That’s Progressive, Charlie Brown: On Schulz, LGBT Issues and Integrity

Over the last few years, and particularly within the last few months, Marvel Comics and DC Comics have taken very public strides to diversify their characters by developing gay and lesbian characters or creating storylines that touch on LGBT issues. The biggest stories of late have been Marvel’s Northstar marrying his boyfriend in Astonishing X-Men and DC reintroducing Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott as an openly gay man in the pages of Earth 2.

When the Alan Scott announcement was made, I was in San Francisco. I happened to be taking a day trip an hour north to the town of Santa Rosa, home to both the Charles Schulz Museum and the man who created the Peanuts comic strip. While learning about the history of the creator of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, I was struck by some interesting facts that instantly created a parallel in mind between Schulz’s work and the recent LGBT developments at Marvel and DC, a parallel that showed me that it’s not what you introduce, but how you introduce it and carry it through.

Introducing gay and lesbian characters is nothing new for Marvel and DC. From the modern Batwoman and Obsidian in DC to the modern Rawhide Kid in Marvel, LGBT characters have made their appearances. What’s different now is the big two comic publishers have the resources of corporate public relations machines and various media partners to shine a spotlight on their narrative activities. A perfect example of this new synergy was when Disney-owned Marvel announced the pending nuptial of Northstar on The View, airing on Disney-owned TV network ABC.

Conventional PR wisdom says that when you’re tackling a controversial subject, your best bet is to get out in front of the news story. This also works to build fan interest, but can also lead to detractors sabotaging your plans even before they’ve been set in motion. The other problem with announcing story decisions in the public media forum, and also of some related PR and marketing activities, is that your intent gets muddled by the cynicism of many media consumers. We critics can be quick to pounce on perceived exploitation of interest groups for the sake of attention and sales.

What’s necessary to avoid such calamity is the artistic integrity and sensibilities of creators.

Reading any of the Peanuts comic strips, you would in no way think of Charles Schulz as a social crusader. Yet within his strips you see a startling amount of progressive social issues, including civil rights and gender equality, handled in such a way as to make them part of everyday life. While he never once mentioned LGBT issues, he did present a blueprint for to how to tackle those types of issues with integrity.

The all too common joke is that Peppermint Patty and her gal pal Marcie are in a homosexual relationship, but that speaks more to our society’s juvenile treatment of sexuality and relationships and our misguided understanding of gender roles. What we fail to miss when reading Peanuts, something I missed until just this year, is that Schulz didn’t create Peppermint Patty just for her quirky tomboyish behavior, although she makes an interesting romantic foil for Charlie Brown, but because he believed strongly in gender equality, particularly in sports.

Schulz was a sports fanatic. Baseball, tennis, ice skating and hockey were among some of his favorites. He was also a big supporter of Title IX, the portion of the of the Education Amendments of 1972 that says (in part): “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity.”

Schulz would often depict his boy and girl characters playing on the same sports teams. Charlie Brown and Lucy were terrible at baseball, while Peppermint Patty excelled at the sport and many others. This idea would translate into his personal relationships. He was close friends with tennis legend Billie Jean King, hosting tennis tournaments with her at his sports arena in Santa Rosa and drawing attention to her 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs in his comic strip.

Schulz directly brought attention to the ideals of Title XI in Peanuts by highlighting issues of females in sports in a multi-day storyline in 1979. That directness was, however, a rarity for Schulz. He preferred addressing social issues indirectly and in matter-of-fact ways.

In 1968, Schulz introduced Franklin, one of the earliest non-stereotypical African-American characters to appear in newspaper comic strips. Franklin was usually shown as a friend and classmate of Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Franklin also would spend time hanging around Charlie Brown in the later years of the strip’s run, exchanging philosophies about life or remarks about their grandfathers.

Initially Schulz was reluctant to introduce Franklin, fearing that it would come off as a pandering move. Prior to drawing Franklin in Peanuts, he received a letter from a school teacher asking why he didn’t have any African-American characters in his strip. He responded with his position and fear about insulting what he believed was a very noble pursuit toward racial equality. The teacher and some of her students continued to write to him, in part saying that his integrity would diminish any criticism of that kind. So three months after Martin Luther King was murdered, Franklin made his debut.

Schulz did receive push back, especially from Southern newspaper editors and even from some of his own editors at United Feature Syndicate.

A United Features editor protested one strip which showed Franklin sitting in the same row of school desks with Peppermint Patty. Schulz talked about the incident in a 1988 interview with Nation’s Business Magazine, saying that when the editor asked him to change it so Franklin wasn’t shown in school with the other children, he responded, “Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?”

Schulz never directly addressed racial equality issues in Peanuts as he did with Title IX. He preferred humor to social commentary, and while he playfully poked fun at gender issues, he felt racial equality was something that was inappropriate to joke about. But through his non-stereotypical depiction of Franklin and refusal to concede to racists, he demonstrated a commitment to presenting his work with as much integrity as he could muster.

As I worked my way through the Charles Schulz Museum, and these stories from Schulz’s creative career were presented, I couldn’t help but relate his handling of proposed controversial issues to how DC and Marvel are handling their more pronounced use of homosexual characters.

The integrity of how Earth 2 writer James Robinson handles Alan Scott and Astonishing X-Men writer Marjorie Liu handles Northstar is what matters. Earlier this month, in the exclusive with Robinson concerning Alan Scott, an Iconographies suggested: “These are people’s lives, these are human lives being dealt with… ” And these human lives must be treated as such so that the serious issues of sexual equality are not marginalized by crass political statements.

What gives me hope that these creators are taking a path parallel to how Schulz handled similar issues, and reflecting on their narrative decisions with the seriousness they deserve, is what Robinson emphasized in his interview: Alan Scott is not just gay, he’s a character who happens to be gay among the hundreds of other things he is — a hero, a billionaire media mogul, etc.

Time will only tell how these stories are received and what impact (if any) they will have on popculture. But if any of these creators have trouble with the execution of their stories, they should read some Peanuts by that unbeknownst progressive social crusader Charles Schulz.