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Friday, 17 December, 1999, 23:06 GMT
You're a phenomenon, Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus Schultz has been working for Peanuts since 1950

By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

Hundreds of years after his death, Michelangelo is still praised for the endurance he showed in painting the roof of the Sistine Chapel, but as we plough through our morning papers - who normally spares a thought for Charles M Schulz?

For nigh on 50 years, the cartoonist has been churning out a Peanuts comic strip every day - bringing the whimsical adventures of Snoopy, Linus and Charlie Brown to a global audience.

Published in 2,600 newspapers and regularly read by 355 million people, the Peanuts gang has perhaps done as much to promote the American Way as cola or the hamburger.

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As a symbol of cultural imperialism, Charlie Brown - with his trademark zig-zag jersey and suspiciously naked pate - has much to commend him above the likes of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald.

But with his unrequited love for the "little red-haired girl", his constant humiliations and his "Good Grief!" lament, Charlie Brown is hardly a typical All American hero.

As inept on the baseball mound as he is in life, Charlie Brown is the "blockhead" we all love to love - and secretly identify with.

Comic strip expert Kev Sutherland says that Peanuts was the first cartoon to include a readily identifiable central "kid" character.

"Readers enjoy seeing the world from Charlie Brown's point of view and see themselves in his predicaments," says the director of the forthcoming Comics 2000 festival.

Charlie Brown Charlie Brown: An inept everyman
The first of the 18,000 Peanuts comic strips produced by Schulz appeared on 2 October 1950.

Based on L'il Folks, a cartoon Schulz drew in 1947, the new strip broke with the slapstick tradition of the genre.

Gone were the grotesque characters and violence which marked the likes of Popeye, to be replaced by gentle whimsy and snappy aphorisms.

"Peanuts was actually quite a fresh and revolutionary strip for the early 1950s. There are very few strips, from Garfield to Dilbert, which don't owe their style to Peanuts," says Mr Sutherland.

Schulz has also helped secure the reputation of comic strips.

According to Mr Sutherland, Peanuts' broad appeal has again been proved. "The unique marriage of words and pictures has never been escaped - the novel has never displaced the cartoon and nor has the painting. The comic strip straddles the divide."

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Lucy's five-cent psychiatry booth has perhaps had an impact on more people than all the $100-an-hour shrinks in the world.

"And Freud doesn't make as good a subject for Christmas cards as Peanuts," says Mr Sutherland.

However, he points out that one of the strip's great strengths - its uniformity - can also be a flaw.

"Like many people, when I dip back into Peanuts, nothing has changed and you begin to wonder if it was ever funny."

Though Peanuts seems to present a world caught in aspic - a cosy 1950s idyll of baseball and snowball fights - it has tried, in its own way, to keep step with the march of time.

When American politics was turned on its head in the 1960s, Schulz introduced a host of new characters.

Charlie Brown in 1950 No zig-zag and even less hair: Charlie's debut
Amid the rise of women's liberation and the sexual revolution, hip tom-boy Peppermint Patty made her debut. With her healthy disrespect for authority and her blatant attempts to win the heart of "Chuck", the freckled firebrand was the epitome of the modern woman.

Although Schulz has long denied any socio-political motives for creating new Peanuts kids, it seems timely that, as ghettos burned across the US, Charlie Brown began a friendship with an African-American kid called Franklin.

With Schulz vowing to put down his pen, which contractually cannot be picked up by another, perhaps the world of Peanuts will forever be stuck in the 20th Century.

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See also:
15 Dec 99 |  Entertainment
Cartoonists honour Schulz
14 Dec 99 |  Americas
Farewell, Charlie Brown
21 Nov 99 |  Entertainment
Snoopy creator diagnosed with cancer

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