Don’t Call It a Comeback, Charlie Brown

A new movie, new comic books and ratings highs for the old television specials... Everything is coming up Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang right now—but why?

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United Feature Syndicate Inc. / ABC

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Move over, television-ratings giants. There’s a new player in town, and he’s a big blockhead. Yes, even though he’s never quite managed to kick that football, Charlie Brown beat Fox’s The X-Factor, CBS‘s Survivor and NBC‘s Whitney and Guys With Kids last week to become the #1 show in its timeslot on broadcast television with the annual re-run of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 39 years after it originally aired. And it wasn’t necessarily because audiences dipped dramatically for the other shows: ratings on Charlie Brown were up a surprising 37% from last year’s airing, and the highest ratings for the special since 2008. Nor was that a complete fluke; last month, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown also won its timeslot with a three-year ratings high, up 7% overall and 17% in the all-important 18-49 demographic compared with last year.

It’s not just television that is suddenly undergoing a Peanuts revival. Last month, Blue Sky Studios — the animation studio behind the Ice Age movies — announced a partnership with 20th Century Fox for a new CGI Peanuts movie to be released in 2015. And earlier in the year, independent comic publisher Boom! Studios launched a monthly series of Peanuts comics mixing reprints of classic strips by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz with all-new material by his former assistant Paige Braddock and other cartoonists. The successful series has since spun out two full-length graphic novel additions. For a character famous for lousy luck and countless near-misses, Charlie Brown and friends are suddenly enjoying the good fortune of an unexpected pop cultural comeback, 12 years after the newspaper strip ended its 50-year run. But why? Peanuts hasn’t been getting any noticeable promotion recently, and it’s not a special anniversary for the strip or the characters. So why is everything coming up Charlie Brown again?

According to some of those closest to the characters, the surprise revival may simply be the result of the strength of the Peanuts source material. As Jennifer Susannah Devore wrote in a 60th anniversary appreciation of the strip that appeared in the San Diego Comic-Con guide in 2010, “Charles M. Schulz did not create a mere comic strip, a cast of characters to be listed on high school drama department playbills for eons to come; like all sustainable strips, the Writer-Artist-Creator gave us a neighborhood: a safe place where loyalty, security, friendship and a comfortable sense of continuity and familiarity are still unfailingly there for us.” That idea of Peanuts as a “safe place” comes up again when Amy Johnson, the daughter of Schulz, talks about the success of the animated specials. “I remember my dad saying he believed that the American people really do like decent entertainment. As much as some people maybe don’t think that Americans do like decent programming, Dad believed that they did,” she told the Deseret News this week, adding that “in this day and age, there is hardly anything that you can sit down with your whole family and be safe watching anymore.”

(MORE: A Brief History of Charles Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ Comic Strip)

The view that Peanuts is somehow above the need to conform to contemporary mores — and more attractive to viewers because of that — is echoed by cartoonist Vicki Scott, who called it “a refreshing voice for modern kids to hear” when talking to USA Today earlier this year to promote her graphic novel addition to Boom!’s original comics line, It’s Tokyo, Charlie Brown!. “In the noisy, frenetic, sarcastic landscape of kids’ programming, I feel like Peanuts offers kids a respite where kids can be kids,” she continued. “Peanuts is like a timeless oasis — without cellphones and computers.”

At least part of the credit for that sense of timelessness belongs not only to Charles Schulz’s almost faultless work on the comic strips, books and animated specials, but also his and his successors’ stewardship of Schulz’s creations. In a world that seems increasingly eager to “update” fictions (in the process, losing the appeal they originally had — Hello there, Funky Winkerbean), the Peanuts creator resisted the temptation to make the work more contemporary or trendy, or to outlicense it to increase brand awareness. Schulz “kept a very close rein on his properties,” cartoon historian (and one of the directors of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, CA) Lucy Shelton Caswell reports. “He understood and demanded and was given the right to monitor the products in a way that some other cartoonists weren’t… Schulz was able to protect his property.” That constant presence is what gave all of the Peanuts stories — whether in the newspaper strip, on television, on stage (in not just one, but two musicals, no less) or in movie theaters — a consistent, distinctive voice, which contributed to its critical and commercial success. (Exhibit A in what happens in the opposite case, when creators exercise less strict quality control: The Garfield merchandise store  — or, for that matter, Garfield: The Movie.)

That said, that consistent Schulz-ness in everything Peanuts is also what makes the idea of new Peanuts without him such a worrying prospect. We’ve already seen new Peanuts TV specials air since his death (Six in total: 2002’s A Charlie Brown Valentine and Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales; 2003’s Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown and I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown; He’s A Bully, Charlie Brown from 2006, and last year’s Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown), and although he was involved in the early stages of some, all of them lacked something that was difficult to quantify — a creative caution and desire to play things safe that seemed alien to Peanuts as a whole, perhaps. After all, what made Schulz’s work on Peanuts so special was the way in which it mixed whimsy, sentiment, philosophy, melancholy, surrealism and occasionally just plain weirdness in such a seemingly effortless manner; you didn’t necessarily know what was coming next, but everything that did come next was note-perfect and immediately fit into your understanding of the world of the characters and the worldview of the man behind them.

Schulz’s involvement in all things Peanuts bound him so tightly to that world that it’s difficult to separate creator and creation, and even more difficult for new creators to create new work in that world that doesn’t seem repetitive or trapped in the shadow of what came before. Not that it’s impossible, of course; I’d suggest that Schulz’s relationship to Peanuts could be likened to Jim Henson’s with the Muppets. And last year’s The Muppets demonstrated that it’s possible to at least create a convincing simulacrum of the magic, given enough time and sincere effort to do so.

(MORE: Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Gang Headed to the Big Screen)

One real reason to worry about the future of Charlie Brown may not be the new movie — as much as all good people should recoil from the idea of a CGI Snoopy — but the new owners of the Peanuts intellectual property. Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang were sold in their entirety in mid-2010 to a company called Peanuts Worldwide, LLC, a joint venture between Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates (created by Schulz before his death to manage the Peanuts property and these days run by Schulz’s children and former assistant Braddock) and Iconix Brand Group, a company that specializes in licensing existing brands to retailers and manufacturers to exploit as they see fit. (If you’re familiar with Danskin, Candie’s or The Sharper Image, then you’re familiar with their work). To go from what Caswell described as “protected” from commercial exploitation to being majority owned — Iconix controls 80% of Peanuts Worldwide, to CMS’ 20% — by a company whose entire purpose is the commercial exploitation of brands and intellectual property seems like a shift in the wrong direction for those concerned about the Peanuts‘ artistic purity.

Perhaps even more worrying is the possibility that the true appeal of the Peanuts for contemporary audiences is not timelessness, but outright nostalgia. While both 1966’s Great Pumpkin and  1973’s Thanksgiving saw year-on-year ratings increases and won their respective timeslots for ABC this year, Fox’s own animated Peanuts special, Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown — which made its debut last year and lacked direct involvement from Schulz and his animation partner Bill Melendez — dropped in ratings this year, beaten by re-runs of Frosty the Snowman and The National Dog Show, as well as ABC’s Last Man Standing. It’s possible that audiences didn’t know that there was another Peanuts special airing last week, or that they weren’t that interested in something created without the people who made all their old-time favorites. But it’s just as possible that people didn’t tune in simply because they didn’t have any childhood memories of tuning in years ago. Could it be that Peanuts‘ main appeal to people not only that it’s old-fashioned, but that it’s just old?

The relative under-performance of the Fox special suggests that Charlie Brown, the Van Pelts, Schroeder and the rest of the gang aren’t really getting the attention and love that they deserve after all, but that they’re the (lucky?) beneficiary of two related pop cultural trends: Holiday nostalgia and pop culture’s desire to adapt, update and exploit the beloved comic strips, TV shows and toys of your youth. In many ways, it’s sad — Peanuts under Schulz’s rein was a wonderful thing with a genuinely unique voice, after all, that really did live up to the hype no matter how much hype you threw at it — but, in a strange way, it’s also fitting: Just when you think that the ball of revival is right there to be kicked, it gets pulled away at the last second. Instead of candy, Peanuts gets a rock. Somewhere, Charles Schulz is probably getting a laugh out of that.