Perhaps the greatest achievement in newspaper strips in my lifetime is Peanuts by Charles Schulz, at least it’s the one that made me laugh the most. The strip was simple and cartoony, relying on the juxtaposition of cute young kids and animals with sophisticated adult-like dialogue and reactions from characters like Charlie Brown and Lucy, and the surreal activities of Charlie’s dog Snoopy. From 1950 to 1999, Schulz always wrote, drew, and lettered the strip himself, he never used assistants. The strip started in seven papers, and at the end was in about 2,300. Much of the lettering was what I’d call standard, unremarkable work: easy to read, a perfect match for the art, but nothing special. There were many times, though, when the lettering went beyond that to be as clever and creative as the rest of the strip. I thought I’d look at some examples. Above, a long-running gag starting in 1958 made fun of incompetent pen lettering by Charlie Brown as he tried to write to his pen-pal (an idea now lost to history), but Charlie’s ineptitude forced him to use a pencil instead. Maybe it was born out of Schulz’s own struggles in learning to write and letter, or it was just a funny idea.
Charles Monroe “Sparky” Schulz was born November 26, 1922 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was an only child who always enjoyed drawing and reading comic strips. An uncle gave him the nickname “Sparky” after the horse Spark Plug in Billy DeBeck’s comic strip Barney Google, which Schulz was a fan of. From 1943 to 1945, Schulz served in the Army, only seeing action at the very end of the war. After returning home in 1945, he took an art course through a correspondence school, and then worked for the school while developing his cartooning career.
Sparky’s first success was a weekly series of one-panel jokes called Li’l Folks, published from June 1947 to January 1950 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, with Schulz usually doing four one-panel drawings per issue. It was in Li’l Folks that Schulz first used the name Charlie Brown for a character, and above you can also see an early version of Snoopy. In the sample, Schulz has already arrived at the basic lettering style he would use throughout his life. For both art and lettering, he used Esterbrook 914 pen nibs. In 1950, Schulz sold a daily four-panel version of the strip to the United Feature Syndicate, but they changed the name to Peanuts. It began appearing in Oct 1950, with a Sunday page added in 1952.
Charles’ lettering style was informed by the comic strips he enjoyed. His Esterbrook pen nib had a slight wedge tip, giving variation to the lettering strokes depending on the direction. I would guess he liked the lettering of Frank Engli on Terry and the Pirates, there are some similarities, though Schulz’s letters are softer and rounder. He uses serifs or crossbars on the personal pronoun I, but in the first panel I’M doesn’t have them. The burst balloon in the third panel is a typical comics one, but Schulz rarely used them.
Charles made frequent use of sound effects, which tended to have the same kind of standard rounded letters as his balloon lettering, but there were often other variations. I like the alternating of solid and outlined ones here, and the outlines are skillfully drawn to keep the inner shapes consistent. Schulz also made good use of the comics idea of a question mark or other punctuation alone in a balloon to convey wordless mood.
While Sparky stuck to standard block lettering most of the time, his upper and lower case work was just as good. In the second panel, he’s copied out a dictionary definition using mixed case serif letters with a large X height (the height of the lower case letters like “n”) to make it easy to read. Note that Snoopy has begun “talking” in thought balloons, which the children can’t hear but other animals can. Only the balloon tail of bubbles expresses that.
I can’t resist showing another pen-pal gag, where Schulz was clearly having fun with the “bad” lettering, which isn’t really that bad.
Schroeder, the Beethoven fan at his toy piano. Schulz often used printed Beethoven music for these gags, pasted in, but there were plenty of times when he drew in other variations, as here, that were inventive and funny.
The sixties were turbulent and full of protesters carrying signs, an idea Schulz had fun with here using only punctuation on the signs. Lots of other Peanuts strips used protest signs.
Sparky’s lettering style worked well at any size, and he used large shouty examples well. The big letters make his personal alphabet more obvious, like the Y with curved arms, and the narrow, curvy W. Over time the letters got looser and less regular, but they were always easy to read and a fine match for the art. The balloon tails also got looser and sometimes looked unfinished.
Snoopy was never a typical dog, but when he got a typewriter, that opened up new ways for lettering to tell the story. Schulz’s typewriter style is very condensed serif mixed case, and gets the idea across. In the third panel, Snoopy is adding to his typewriting with a pen or pencil. How he managed to do either is never questioned as long as it’s funny. Compare this to Snoopy’s piano playing in the 1960 strip.
Snoopy’s bird friend Woodstock was introduced in 1967, but didn’t get his name until 1970. More clever pen lettering for his wordless balloons to represent chirping, and then mood. Note that while Snoopy’s balloons always had thought bubble tails, Woodstock’s had regular ones.
Woodstock and Snoopy often took over the strip at times, here with a clever lettering gag that slices through what readers think lettering can be, and makes the snoring balloon a physical object. The use of one or more Z’s to indicate snoring has a long tradition in comic strips.
While many of Schulz’s sound effects were consistent in shape over time, the second panel here adds speed lines and lots of texture to emphasize the impact, mirrored by the doubled lines of the figure.
By the 1990s, in the strip’s fifth decade, Sparky’s lines were beginning to have a shaky quality probably due to age and perhaps a physical tremor, but it all still works fine. Even the regular balloon lettering shows a little shaking, the script in the first panel shows it more, perhaps because Schulz did it less often. Handwritten notes and letters were a frequent theme in the strip.
Near the end, the shaky lines were more obvious in the art, but the lettering is still mostly free of them, though the balloon shapes are not. I can only imagine that so many years of drawing those letters meant Charles could do them quickly, and thereby cut back on the tremor. The strip remained funny and appealing right to the end, and it’s one of the few I could read again from the beginning. A fine legacy and an impressive body of work for a singular cartoonist.