. So we're going to have to double-check scene seven.

[00:23:03] Harold: Apparently they’ve added in New York and Boston, which others account say was not initially there when it first debuted.

[00:23:11] Jimmy: But basically less than 10 papers

[00:23:13] Harold: Which is very low for a launch of the paper.

Now to his credit, he got into the number two market, Chicago, number four market Washington Post. So he was probably in the Metro area, like reaching 12 and up to 12 and a half million people. You know, that's 8% of the US population to start out. Not terrible.

[00:23:31] Jimmy: Well it's crazy when you think about what shows like that are considered culturally, you know, huge-- Game of Thrones or whatever today get compared to his audience at its peak was something like 300 million people.

[00:23:39] Harold:

All the people that could read it. How many actually did, but still, those are some big cities in some major circulation. So even though not a lot of strips and not a lot of cities, but he wasn’t in tiny, tiny markets. So he was making decent money to start, even though he had such a low, a low paper count.


[00:24:03] Jimmy: So, so, so that brings us up to October, 1950. One of the things you might not know out there, if you're just coming to Peanuts now, or if that, or if you're a millennial or something, something ridiculous like that. but these are really early Peanuts comic strips had never been reprinted in, in their totality until, Fantagraphics started releasing the complete Peanuts volumes.

So, Michael, can you talk to me a little bit about what it was like the first time you saw these very, very early strips and what it was like when you were reading them for this podcast?

[00:24:39] Michael: Okay. They reprinted Peanuts and More Peanuts. That probably the first two volumes of the, was it Ballantine books, which I always considered clearly less brilliant material.

It was like, I always thought, well, okay. It took him a year or two to get the engine running and figure out who these characters were and establish, you know, his, his sense of humor. So Peanuts and More Peanuts for, you know, like early Beatles or something, even though like, you know, occasional flashes of brilliance, but still needed a little work.

[00:25:21] Harold: sorry. Are you reading those are those like 1952 or so those first…

[00:25:25] Michael: Well, I read that when I discovered Peanuts in 55, 56, I, I had, I got all these and I, I wasn't too clear on the order, but it was pretty clear that Peanuts was the first one and more Peanuts was the second one,

[00:25:41] Jimmy: Reprint strips from ‘52

[00:25:45] Michael: They didn't tell you any of that. But anyway, I always figured these were, you know, these were okay. You know, a few laughs here and there, but definitely I would not ask someone to start with the first ones. And then when the Fantagraphics books came out. Of course they're doing it chronologically.

So the first volume came out. I had to get it and discovered that those books that I read thousands of times, those early Peanuts books were not complete. I didn't realize that. There was, I'd seen maybe 30, 40% of them. So yeah, I'm reading the Fantagraphics books. I was just fascinated with these, if you go, first of all, they were funnier than I remember.

And actually he did have quite a sharp sense of humor from the beginning. And what was just so interesting to me was that he didn't have the fi final versions in his head. I mean, the versions we know, you know, had to develop slowly. Right. So it's just like, you think. Okay, this is Charlie Brown, but you realize this.

Is this Charlie Brown? I mean, he's got the same name. He looks the same, but he's not quite the same personality.

[00:27:06] Jimmy: Right. And a lot of that comes out of the fact that it was, he was originally a gag cartoonists and, and creating character was way, way down, on his list, but I, I don't want to get too in the weeds.

I just want it, but I just want general first impressions. Harold, how about you, when you tell me about the first time you used. And these particular strips.

[00:27:22] Harold: Well, as a, as a little kid, they reprinted, I think just a few of the 1950 strips, particularly the first strip. I was disappointed as a kid because I, oh, there's stuff that goes all the way back.

And then I'm like, oh, that's not the Peanuts I know. And you know, I think my view of it was like, this is it's crisp. It's very crisp. It's kind of bland compared to what I was used to with Peanuts. but again, looking at it as a little bit older, I there's, there's something that's so unique in the personality of it.

There's this it's kind of stoic and there's this honor and humility and smallness that Schulz puts in there that I really don't see anywhere else. And to find that in the earliest strips, this is this really beginning stages of Schulz's, run with Peanuts is pretty fast. Yeah,

[00:28:14] Jimmy: to me looking at them. I think the one thing I would just say is they look the most fifties to me, you know, I could sort of see this coming out of the UPA studio.

This doesn't, it looks like a cleaner Jules Feiffer, maybe like a New Yorker kind of feel. So it doesn't feel Schulz as much as it feels. Just generally fifties, so, okay guys, we're going to have to take another break. When we come back, we're going to start our deep dive as we go in from the very beginning, all the way through to December 30th, 1950, because there was no Sunday strip yet.


[00:28:49] Harold: We'll have more with Jimmy Gownley, Harold Buchholz and Michael Cohen in part two of Unpacking Peanuts, 1950. Original music composed by Michael Cohen, editing by Liz Sumner.

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