October 1, 2010
Left: 2000 reprint by the Star-Telegram of the first-ever

Left: 2000 reprint by the Star-Telegram of the first-ever "Peanuts" Sunday comic strip to appear in color; "Doonesbury" featured on the February 9, 1976 cover of Time magazine. (Newseum collection)

In News History: Good Grief, Doonesbury

Two long-running, popular comic strips celebrate anniversaries this month.

"Peanuts," which debuted Oct. 2, 1950, features iconic characters created by Charles Schulz and is beloved by a worldwide audience. Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" is no stranger to controversy. Introduced Oct. 26, 1970, it notoriously satirizes the political right.

For decades, "Peanuts" and "Doonesbury" have done what the best newspaper comic strips do — connect with readers through humor.

Schulz called comic strips "poor man's poetry." His "Peanuts" followed the childhood adventures of the bumbling Charlie Brown and his dreamy beagle, Snoopy. The strip's original cast of characters included Charlie Brown's sister, Sally; Lucy van Pelt and her brother, Linus; and the piano playing Schroeder. Peppermint Patty and Snoopy's friend, Woodstock, appeared later.

Schulz's deft balance between humor and melancholy had universal appeal. After the success of the animated TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in 1965, the popularity of "Peanuts" soared. In 1984, the strip was featured in "The Guinness Book of World Records" after it appeared in a record 2,000 newspapers.

Declining health forced Schulz to retire in 1999, and the last daily "Peanuts" comic strip ran Jan. 3, 2000. That day, Trudeau paid tribute to Schultz in The Washington Post, calling the strip the "gold standard for work that is both illuminating and aesthetically sublime" for cartoonists. The last Sunday "Peanuts" was published Feb. 13, 2000, a day after Schultz's death. Reprints still appear in more than 2,200 newspapers in 75 countries and 21 languages.

While "Peanuts" featured topical storylines about school dress codes, the "new math" and the Vietnam War, "Doonesbury" — now syndicated in more than 1,500 newspapers worldwide — blurred the line between editorial and humorous cartoons by exposing the political and social issues of the day.

The antics of Walden College students Mike Doonesbury, Zonker Harris and Mark Slackmeyer quickly became part of the political discourse. In 1975, Trudeau became the first cartoonist to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. That year, President Gerald Ford acknowledged the strip's influence.

"There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media and "Doonesbury," and not necessarily in that order," he said.

Through the years, newspapers have dropped some "Doonesbury" strips because of their controversial content. In 1976 when Trudeau introduced Andy Lippincott, the first gay character to appear in a widely distributed comic strip, dozens of newspapers refused to run it. Lippincott's HIV diagnosis in 1989 and AIDS-related death two years later was the first representation of the disease in the comics.

"Peanuts" and "Doonesbury" have captivated readers for a combined total of 100 years. More than just "the funnies," these and other comic strips offer social and political commentary, stir controversy, and provide a daily dose of humor, adventure and drama.

The role of newspaper comic strips in our cultural history is chronicled in the Newseum's permanent exhibit "The Funny Pages."

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