Jimmy: Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the show. It's a special day here on Unpacking Peanuts. I hope you're doing well. You guys doing good out there? Good.
We have a guest here today, and I'm just excited to talk with him about his fantastic new book. But, before we do that, let me introduce myself. My name is Jimmy Gownley. I'm one of your hosts for today, and you might know me as the cartoonist behind Amelia Rules. And books like The Dumbest Idea Ever are Seven Good Reasons Not to Grow Up.
Joining me, as always, are my pals, cohosts, and fellow cartoonists. First, he's a playwright, a composer, both for the band Complicated People as well as for this very podcast; he co-created the first comic book price guide ever and was the original editor for Amelia Rules. He's also the cartoonist behind Strange Attractors, Tangled River, and A Gathering of Spells. Michael Cohen.
Michael: Hey there.
Jimmy: And he's the executive producer and writer for Mystery Science Theater 3000, a former vice president of Archie Comics and the creator of the instagram strip Sweetest Beasts, Harold Buchholz.
Jimmy: Guys. I'm happy today because I'm always happy when we get to talk Peanuts, but I'm doubly happy when we get, a special guest in, to discuss this great comic strip that we love so much. So you guys and also you people out in podcast land, please help me welcome Stephen Lind. Stephen Lind is the author of a fantastic book called A Charlie Brown Religion. He also holds a PhD in rhetorics, communication, and information design, which means he's much, much smarter than certainly all of us, and let's face it, probably you as well. And his work has appeared in such journals as Image Text, the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and The Journal of Communication and Religion. But he is here today because of, like I said, this amazing book, A Charlie Brown Religion. So welcome to the show. Stephen Lind. Stephen, thanks for coming.
Stephen: Thank you so much. That's a very gracious introduction. I am thrilled to be here with you. I will chat Charlie Brown all day long, so this is fun for me.
Jimmy: Oh, good, because that is, what we live for here. And I would like to say, right off the bat, I really enjoyed your book. For people out there, who are thinking about whether or not they're going to buy this book, immediately do it. It's going to sit on your shelf next to things like, Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis and Good Grief by RIta Grimsley Johnson as a book that just really gives you a nice, warm, intimate portrait of this artist that we love so much.
So, Stephen, one of the things we talk about a lot in this show is kind of who we were and where we were when Peanuts collided with our lives. So can you take us back to those early days when you first discovered the work of Charles Schulz?
Stephen: Yeah, I love the way you just phrased that. For me, I think it was a subtle interweaving, more so than a colliding. I remember being a Charlie Brown fan for as long as I can really remember just about anything. I grew up being a fan of, initially, the television specials. I definitely am part, of that generation that was introduced to Peanuts TV first and comics second. But, then once I began to, learn about the comics, I loved those. And growing up, Charlie Brown gifts were a somewhat common thing for me to receive at birthdays or Christmases. When I was in my college education is when I really began to develop maybe a deeper relationship with Peanuts, through occasionally just invoking Charlie Brown's stuff in my homework, where I'd be in a communication class, asked to give an example of a particular theory. And I had kind of lived with my own fandom of Charlie Brown for long enough that I couldn't help but have these Charlie Brown strips or concepts or TV special moments come to mind when I was being asked about these different theories in college. And I would say that's when the foothold really grew strong for me is when I realized, oh, this is permeating my intellectual thought more than just my fandom.
Jimmy: It's so funny. That is something we talk about a lot of the show. Michael and I in particular. I think have two or three times been busted delivering punchlines that we assume are original to us. And then we just find out, oh, this was just something we, imbibed from Peanuts 30 years ago, and now it's just a part of our personality.
Harold: Stephen, did you have anybody that you were growing up with that you could bounce that off of? Or was it all in your own mind, in your own head, that I've experienced this? Like, did you have siblings or parents or friends who were also into this, or were you kind of on your own?
Stephen: I was on my own. And as maybe we'll chat about as we get into the later stuff, that actually ended up being something that was I don't know if concern is the right word, but it was top of mind for me when I got into some of the more kind, of heavy research about Schulz. I had lived with my connection with Peanuts rather personally and independently for the majority of my life. And so the idea that now, then I'm going to explore this in concert with other people and other people are going to read my thoughts and I'm going to have to read other people's thoughts was a little bit new for me because, I was probably-- my family and friends sure liked Charlie Brown, but I'd never really had this sort of conversation or sort of like collective fandom, like a Trekkie or a Star Wars convention. Sort of like community. It was really a very personal thing for me.
Jimmy: Right. Now, was there any other comics in your life that came close to that? Or was Peanuts singular. I mean, we know Peanuts is singular, but was there anything else that was even in that tier?
Stephen: So, for me, growing up, I was a cartoon and comic kid, so a comic book kid. I still, have my comic book collection from when I was a child. And one of my earliest publications was in the Spiderman 2099 comic book. there was a letter to the Editor section in the back called Arachnophilia. And I wrote as a twelve year old on my grandmother's typewriter, this letter to the authors of the Spiderman 2099 comic book. And so, growing up, these characters of, kind of fantastical or essentialized nature were part of my being. And Charlie Brown is definitely top of the stack.
Jimmy: And were you reading Peanuts in mostly, like, the collected books that would have been out at the time?
Stephen: I don't know if I had collected strips of any variety growing up. I think it was I definitely had, tapes, VHS tapes of a television specials, and maybe I had a strip or two from a newspaper clipping from my grandma, but that may have been later. I think for me, growing up, Charlie Brown TV was, primarily the television specials.
Jimmy: Okay, so now you start, you're a fan, you're into this character. You mentioned Charlie Brown. So clearly, I'm guessing, and actually not just guessing, because I've read some interviews with you as well. Charlie Brown is the character you connect with the most. Right? Can you explain why that was? What was the link between him and you?
Stephen: Yeah, I connect with many of the characters, probably most of the characters. And I found myself, while reading through the many, many, many strips that there are, I found myself at times connecting with different characters, more or less. There was a period when I was reading all of the strips where Marcie became the funniest character to me ever. But Charlie Brown is definitely the perennial character for me, who I just connect with on a deep way. He has this community around him, but he also lives a very kind of singular, solitary life in his own way. And he is very in his own head at times. There are those strips where he's lying and saying, like, speaking, into the universe or speaking perhaps to God, the why moments or the how does it work moments in his own head that I really relate to that sort of introspection, the life, the life in your own head that Charlie Brown kind of lives speaks to me in a lot of ways.
Jimmy: So you're a fan of Charlie Brown, and you start incorporating some of these observations and things into your work. how does that go over with the teachers? What age are we talking when you start doing this?
Stephen: So I most early remember doing it in college in my communication classes. The first memory I have of doing it is this subject of symbolic interactionism, which is the theory that says that we understand ourselves primarily by the way other people reflect us back to us. And that's how we learn about ourselves is through the symbols other people reflect to us. And I thought, oh, this is like the, way Charlie Brown interacts with his peers is just like, exactly this. He has this self conception that is so impacted by the way others are reflecting him symbolically back to him.
This was in college. I didn't really take it real seriously, until I was getting my master's degree and had a significant project, a course project on Peanuts and the way different communities would read the strips, some communities reading Charlie Brown, or some individual readers reading Charlie Brown as this deeply religious text, and others being totally oblivious to the possibility that it was a religious text or had any religious content at all. That was in my master's program at the University of Illinois. And that's when I think I really realized that there was a depth that I could mine, that could persist. I don't think I knew it was going to turn into the book until it did turn into the book, but, it was something that kind of just grew organically, from college through dissertation and beyond.
Harold: What were you studying at the time, Stephen? What was your major?
Stephen: So I did communication studies all through undergrad, masters and my PhD program. And so it was in various communication theory or rhetoric classes that Charlie Brown kept finding an opportunity to fall onto the page for me.
Jimmy: Now, can you talk about the process by which this did? And I understand this is kind of an amorphous and ungainly question, but how did it grow from those initial forays putting this out there into this book? I can't even imagine from a research point of view. But even before that you decide you're going to do this, what do you do first?
Stephen: When I was working on my PhD at Clemson, I was in this really big umbrella rhetorics, communication and information design program, which is a really wonderful program that asks us to think from a variety of perspectives, asks us as students and the faculty that were involved asks us to bring our own insights to a, very interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, even set, of classes and projects. So when I was deciding on what I wanted to write my dissertation on, which is a very hefty, multi year undertaking of somebody working to get a PhD. One of the questions I asked myself was a strategic one. And it was, if I'm going to have to learn a whole bunch of new stuff to write a dissertation to get my PhD, if I'm going to have to learn a whole bunch of new stuff, what do I already know a lot about that I can bring to the table initially that can be kind of a base And so, as silly as it might seem to some, I knew a lot about Charlie Brown.
Stephen: I was like, look, I'm a Peanuts guy from my earliest age. And so if there is anything that I can mine that will inspire me and that I can just enjoy living with for several years worth of work, it's Charlie Brown.
And so that worked out. I then wrote my dissertation on this more theoretical treatise on entertainment, media and its relationship to religious thought. And, after I finished it, or well, during the course of writing the dissertation, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet some of Charles Schulz's family. Unexpected. Very unexpected. probably one of the few star struck moments I've had in my life. And that paved the way for me to do more work on Charlie Brown after the dissertation was over.
And at a certain point, writing the dissertation, which I had initially thought Charlie Brown is something I know a lot about already. That can be my vehicle. It can be my gateway to talking about bigger stuff, about entertainment and religion at a certain point of spending so much time with Charlie Brown at a deeper level, I realized there is a story here that I can't not tell. There's a story here that I've never read and I want to read. I want a book about Charles Schulz's spiritual life to exist. It doesn't exist, so maybe I'm the one that gets to write it. And then after I finished my dissertation is when I more deliberately decided, okay, there's a book here to be done.
Jimmy: yeah, well, and you sure did do it. It's one of the scenes that really struck, me that, I've read everything I can possibly read on this guy. But there's a scene towards the end of your book where you're, talking about it's the holidays, and it's after he has received his cancer diagnosis, and they're all just sitting around and his granddaughter's playing like, some hymns, on the piano. And he's just sort of enjoying the moment, that brought him to life in a way that most of their, biographies and stuff just haven't for me. How was it for you to be able to hear about and discover those moments? Were there surprising things about this guy, that you never would have guessed? It seemed like the people were very open around him to sharing stuff with.
Stephen: They were surprisingly open. The Schulz family is a gracious and warm and also very protective family, for lots of good reasons. I would say that when I entered the research about Schulz, to be honest, I don't think I knew a lot about him. I don't think I knew much about him other than what I knew about him through the art he created. And as I learned, that actually tells you a lot about him. I didn't know just how much Schulz was in every jot of ink of Peanuts.
When I began spending time with the family I was really kind of, almost overwhelmed at times at just the degree of hospitality and kind of personal warmth that they had all the while with this really protective stance of this is our father, or this is the patriarch of the family, and this is somebody whose artwork-- the legacy of art that we want to protect. And yet, over a series of weeks and then months and years of getting to know them, we connected, thankfully. I think, perhaps they saw, somebody who also cared about the artwork in me. Perhaps. I don't know. But it was. I mean, if you were to tell twelve year old me who was just enjoying a Charlie Brown Christmas, on this VHS tape that I can visualize very vividly, if you were to tell twelve year old me that I would be sitting at the dining room table with Schulz's daughter pouring over the notes in Schulz's Bible while she tells me these stories about her father with tears in her eyes. There's no way I could have ever imagined that scenario. And yet I had so many of these wonderful personal encounters where they were telling the story of their family and they couldn't help but relive it in, very real emotional ways. And for me, it was a gift to be able to capture some of that for the book.
Harold: Stephen, to put this in context, what year were you actively meeting with them? What span of time was this?
Stephen: I think the first time I met Jeannie was around 2010, somewhere right around there. And then it was a total of five years of work from when I decided to write the book till it was in my hand. So I want to say it was 2009, 2010-ish when I first met her. And then it was maybe two or three years worth of deep research.
Harold: So could you put in context? We know there's obviously another very famous biography of Schulz, by David Michaelis is how you pronounce it, that they had already been through this process once in some fashion, right before you entered their lives. How did that color their relating with you as an author?
Stephen: Michaelis's book, which is, I must say, a tour de force of work, it is a significant amount of work he put into that book. there are some points where I disagree with him.
Jimmy: I could hear the but coming. I could hear it coming.
Stephen: As any good scholar, any historian, which I had never fashioned myself a historian. But it turns out that's what I have had the pleasure of, a world I've had the pleasure of being in, as any good historian or scholar, of course, we're going to have points of disagreement, of interpretation or of framing.
The family has gone on record as saying they disagree with a significant amount of the way Michaelis framed his work. And I met them right after or, shortly after the book had come out. and I would say that that definitely had the family, I would say appropriately on guard when they first met me, to make sure that this person they've never met before was somebody that they could trust with their stories all the while.
To be totally honest, I also went into meeting them as a fan, but as a trained scholar who, was trained in rhetoric, trained in argumentative debate, and trained to say, well, just because somebody doesn't like my argument doesn't mean it's wrong. And so if I end up publishing something that the family really dislikes, twelve year old me is going to be sad about it, but PhD me is still going to publish it because-- either that or I'm going to publish nothing. I'm not going to publish something simply to ingratiate the family. And I was very, thankful that we developed a really good relationship. And I think we established a trust and a rapport quickly, which I was really grateful for.
Harold: Do you think, in time, there was a sense from some of them that, okay, there's one version out there of his story that's recent, that maybe we have another chance to fill in the gaps and tell more of the story that we think is important through you? Or did you get that sense that, here's another opportunity to tell about our father with somebody who's going to tell his story?
Stephen: Maybe. I'm not sure. I don't know that I ever heard that directly reflected to me, but very possibly could be part of it. I would also say, though, that the fact that my, project was exploring his religious perspectives was also another I don't want to say warning bell, but it was another element that, made them extra protective in a different way, because religious thought is sometimes an inherently divisive topic. And as a brand, they certainly have an interest in the religious history of their work or of their artists not getting misconstrued in either direction.
Stephen: so I don't know if they saw it as a new opportunity as, much as they fortunately saw me as somebody who was interested in writing an honest work.
Jimmy: Well, they have this really difficult position that they're in. I think we've talked about this a few times on our show, where on the one hand, they have to or want to maintain Peanuts as this giant global brand, as you say. And on the other hand, they're protecting the legacy of Charles Schulz as an artist. And those are sometimes conflicting, the way they keep Marvel stuff, in the pub--. They just constantly update it and bring new artists in and all that sort of thing. And the Schulz family is not really able to do that in any kind of real way without damaging the part of him being the greatest cartoonist.
And I wonder, are you aware when you're talking to them of that kind of dual legacy? was there a sense that once you got to know them, you were seeing something that was generally not kept from the public, but, certainly not front facing, the way, say, like Snoopy MetLife, all that kind of stuff?
Stephen: I would say as a brand and as a family. And there's a lot of overlap between those two things. I would say, as a brand and a family, it's Charles Schulz. First, Charles Schulz is the guidepost for how they think about and talk about and how they make editorial decisions for the future of Peanuts. There's this really fascinating moment in the history of the property where, in the 70s, Charles Schulz had, gotten enough kind of political power, artistic power, because he was so popular that he was able to renegotiate his contract. And get a few things out of the renegotiation, including more editorial control over licensed products and clause in the contract that said that the syndicate would never have anybody else take over the comic strip when Charles Schulz died. The newspaper comic strip.
Now, other properties have existed outside of the comic strip after his death. But that perspective that Peanuts is Charles Schulz at its core and beyond its core is something that I heard over and over again from his children, from Jeannie, his widow, and from the brand executives who are day to day making editorial decisions about do we approve this or don't we approve this? And that comes out in things like Nativity displays the creche that has Snoopy and Charlie Brown in it. Like, can that exist? Can it not exist? Let's go back to what Charles Schulz would want as a guidepost, tempered, of course, with its 2000 whatever year it is, and we are a global brand. But Charles Schulz through and through, from just about everybody I talked with, is still the heart of the brand.
Jimmy: Other books that come out, biographies of any type for any celebrity or whatever, the kind I dislike the most are, the kind that it feels like the guy has a theory and the theory is going to be unshakeable, right? And then he's going to do his research and stuff and make the research fit the theory. I do not get the sense of that in your book. I get quite the opposite sense, because Schulz's relationship with his own religion and spirituality was very flowing and changing over the years. How do you avoid, as a writer of this type of thing from falling into the trap of trying to jam everything into your original thought and as a secondary thing, through the course of researching this, what were the things that surprised you the most?
Stephen: That is a really important question and important check that any author needs to take seriously.
For me, especially, I grew up in the church. I grew up in the church. I was a church pianist for 16 years. Growing up, not because I was good at playing the piano, necessarily, but because, I was the only one who could play the piano at a certain point in our little country church. my faith is still important to me. And so I was, kind of hyper aware of that. And I'm very thankful for my training and argumentation that-- I did nationally competitive debate for many years. And so I was really thankful for this training that said, make sure it's a good argument. Make sure it's a good argument. Regardless of what you want the argument to be. It needs to be an argument that has proof, has backing, can stand up to the tests of soundness and validity. I had to, of course, keep in mind that I'm also I am the author, and there's no way for my voice not to be in the book in some way. Every piece of history has the author in it in some way.
So the way I worked to kind of make those two things work in harmony was that I took on this perspective that I wanted my own history and present day reality, with faith to be and my own fandom with Peanuts as well, to be energy and insight, not answers. I wanted the fact that I was a Charlie Brown fan who grew up in the church to give me insight that maybe some others wouldn't have. And, it turned out that that worked. There were times where I'd be reading a strip and I would say, that really sounds like a Bible verse, but there's but is yes, that is a Bible verse, but Schulz didn't put any citation or any quotations around it. But thankfully, because I happen to grow up in the community of that language, it's jumped out at me in terms of understanding the answer to the question of what was Charles Schulz's faith? Or when do we or don't we see religion in the business side or in the products that get published? Honestly, I knew they existed because I grew up seeing Linus quote from the Bible in A Charlie Brown Christmas and thinking, that's weird. That is not a normal thing I see elsewhere. So, I knew it existed, and I knew it existed in a unique way. But in terms of the journey of Schulz's own faith or the journey that the franchise took behind the scenes I honestly went in having a lot of curiosity, but not a lot of preconceived notions in the first place.
And so what I was able to do was to kind of follow that thread and go on the journey myself, which was delightful and very surprising. I would say I was surprised maybe one of the many things that I was surprised by when doing the deep dives was just how explicit Schulz was at times in his life. There were times when I was doing the research early on where I thought, I wonder if I'm going to find much. And, then when I would find these moments where Charles Schulz was very explicit about the way he talked about his faith, from these moments where he's writing Church of God doctrine for the newspaper to fast forward decades later, and he's writing very emotional, scripturally driven letters to his daughter while she's on her Mormon mission. These are the moments where he's speaking a very specific language. And that as, a researcher, as a researcher, that's gold. And as a person who's following the journey, it was also just surprising and fascinating.
Jimmy: Well, I really want to talk about that. His daughter who converts to Mormonism. It's her daughter that's playing the hymns in the scene I described earlier, I believe, right?
Stephen: That's right. They're good friends now. They've been very hospitable towards me and just really nice people.
Jimmy: Well, I thought it was beautiful because, as you say, religion is something, completely divisive and well, not completely, but it is very divisive today. And can-- families are torn apart by all sorts of differences of opinion that becomes so toxic and bad. And I thought watching him embrace that and find areas of commonality, it was hopeful. can you just talk a little bit about that? I don't know if there's a question in there.
Stephen: Yeah, that is a fascinating part of Charles Schulz's own spiritual journey, and certainly an important part of their own family history.
So Charles Schulz was a really interesting parental figure related to faith in that he and this comes out in his comic strips in so many ways. Charles Schulz was not somebody who wanted to tell other people what to think or believe. That it was a through line, from the way he led Sunday school to the way he wrote his strips with so much blank space, to the way he did or just did not talk to his own children about faith stuff. So through a series of life events, his daughter Amy converts to Mormonism. And Charles Schulz did not necessarily agree with all of the tenets of Mormonism. It was not a religious history that he was himself personally on board with, but he also had a really kind of big umbrella approach to faith later in life. And so while he himself was nowhere near converting, he also was a father who loved his kids. I got that sense very strongly that he was a father who just sincerely loved his children. And, so he wanted to be a pillar of support in whatever way he could be to his daughter Amy, despite the fact that they disagreed on their theological approaches, what was really then kind of beautiful to see as I read his letters and heard the stories from Amy and heard the stories from other perspectives from her siblings.
There are five Schulz kids, and they each told stories of that period of life in ways that really complemented each other. And what was really kind of beautiful to hear was the way that Schulz emphasized in his relationship with his daughter. He emphasized the parts where they did agree. So there was a lot of Charles Schulz's own biblical background that did overlap with Amy's LDS, beliefs. They were reading the same Bible. Amy believed things that Charles Schulz did not believe, and maybe a little bit vice versa, but they had a lot of overlap. I would say that American denominationalism often gets really hung up on the differences.
Jimmy: You don’t say.
Stephen: Right. American anything?
Jimmy: That’s weird. I don't know. You know what? I disagree, and I don't want you on the show.
Stephen: Exactly. And that's actually something that, Schulz poked fun at, that about American denominationalism being so divisive, and we hear the comic strip characters making those sorts of denominational jokes. And so Schulz took on his perspective of, okay, sure, we disagree, but we also agree on a lot of things. and that ended up being a really important source of support for Amy as she's on her mission and was really struggling with it in some ways, as I'm sure most people who go off on a mission of whatever variety, be it a spiritual mission, church led mission, or just like, moving to a different city sort of experience, it can be challenging. You can want to leave. You can be confused about what your motivations are, or it can just be lonely at times. All the sorts of reasons why people, when they go off to do stuff, have challenges. And, Charles Schulz's overlap in faith with Amy became a source of support instead of their differences being a source of division. And I think that's a really kind of beautiful thing, for sure.
Jimmy: And it's something we can certainly all learn from today. All right, well, listen, guys, we are going to take a break right now. but when we come back, we're going to go through Stephen’s top five Peanuts strips of all time. It's an impossible task, but he whittled it down to five that we're going to discuss. So, why don't you guys fire up GoComics.com so you can read along with us, and we'll, be back in just a few.
Jimmy: All right, we're back with Stephen Lind, author of A Charlie Brown Religion. And we're going to go through his top five Peanuts strips. So hopefully you guys have all logged on to Gocomics.com and, are ready for these dates because we have some great strips to get to. Here s one that you might remember from one of our earlier podcasts.
October 20, 1963. Sally approaches Charlie Brown, who's watching television. She says to him, “Guess what?” “What?” Charlie Brown answers. Sally looks around to see if the coast is clear. Then she motions for Charlie Brown to follow her. They sneak out through the door, looking around the corner to make sure no one was following them, then down the hall, then another look over the shoulder, then a quick peek out the window just to make sure the coast is clear before they crawl on hands and knees behind the sofa. And then Sally whispers to Charlie Brown, “We prayed in school today.” A look of shock crosses Charlie Brown's face.
Jimmy: Now we are up to-- at the time of this recording, we are about to start 1965. So we just recently discussed this, but I would love to hear your take on this, Stephen.
Stephen: This is, I think, such a great example of how Charles Schulz was willing to he was willing to go there with spirituality, with faith stuff.
In the comic, strip, there is actually a really high percentage of his strips by comparison to his other tropes. There's a very high quantity of religiously themed strips. And this is a really great example of where he was willing to broach a taboo, not just a taboo subject that wasn't just taboo because it was religion, but it was like a hot button issue in the world of religious action during the day. This, of course, comes shortly after the Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools. And, this is a really great example not just of Schulz's willingness to broach the topic, but it's a great example of how he often would broach the topic. So Schulz was not somebody who would typically want to tell you what to think or what to do. He led an adult Sunday school class for a total of a couple of decades, actually. But he was not a Sunday school teacher in the sense that he told people how to interpret the Bible and said he wanted them to read the Bible together and then draw their own inferences. And this is a great strip that exemplifies Schulz's ability to say, here's a topic, you bring you to your understanding of it.
And we saw this play out with letters, lots of letters coming into the syndicate or to Schulz himself saying thank you so much for your-- I'm paraphrasing, of course, thank you so much for your strip in support of the Supreme Court's ruling. Dear Mr. Schulz, thank you so much for your strip against the Supreme Court ruling. And it's such a fascinating and as such a great example of how he would broach the topic, but he was not going to spoon feed you how you should understand it.
Jimmy: It takes a really great and confident artist to be able to do that. And it's a really generous thing. One of my favorite, books in the world because-- oh, Stephen, you don't know me, but I am super pretentious, okay? So of course, one of my favorite books is Infinite Jest. And in that book you don't get a climax. You see stuff that happens before the climax and you see stuff that happens after the climax, but you are the person that has to supply the ending. And I think that's such a brave and generous way to write and you really have to have sort of faith in your audience, which is, I think, what I see when I see the strip. That's exactly what Schulz does.
Harold: I was just thinking when you mentioned how often Schulz does this, you actually went through all 17,000 plus of these strips and coded for this, right? You went through and there's this amazing graph in your book, A Charlie Brown Religion that actually graphs out the number of times there is like a biblical reference year by year with a throughline of what was the overall arc of this in his, career. That's crazy. And that's amazing that you did that. I can't imagine what that was like.
Stephen: It is a little crazy.
Jimmy: By the way, if Harold Buchholz is telling you that research is crazy, it is crazy.
Stephen: I have, of course, the complete Fantagraphics collection sitting on my shelf, behind me and there are little sticky, notes on so many pages because I use sticky notes as my first wave of coding. So I read all 17,895 newspaper, comics.
Jimmy: Wow. Did anyone vet this guy at all?
Stephen: It's still morning in LA.
I have this visceral memory of sitting on the lawn while, visiting home one summer during the research and my sister was playing in like a pick up volleyball league, I guess. And so like the family and friends were just like kind of hanging out at the volleyball game to support her and just have a fun afternoon. Meanwhile, I'm sitting on the lawn with my Charlie Brown strips and my little sticky notes, coding them to track just how many religious references there are. And I use a lot of sticky notes, let me tell you.
Jimmy: You're lucky there wasn't a if you see something, say something scenario going on, there's a crazy guy over there seen a lot. You know, it's funny because I listen to other podcasts and I think, well, these grown men sure have a lot to say about Batman. That's ridiculous. And then I'm like, now, Snoopy…
Harold: Yeah, I think the 3M company that year must have done really well.
Stephen: I think so, too.
July 9, 1969. Charlie Brown and Lucy are hanging out at the thinking wall. Charlie Brown says to Lucy, “you know what I wonder sometimes? I wonder if God is pleased with me.” Then he turns to Lucy and says, “do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Lucy, with a look of sublime selfconfidence on her face, says, “he just has to be.”
Stephen: I love this strip. I use this strip to open up the book, because, honestly, for me, while it would be difficult for me to ever choose a singular favorite strip, let alone a favorite religious strip, this strip captures the power of Charles Schulz's questioning voice.
This is a strip in which a couple of cartoon characters, comic book strip characters who are supposedly there just to sell more newspapers, are asking perhaps the biggest question a human could ask if there is a divine God, if there is a being out there, if there is something bigger than us, is that something pleased with you? Specifically, like, how much bigger of a question could we ever ask? And these are comic strip characters asking this heavy, potentially eternally important question.
And then, of course, as Schulz did, he resolves the tension with this wry smile and sort of, cheeky response from Lucy as a way of making us all able to kind of, like, shake our shoulders off and feel okay after that big question was asked. But wow. I mean, if anybody ever had a doubt that Charles Schulz was willing to talk heavy faith stuff, you don't get heavier than this.
Harold: Why do you think Schulz got away with it? What was in Schulz's style and work and voice that let him go to these places that others would not go?
Stephen: I think there are two big things that allowed Schulz to get away with it. Maybe three. The first is that I think Schulz had a, stronger bead on the American readership than a lot of risk averse editors maybe had. That Charles Schulz realized that people are asking questions like this, maybe not quite as pointed, but people, all across the world, and certainly his primarily American readership at the time, were asking these sorts of questions. They were engaged in at least light, faith conversations more frequently than maybe a mainstream editor would want to admit. And so I think that's the first reason this wasn't crazy, crazy talk for the American reader.
The second is that Schulz had, he's funny, he's funny, he's witty, he can have-- both with his line, he just has to be and that squiggly little smile on Lucy's face. He can make you feel okay about it through humor.
I also would say that another reason is that this is a genuine piece of writing from Schulz. This is not somebody who saw a Christian consumer, and I'm just going to make a bunch of products because it'll sell to them. No, this is Schulz's voice. This is Schulz's own inquisitive I've been reading the Bible. I've got big thoughts without always big answers. Thoughts pouring out onto the page, and that sense of genuineness you can't manufacture. And he allowed us to hear it from him. And I think that is really, infectious and, an attractive thing to see on the page.
Harold: I think you're right, Stephen. I think there's something-- it is amazing that he has this incredibly deep question, and you totally believe that this is Schulz's voice and he's not using it. He's not using it. It's his voice, and so is the punchline.
Jimmy: That's exactly what I was just going to say. And that's a hugely important part of it. He is Charlie Brown in the strip, and he's Lucy, you know? And I think that's why it is not just a completely confident smile. It's that squiggly wry I'm kind of putting you on smile, but kind of not. I am kind of the thing. It's really just good writing. And better than that, it's good cartooning.
Harold: One of the things Jimmy has said in the show that's kind of been, interesting and contentious is he says his favorite character in Peanuts is Charles Schulz. And I think that's something that I just keep going back to and thinking about when I'm reading through these strips. And it is one of those deals where people were interested in who was behind the strip. I think a lot of people aren't so inquisitive about who was behind, say, Beetle, Bailey or Dennis the Menace. But when it comes to Schulz, there is an interest in him that goes beyond most strips. And I guess that is because, he has found a way to put so much of himself into the strip. And that, to me, is as a cartoonist myself, I'm in all of that. He does it with such integrity and with such an invitation to the reader that you feel welcome and you feel seen.
Jimmy: for sure.
August 9, 1976. Oh, we're talking hall of Fame here now, people. Now we're talking comic strips.
Snoopy is on top of the dog house, sitting in front of his little portable typewriter. Charlie Brown looks up and says, “I hear you're writing a book on theology.” Charlie Brown walks away and says, “I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy, with confidence, thinks to himself, “I have the perfect title.” Then he types out, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?
Stephen: That line.
Jimmy: I think that's so brilliant.
Stephen: It really is. And one of the things that was really fun for me to hear when I was, talking with Schulz family and friends was that apparently Schulz would use that line. Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong? Just in casual conversation, he would jab some of his friends and family with that. On occasion. He uses it at least twice in the strips. He uses it in another occasion where Linus is, away at summer camp. Turns out it's a church camp and there's some end times preaching that Linus does not fully agree with. And so Linus asks the camp counselor that same question.
To me, this is at least half of Charles Schulz's faith. Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong? And, this is not to say that Schulz was somebody who didn't believe. I think it's quite the opposite. This is somebody who believed with a sincerity and a depth that allowed himself to ask, in what ways might I not know? In what ways might I be wrong? And, he was often struck by the maybe overconfidence of other religious thinkers or thinkers just of probably any subject who would be so dogmatic in their position that of course they could not ever be wrong. And so Schulz is asking us here in his own simple comic strippy sort of way, he's really in a deeper way, asking us, does your theology ever allow you to doubt? Does your perspective on faith allow you to ask what you don't know and in what ways you might never know? And that is the Great Pumpkin side to the Charlie Brown Christmas version of theology. And the two for Schulz go hand in hand that yes, you can believe and yes, you can also doubt.
Harold: I would love to have been in the room when Schulz said that to somebody. Was it done with a wry smile? Was it done with the blank face followed by a smile? Was it just the blank face? I would love to have known how he delivered that because, talk about cheeky. There's something profound and cheeky in him saying that and how he said it. I would have loved to have seen…
Jimmy: Do you want to make the world 10% better today? We just take that last panel and we just start replying to everybody's tweets with that.
Harold: Yeah, just make a meme of Snoopy there.
VO: It's Snoopy watch.
Jimmy: All right. so Snoopy watch time. Michael.
Jimmy: As the Snoopyologist. Michael is a contemporary of the strip and he has gone on record as his favorite iteration of Snoopy is the Vulture. Where does the writer rank in your hierarchy of Snoopy persona?
Michael: Well, I kind of lost track of the strip around 1970, and before that, I did not particularly like the dog with the typewriter meme. No, they were fine. It's certainly not my favorite Snoopy incarnation.
Jimmy: Oh, it's way up there for me. And I'm now realizing I've been charting accidentally all these mundane mid 20th century objects that he can draw the perfect cartoon drawing of. And typewriter has got to be way up there.
Michael: Is that brand a dogmatic?
Harold: Oh, the Remington dogmatic.
Jimmy: Man I'm sorry I brought it up.
Michael: For those who don't have thumbs.
April 13, 1984. It's a downpour, and Peppermint Patty is running through it. We cut to Marcie, who is sitting in her classroom, and she's holding a book, and she says, “yes, ma'am, I have the verse right here.” Then she reads from the book in quotes. “He sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” Then we see Peppermint Patty, and sitting in front of Marcie, soaked to the bone. And then Peppermint Patty says, “and all of us in between.”
Jimmy: All right, tell us about that one, Stephen.
Stephen: This is a fun strip. I want to say that this phrase, the invocation of the Scripture, he sendeth rain on the just in the unjust happens, I think, also twice over the course of the strips. Schulz had this really wonderful way of repeating himself without ever repeating himself. And this is an example also, of where he is drawing on his biblical literacy in the strip.
So Schulz would, more frequently than many would expect, Schulz would explicitly quote from the Bible. Sometimes he would quote from the Bible without telling you he was quoting from the Bible. In this scenario, Marcie explicitly says, I have the verse right here. She does not say, I have the verse from the Bible. And so there are some readers who might not read that this is Biblical. It is from the Gospel of Matthew.
There were other times where Schulz would use quotations like “all is vanity” that are from biblical text. and again, you might not notice, he had this full range of references that drew from scriptural content, sometimes rather obliquely, sometimes really explicitly. And I think it's such a great example, again, of how Schulz's life is being inked onto the page, and he found inspiration from everything in his life.
When you're drawing that many strips over that long of a time, you can't not have so much of your life show up on the page if you're going to sustain the artwork. And so we have this really clever, humorous strip here that is really explicitly Biblical.
Jimmy: Now, what you say, it seems like if it would be true, right, that you have to be able to put all of that stuff of yourself on the page if you're going to sustain it. I think that, too, when I see Peanuts, but it doesn't happen with anyone else's strip.
Stephen: I mean, yeah, you make a great point. I heard myself saying it as I was saying it. For Schulz, as the artist Schulz. For him to sustain it, he had to bring his life, because that's the type of artist he was. But you're right, there are plenty of examples of commercial artists who do work for hire that may produce perfectly fun stuff, but if not their life on the page. For Schulz as an artist, that was the core of his artwork, was his life on the page, even.
Harold: It's not work for hire if it's someone just speaking their voice. How hard it is to put that in into a finished work. I mean, anyone who's tried it. Who was it that said, if you get away with putting over 10% of what you intended to put into your work, you're a success? And then there are some people that aren't even interested in putting in themselves into a work. That's not the way they see things. But it's so much of Charles Schulz.
And Stephen, one of the stories that I've told here that still just I think about this in the back of my mind whenever we're talking about Charles Schulz and Peanuts was when he was ill. I took a greeting card. There was a gigantic piece of poster board that a friend had prepared and folded over when he was in the hospital toward the very end of the run of the strip and the end of his life. It was a get well card. And I took it on, behalf of my friend, to a comic book convention, and basically walked it around to everybody who was behind a table or just in the comics industry, and not a single person turned me down to sign it. They're like, this is going to go, this is going to go to Charles Schulz. He's going to see this. Everybody wanted to thank him, wish him well, how universal that was. It's like they know him. Unlike most other artists, you don't think that right when you're reading their work, but somehow, Schulz touched people, and I'm talking about people who are like, this was like Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk, and, Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island, Dawn Wells was there. Artists doing some of the, most dark horror comics you could imagine. That's their thing. And, every range superhero, everybody seemed to have been touched by Schulz in a pretty profound way.
And I'm kind of in awe of that. I don't know. I can never tire of just marveling at what he's doing and wondering, what is it that's uniquely special about Schulz that he was able to speak to so many people and on so many levels?
Jimmy: Yes. Stephen, in your research, was there anything that you were able to sort of come across that gave you insight into what did compel him to be that type of artist? Long past the time that there was anything to prove.
Stephen: Charles Schulz grew up with--the best word that I have heard to describe it might be, a bit of melancholy, throughout his life. And there were often times where he did not feel as connected to the community around him, as an outside observer might say, but you've got all this around you. From the loss of his mother to being in the war, to then coming back and finding a certain sense of community. In his art school and in church, he often had this sense of detachment that maybe on paper, you wouldn't exactly expect, and it's part of this sort of like, persistent melancholy that was just a part of his being. And so I think that at some point, he found his artwork actually at a very, very early age. He was doing doodles pretty proficiently from a very small age. he found that his way of connecting or being outside of himself in the world was in part possible through his artwork. He didn't always feel it as in a sense of community, the way we might expect. Even though he had, especially later in life, many friends, pretty sizable family around him, he, could still feel disconnected. But his artwork, I think, might have been an outpouring of that sense of, I have things in me I don't always feel connected to the world around me, but this artwork is my way of getting more of me into the world. I don't know that he thought that really specifically, but I think that kind of poured out of that being.
Jimmy: Yes, I think you're probably right. I think that makes a lot of sense.
March 14, 1995 oh, that sound you hear is Michael's brain exploding, not because of the content of the strip, but because it is one long panel.
Michael: On our break I asked Harold, like, when did they start doing that?
It's, the 80s, but now we're in ‘95, and he is doing one long panel. And it's the gang at the Thinking Wall, the big four, Linus, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Snoopy. Linus says, “So I had to tell the teacher that I just didn't know.” Charlie Brown says, “Maybe some questions don't have an answer.” Lucy says, “Like what?” And Snoopy thinks, “like, did Jesus ever own a dog?”
Stephen: Charles Schulz was a humorist first and last. He really was. He would write strips like is God pleased with you? and ask these big, heavy questions. He tackled in his own surreptitious way, he tackled questions from women's empowerment to nuclear war. And he also asked silly little questions like, did Jesus ever own a dog? That actually, if you start to think about it more, can actually unbox all sorts of really heavy, weighty theological questions about biblical inerrancy and what it means to be divine in human form. But it was also just like-- it's also just a funny, like it is simultaneously just a funny strip and so much more than a funny strip. And that is just the part of the genius of Schulz's work.
Michael: When I see this strip, the, huge question comes to me. The universal question is where are Snoopy's feet?, He's supporting himself with his head.
Jimmy: I think there must be two Woodstocks underneath, and they're, like, stacked on top of each other. All right, now, cartoonist question for you guys. If this strip was done, let's say 1965, and broken up over four panels, better, worse, no, different, what are your thoughts? Well, you wouldn't even need the third character, right? You could just have panel one--
Michael: Yeah, yeah
Jimmy: Linus. Panel two, Charlie Brown speaking to Linus. Panel three, Linus answering Charlie Brown. And then you could have the dog answering the question. I could see if this they would be walking by Snoopy, right?
Harold: Yeah, yeah
Jimmy: and then Snoopy would just think in the last panel. And you know, I don't know if it's just the bias of the fact that we've read 16 zillion of them that are in that four panel format, but boy, when I saw this, that just jarred me.
Harold: Well, it's interesting, when I think of this, if you did it, that version, let's say 1965 or whatever, the isolation of that final thing of Snoopy after they walked by, where Snoopy just overheard the conversation, gives you a significantly different feel for the strip then these are four people all together in the same frame. they are all a part of this conversation, and it's not broken up. And to me, it gives a little sense of community that the four panel strip version wouldn't have, would just be two people having a conversation, and then somebody outside having his own response. And this feels more settled, I think it feels more communal toward, the end of his run. It's almost like a little bit of relief. You just see them all just kind of in the same space, and they're all part of a conversation. They're all thinking about something, together.
Jimmy: Right around 1995, towards the end, I started to really just fall in love with Peanuts again while it was coming out. And I feel like Schulz himself was on a real upward climb again. And I look at this and I just see the hand tremors, word balloons, and I just think, this guy did not have to do this. This is art. This is someone's only life being put on paper for you. I just am, so grateful for it when I see it.
I hate when people say-- well, you're even like great strips. Like, oh, isn't it great that Calvin and Hobbes ended before it got bad? No, it's not. I’d love 20 more years of Calvin and Hobbes. Absolutely. Even if it's not maybe the absolute peak. But that's my take on it.
Harold: Yeah. The analogies I've always used is that Laurel and Hardy analogy, where people are like, they just keep doing the same thing over and over again. When they were doing the feature films in the then last one is 1950s. But you look back today, you're grateful for every single one of. Them you wish they had done more, even if they were continuing to use the same setups and the same everything is fresh, everything is new. When you have a great artist like that, you just want more.
Jimmy: Absolutely. And you know what I'm grateful for? I'm grateful for having Stephen Lind here on our show today. Stephen, thank you so much. It has been an absolute pleasure to have you on as a guest. I loved reading your book. The book is A Charlie Brown religion. I want all you guys to go out there and order some copies the second the, show ends.
And then you can, follow us. You can have this conversation. You can continue this whole discussion with us on the Internet. We're on social media. We're on Twitter and Instagram. We're at UnpackPeanuts. You can also go to our website, UnpackingPeanuts.com, where you vote on the strip of the year. You can send us an email, you can download some transcripts, and you can visit our store, because the three of us here, we're working cartoonists. It wouldn't hurt if you threw some bones our way either.
Stephen, where can people find you?
Stephen: I am on social media as Stephen J. Lind, Stephen with a PH. You can find me on most of the platforms, Instagram, etc.
Jimmy: Awesome. Well, Stephen, thank you again. And to our listeners out there, thanks for listening to us. We'll be back next week. until then, I'm Jimmy. For Michael and Harold, Be of good cheer.
Michael and Harold: Yes. Be of good cheer.
VO: Unpacking Peanuts is copyright Jimmy Gownley, Michael Cohen, and Harold Buchholz. Produced and edited by Liz Sumner. Music by Michael Cohen. Additional voiceover by Aziza Shukralla Clark.
For more from the show follow @unpackpeanuts on Instagram and Twitter. For more about Jimmy, Michael, and Harold, visit unpackingpeanuts.com.
Thanks for listening.